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The Death of the Earl of Chatham

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Tate 2018; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

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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, 1968
Primary Collection
NPG L146

Artistback to top

  • John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Painter. Artist or producer associated with 21 portraits, Sitter in 5 portraits.

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This portraitback to top

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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Events of 1779back to top

Current affairs

Admiral Augustus Keppel, First Lord of the Admiralty during the final years of the American War of Independence is tried and acquitted at court martial of misconduct at the Battle of Ushant the previous year. His case becomes a cause célèbre.
Botanist Joseph Banks tells a committee of the House of Commons that the east coast of Australia is suitable for the transportation of convicted felons.
Penitentiary Act authorises state prisons.

Art and science

Swiss artist Henry Fuseli settles in London after nine years in Rome. Painter and President of the Royal Academy Joshua Reynolds' celebrated Discourses on art are published as a book.
World's first iron bridge is assembled across the Severn at Coalbrookdale.Inventor Samuel Crompton introduces the Spinning Mule.
John Newton and William Cowper's Olney Hymns is published, containing the first printed version of Amazing Grace.


American War of Independence: Spain, in alliance with France and the US, declares war on Britain. Great Siege of Gibraltar begins, in which French and Spanish forces try to wrest power from the established British Garrison, under the leadership of General George Augustus Eliot.
Captain James Cook is killed in a skirmish with natives on the Sandwich Islands on his third and final voyage.

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Laurence RIVIALE

24 October 2017, 08:33

Dear Madam,
Dear Sir,
The display caption in Tate Britain for one of the two preparatory oil paintings of The Death of Chatham explains, as the present article does, that the event took place on april 7th 1778, whereas the title of the picture is July 7th 1778 (in Tate Britain).
Could you tell me the right date please ?
Besides, an engraving in the British museum by William Angus shows the painting exhibited in Spring Gardens in 1781 ; Copley was RA in 1781 ; why was it not exhibited in the RA ?
Many thanks for your help
Laurence Riviale
Lecturer, University of Clermont-Ferrand, France