Specialists in American portraiture know Henry Pelham (1749-1806) as the sitter in the iconic portrait by his half-brother John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), or for his fine miniature portraits on ivory. Just a few of his miniatures are recorded today, and the examples are owned by leading institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Yale University Art Gallery. Pelham also has the distinction of being the actual artist for the famous 1770 print of the Boston Massacre that Paul Revere was accused of having plagiarized.
There are scattered references in the literature to Pelham as a painter of oil on canvas portraits. Alan Burroughs wrote a brief article, published in the April 1957 issue of The Magazine Antiques, thatreproduces an oil on canvas portrait of a woman by Pelham. Yet a search of websites such as the National Portrait Gallery’s online catalog of American portraits, the Smithsonian’s inventory of American art, and the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) Discovery photo archive yields no reliable records of Pelham oil portraits.
Therefore, the discovery of a magnificent oil on canvas portrait of merchant Andrew Belcher (1707-1771) is noteworthy. Andrew was son of the more famous Jonathan Belcher (1681/82-1757), a merchant and lawyer who served as royal governor of the colonies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. Belchertown, Massachusetts, is named after the family. Although not signed, the portrait was purchased about a decade ago by its private owner from a New Jersey auction that included objects from the estate of Belcher family descendants. (The Belcher-Ogden Mansion, located in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, was Governor Belcher’s residence and still stands today.) Affixed to the portrait’s upper stretcher bar is a document written with a flourish in an old cursive hand by a family descendant and former owner, identifying the portrait’s sitter, artist, and owner. While some of the words are illegible or faded, much of it can be deciphered, solidly proving the portrait’s attribution to Henry Pelham.
The portrait retains its original stretcher and probably the original frame. The canvas is original, with no signs of patching or relining. The inscription reads: “Honorable Andrew Belcher 1706-1771 Painted by / his friend Henry Pelham 1748-1806 Halifax N. S. / A. Belcher son of Governor Jonathan Belcher of N S Province / Property A Belcher Eliz [?] Belcher [?] Resident N S Province’ 95 [?] / graduate Harvard / 1724 Merchant Boston / Elder son Gov. J. Belcher / N. J. 1757 Elizabethtown.” The ink and paper are clearly old, and the cracks through the paper match the cracks in the wood stretcher to which it is glued, so there can be no doubt that the document is authentic.
Given the reference to Halifax, it seems that the painter and sitter were there at the time the portrait was painted, perhaps on a visit to Andrew’s younger brother Jonathan, who was in effect the leader of Nova Scotia by the early 1760s. Given that Andrew was born in 1707, his appearance in the portrait jibes with someone in the prime of middle life.
The portrait presents a bold, confident man dressed in luxurious garments of silk and velvet, coiffed with a short, powdered wig, leaning nonchalantly against a ledge in a masonry wall, flanked on the left by sky and trees. Proudly displayed on his left jacket panel, turned toward the viewer as if offering it up for inspection, is a red, white, and blue badge in the form of a Maltese cross, proclaiming Belcher’s loyalty to the English crown.
Andrew Belcher’s father was friendly with King George I, and his brother Jonathan Jr. (1710-1776) spent many years in Great Britain as a university student and then as a prominent lawyer who tried cases before the king and Parliament; he also knew the royal family. Jonathan Sr. secured for Andrew the royal appointments of register of the Court of Vice-Admiralty for New England and of register of wills for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which he held for many years.
A similar loyalty badge can be discerned in Edward Savage’s 1796 stipple engraving after his painting Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth: Giving Support to the Bald Eagle, in which the figure of Liberty tramples the badge and other symbols of British rule underfoot while nourishing the American eagle, flanked by a liberty cap and the American flag.
Pelham’s elder half-brother and presumed art teacher, John Singleton Copley, painted Andrew’s younger brother Jonathan Jr., chief justice of the Supreme Court, then lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, and his wife, Abigail, at the time of their marriage in 1757, and there is some evidence that he may have also painted Jonathan Sr., so the Belcher and Copley/Pelham families clearly knew one another well. What remains a mystery is the exact nature of the friendship between Andrew Belcher and Henry Pelham, and the circumstances of the portrait commission. For now, the discovery of this exceedingly rare Colonial portrait, with its remarkable condition and impeccable provenance, is enough to cause Americana scholars, dealers, and collectors to sit up and take notice.
(Thanks are due to David Hillier for his valuable assistance with historical research.)
Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest