We are always working to learn more about the objects in our collection at the Colby Museum. Yet what we learn about one object often has reverberations for the broader field of art history. Mirken Director of Academic and Public Programs Lauren Lessing’s work on John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of Benjamin Hallowell, Jr. has been doing exactly that. Along with Terri Sabatos, Associate Professor of Art, Longwood University and Nina Roth-Wells, Paintings Conservator, she has been working to understand instances of iconoclasm during the years before the American Revolution, where angry colonists damaged portraits of loyalists in protest. Below is an excerpt of their research that will be presented later this fall in two parts at the symposium of the Association of Historians of American Art and the South-Eastern College Art Conference.
Visitors entering the Cohen Gallery of the Museum’s Lunder Wing will find themselves face-to-face with a striking, nearly life-size portrait of a handsome man seated at a velvet-draped table. In keeping with the fashions of the British mercantile elite in the 1760s, he wears a very lightly powdered, double-curled wig and a restrained but elegant business suit that shows off one well-turned calf. The subject turns his gaze away from the ledger in his lap, but has only half turned in his chair. He does not put down his quill, nor does he appear about to stand. He has only a moment to spare, seemingly, before returning to his important work.
The portrait, by New England’s foremost colonial painter, John Singleton Copley, depicts the comptroller of Boston’s customhouse, Benjamin Hallowell, Jr. After Hallowell accepted the post in 1764 (probably the same year he commissioned his portrait), it became his responsibility to record and appraise the cargo of all ships entering and leaving the port of Boston in order to levy taxes on them. Revolution was in the air, and Hallowell—a High Tory official appointed by the Crown—was not a popular man. He was certainly powerful, though, and Copley conveyed his power masterfully. Though he is seated, Hallowell looks slightly down, as if he were literally above his audience. His surroundings are dark, but he is as brightly illuminated as a saint in a Baroque altarpiece. He seems to possess wealth, professional dignity, and physical beauty—all signs of divine providence. Evidently pleased with Copley’s work, Hallowell hung his portrait in the front parlor of his new brick mansion on Hanover Street, no doubt expecting that it would inspire respect, if not awe, in his visitors. Evidence of violence hidden within the painting demonstrates that some visitors to Hallowell’s parlor had a very different reaction.
Benjamin Hallowell’s charmed life in Boston came to an end on August 26, 1765, when an angry mob protesting the recently enacted Stamp Act invaded his home. Describing the rioters as “a great number of disguised ruffians, armed with clubs, staves, etc.,” a contemporary newspaper article recounted the attack:
Boisterous and intrepid . . . they rushed onward, increasing still in numbers and fury, to the new and elegantly finished building of Benjamin Hallowell, Jr. Esq., where, after tearing down the fences, breaking the windows, etc., they at length entered the house, and, in the most savage and destructive manner, broke and abused his furniture, chairs, tables, desk, glasses, china, and, in short, everything they could lay their hands on; at the same time purloining his money and disbursing his private books and papers until, by the effect of wine and other stores of his cellar, they ripened in ebriety and madness, and became fit for the next more desolating and barbarous operation.
Fearing for their lives, the Hallowell family fled Boston immediately and never again lived there. Benjamin Hallowell himself soon sailed for Great Britain by way of Nova Scotia, leaving most of his possessions (including his damaged portrait) behind with family members. The portrait was passed down in the Hallowell family until 1978, when four siblings (three of whom were Colby alumni and one of whom graduated from Bowdoin College) gave three-quarters ownership of the painting to the Colby College Museum of Art and one-quarter ownership to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The painting moves back and forth between the two neighboring institutions.
In 1988, conservators in Williamstown, Massachusetts, noticed while cleaning and restoring the portrait that it had at one time been clumsily rolled up, crumpling the canvas. They also found five carefully repaired holes in its surface—one in the lower right corner and four in the subject’s face. In her 1998 exhibition catalogue Altered States: Conservation, Analysis, and the Interpretation of Works of Art, Wendy Watson, a curator at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, astutely connected this damage to the Stamp Act rioters’ sacking of “everything they could lay their hands on” in Hallowell’s home, and the family’s subsequent flight with a few hastily gathered possessions including, presumably, the rolled-up portrait, which had been slashed horizontally across the painted subject’s forehead, eyes, and chin and, for good measure, stabbed through the subject’s left eye.
No doubt, the signs of class and worldly power that Copley inscribed so deftly in Hallowell’s portrait only served to enrage the resentful and inebriated mob. Not surprisingly, the subject’s slightly downturned gaze—a gesture that communicates his superior status—became a particular target of their abuse. We contend, however, that the maiming of Hallowell’s portrait stemmed from more than an impulsive reaction brought on by envy and liquor. It also communicated more than a personal threat of bodily harm. It was, we argue, a political act rooted in the well-established practice of executing despised persons in effigy—a form of public theater with roots extending back to the Middle Ages. The Stamp Act riots in Boston had begun almost two weeks earlier, on August 13, with street theatricals that included the hanging and beheading of a stuffed effigy of Hallowell’s colleague Andrew Oliver. As town auditor, Oliver was tasked with enforcing the payment of taxes that Hallowell levied, including both duties on imported goods and the domestic taxes mandated by the Stamp Act. In a preview of the devastation later visited upon Hallowell’s house, a mob broke the windows and fences of Oliver’s Boston mansion, destroyed his carriage house, and drank the contents of his wine cellar before beheading his effigy in the front yard.
In eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies, the word “effigy” had two meanings. It could denote either a dummy figure publicly punished in the place of a despised person, or a sculpted or painted portrait. As embodied likenesses, effigies were uniquely effective in their ability to confer honor or dishonor. Richly framed portrait paintings like Copley’s portrait of Benjamin Hallowell, ensconced in the interiors of elite houses, communicated their owners’ wealth, moral rectitude, and social status. Conversely, the mocking political effigies displayed and executed in streets and public squares heaped “damage, scandal, infamy, contempt, ridicule, and disgrace” (in the recorded words of one colonial American libel case) upon their subjects, stripping them of bodily dignity. Ordinarily, intangible barriers of class and the solid walls of private houses separated these two distinct types of effigies. During periods of political turmoil in North America, however, rioting mobs and invading armies stormed across such boundaries, bringing the rowdy culture of the street into genteel interiors and frequently transforming painted portraits into political effigies. This was the case with Copley’s portrait of Benjamin Hallowell. Rather than constructing an effigy of Hallowell to publicly punish, as they had for Andrew Oliver, the outraged colonists who invaded his home simply adapted his painted portrait to their own uses, transforming his honor to shame.
What happened to Copley’s portrait of Benjamin Hallowell was far from unusual. Painted portraits were commonly targeted during the Revolutionary period. Our research has focused specifically on works by John Singleton Copley, whose portraits of the Loyalists Hallowell, Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard (1767, unlocated), and Colonel John Murray, a member of the Massachusetts Mandamus Council (1763, New Brunswick Museum, St. John), were attacked by patriots in the period preceding the Revolutionary War. During the war, British soldiers in turn defaced several of Copley’s portraits of prominent Whigs, including Samuel Cooper (1769–71, William College Museum of Art) and Mrs. John Bacon (1770, Brooklyn Museum). Interestingly, the owners of Copley’s portraits depicting Loyalists—the losers in the conflict—repaired and concealed the damage, suggesting that they found it shameful, while some families of victorious patriots continued to proudly display their ancestors’ paintings for generations without repairing slashed and punctured holes. In some cases, victory seems to have restored—and even enhanced—these effigies’ original purpose, transforming the evidence of contempt into badges of honor