Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party
Jennifer L. Roberts
Detail from John Singleton
Copley, M rs John Winthrop,
1773 ( plate 6).
Art History | ISSN 0141-6790
34 | 4 | September 2011 | pages
© A ssociation of Art Historians 2011
The hyphen in the term ‘Anglo-American’ functions as both copula and separator, suggesting that any conception of what an ‘Anglo-American’ phenomenon might be must derive from division and displacement as well as conjunction. In the eighteenth century, the dynamics of that interstitial hyphen-space had an inevitable geographical dimension. The real space between England and America – thousands of miles of ocean which took weeks to cross – imposed hard limits on knowledge and perception which characterized every aspect of transatlantic communication and exchange. As David Harvey and others have argued, contemporary globalized space has emerged with the obliteration of distance through techniques of instantaneous communication and information transfer.1 Such techniques, and the synchronizations they allow, have created modern cartography and global positioning, as well as allowed distant interlocutors to be contacted without delay or apparent physical resistance, giving us a world that seems apprehensible at a glance. A persistent challenge facing scholars of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world is to avoid the retroprojection of this synoptic brand of awareness onto the slower, heavier, and darker field that comprised the period experience of empire and expansion. We must avoid replicating, within historical narratives of Anglo-American exchange, the seemingly frictionless deracinations of contemporary life. For however common it may be to consider early modernity as the dawn of globalization, the fact is that the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world was not a simultaneous and co-present field, but emerged instead from conditions of belatedness and epistemological fragmentation.
This essay will explore the generative role of these limitations in the pictorial awareness of the era by tracing the problem of delivery as it informs John Singleton Copley’s ‘Anglo-American’ paintings of the 1760s and 1770s, particularly his famous modern history painting Watson and the Shark of 1778 (see plate 2). Copley lived in a world that was governed by the challenges of long-distance transit, and his life in Boston was thoroughly dependent upon the practice and politics of delivery – the slow and complex movement of objects across the ocean and their proper reception and use. I hope to show that Copley’s work reveals deep connections between period practices of physical delivery and the techniques of perceptual delivery that the artist developed as a transatlantic painter.
Copley’s aesthetic of delivery shifted drastically between his American portraits and the paintings he produced after relocating to London. His American portraits attempt to imagine a lossless transfer of perceptual experience over distance, but Watson and the 675
Watson and the Shark a nd the Boston Tea Party
Shark, painted in London after the Revolutionary War had begun, revised and ultimately renounced that hope. Although this change derives partially from developments in Copley’s academic training and the shift in genre from portraiture to history painting, it can also be productively illuminated by reading it alongside the historical politics of delivery in the Revolutionary period, and particularly by examining it in terms of the event that most conspicuously announced the period crisis in Anglo-American material relations: the Boston Tea Party. This was not only the most momentous political event of Copley’s time in America, and an event in which Copley himself was deeply involved; it was also an event that might be described as the most spectacular ‘misdelivery’ of the Revolutionary era. There are many compelling connections between the...