Advanced Search

Study for "The Siege of Gibraltar": A Sailor in the Bow of Captain Bradford Smith's Gunboat Pulling a Rope

Not on view

Study for "The Siege of Gibraltar": A Sailor in the Bow of Captain Bradford Smith's Gunboat Pulling a Rope

Artist: John S. Copley (American, 1738-1815; active England, after 1775)

Date: 1788-1789
Medium: Charcoal and white chalk on blue, medium-weight laid paper
Overall: 14 13/16 x 13 3/8in. (37.6 x 34cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 58.18.a
Text Entries

Most of the preparatory sketches Copley made in the mid- to late 1780s for The Siege of Gibraltar (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) were executed on tinted paper, the tone of which served as the middle value of each drawing. On the MWPI sheet, Copley made parallel strokes of gray charcoal to indicate the shaded side of the figure. He used white chalk to highlight the figure’s outstretched leg, the inner calf of the bent leg, the top of both hands, and several areas around the face. These highlights and shadows correspond with the lighting of the man standing in the bow of a boat in the lower left of the finished painting who Jules Prown has described as the “compositional descendent of the harpoonist in Watson and the Shark” (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).(1)

Copley strove to reiterate the pose of the harpoonist in The Siege of Gibraltar. Some of his earliest attempts to do so can be seen in three studies offigures pulling ropes. (2) These appear to be studies for the rescue group Copley painted in the foreground of his preliminary oil sketch (Thomas Coram Foundation, London). (3) Two other drawings of single, similarly posed figures holding poles resemble in reverse)(4) the figure wielding a boat hook in the bow of another boat that Copley included in the background of the Coram Foundation painting.

When Copley executed the Guildhall picture, he rearranged these two boats so that they were closer together. The rescue groups that were in the boats were combined into one figure that, for a time, Copley considered including in the bow of the gunboat commanded by Captain Bradford Smith. The drawings of this revised figure at the British Museum and Amherst College are related to the MWPI sketch in that they all show him pulling a rope. (5) Grid lines on the MWPI sheet suggest that Copley considered transferring the figure to another sheet or canvas, but there is no visual evidence that he actually did so. In a more elaborate and presumably later drawing at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Copley moved the figure that he had contemplated including in Smith’s gunboat to the bow of the longboat commanded by Sir Roger Curtis.(6) The pole he is holding in this drawing recalls the boat hook originally held by the figure in the background of the Coram Foundation picture.

1. Prown, John Singleton Copley 2: 330, 457.

Z. Ibid., figs. 505, 506, 553.

3. Ibid., fig. 499.

4. Ibid., figs. 520, 511.

5. lbid., figs. 578, 579, 580.

6. Ibid., fig. 574.

Related literature: Helen Comstock, “Drawings by John Singleton Copley,”

Panorama 2 (May 1947): 100-107. Helen Comstock, “Some Unpublished Drawings

by John Singleton Copley,” American Collector  16 (July 1947): 6-8, 20.


No known copyright restrictions.