Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2010 Issue

Frederick Copley: the passing glance

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Frederick S. Copley in 1852


By Bruce McKinney

Frederick Copley, water colorist [1828-1905]

Note: I acquired a portfolio of his watercolors and sketches in February,2010. Many examples are now accessible in a Wiki Bibliography I've organized to display his work. Links are provided at the end of this article.

His is a name that sounds familiar but the familiar, even famous, Copley who painted was John Singleton Copley [1738-1815]. They may have been related but I have no record of it. John Singleton Copley was born in America and moved to England, Frederick was born in England and moved to America. They were born almost a hundred years apart.

John Singleton Copley was an acclaimed professional painter, Frederick an amateur water colorist, by turns casual observer and keen recorder. We know he was uneven because he seems to have kept most of his work, both the highly conceived and the casually executed. His watercolors, by the evidence or lack of it, suggest he recorded for personal satisfaction, not public acclaim. He is a listed artist in the New-York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists in America, 1564-1860 [1957] and is also included in Who Was Who in American Art - 400 years of artists in America [1999] but there are no records of his work appearing at auction, possibly because he kept his paintings in a portfolio, sealed away. The portfolio dates to 1870 more or less. He pasted his watercolors securing them in the corners with a paste that didn't stain. His media was wove paper, the standard of the day. He wrote identifications under most and in many cases wrote detailed descriptions on the back. About five percent of his watercolors are painted on both sides.

For some understanding of 19th century watercolors I've read both "Drawn by New York" by Roberta J. M. Olsson of the New York Historical Society and "American Drawings and Watercolors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art" by Kevin J. Avery. Both provide perspective on the history of watercolor painting in America. Mr. Copley was born into the right family at the right time. His father Charles was a hydrographer, that is, chart publisher and one of the first in America in a field that took hold after the Revolution in response to the burgeoning need for maps and charts. In a list prepared by Peter J. Guthorn for his article The Last Independent Hydrographer for Imago Mundi in 1991 Charles Copley is No. 7 of 8 identified as "Chart Publishers after 1783." His was a recognized, if late, figure.

By age 15 Frederick is in the family business, the company name - Charles Copley & Sons, he and his brother Charles Jr. connected with the name if not yet necessarily the work of the enterprise. At 19, in 1847, he's painting and by 24 has executed most of the watercolors in his portfolio. Dated pieces continue to be posted but their scale and frequency decline. The last dated examples are executed in the late 1860's. Taken together, his watercolors, pen and pencil sketches seem appropriate to a mapmaker and contain perspective consistent with capturing the facts as he found them.

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