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The Death of the Earl of Chatham

1 of 6 portraits of Jacob Pleydell-Bouverie, 2nd Earl of Radnor

The Death of the Earl of Chatham, by John Singleton Copley, 1779-1781 - NPG L146 - Tate 2013; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

Tate 2013; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

The Death of the Earl of Chatham

by John Singleton Copley
oil on canvas, 1779-1781
90 in. x 121 in. (2286 mm x 3073 mm)
Lent by Tate Gallery: London: UK, 1968
Primary Collection
NPG L146

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The painting represents the dramatic collapse of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, in the House of Lords on 7 April 1778. Chatham had just delivered a speech urging for a peace settlement with the revolutionary Americans. In order to preserve the empire he had done so much to build up, Chatham called for any form of settlement short of total independence. On rising, for a second time, to rebut the Duke of Richmond's motion that the American colonies be given independence, Chatham suffered a heart attack. The fallen Chatham is surrounded by his three sons and his son-in-law (Lord Mahon) and supported by the Dukes of Cumberland and Portland. Chatham never recovered and died a month later at his country estate.

Lord Camden who was sitting beside Chatham described the scene in a letter to the Duke of Grafton: 'He fell back upon his seat, and was to all appearance in the agonies of death. This threw the whole House into confusion .... even those who might have felt a secret pleasure at the accident, yet put on the appearance of distress, except only the Earl of Mansfield, who sat still, almost as much unmoved as the senseless body itself.'

The American Copley, following the example of his compatriot Benjamin West, employed the heightened emotions and grand gestures of traditional history painting to a contemporary event. The portraiture is direct, being based on individual studies, but considerable licence has been taken in the theatrical composition and the lighting. The painting excited much controversy when exhibited in 1781.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG D9178: Key to 'The Death of Chatham' (source portrait)
  • NPG D18117: Death of the Earl of Chatham (includes William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham and 55 other sitters) (after)

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