Peter Pelham

(c. 1697—1751) mezzotint engraver and painter in America

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Printmaker and painter. A portrait specialist active chiefly in Boston, he ranks as the first mezzotint engraver to work in the American colonies. As stepfather to John Singleton Copley, he played an important role in the nation's early art history. Born in London, Pelham learned his craft in the shop of a leading engraver, John Simon, and found some success before emigrating in 1727. In Boston he supplemented his income as an artist with several pursuits that indicate acquaintance with a range of polite accomplishments. In addition to teaching school, he offered instruction in music, dancing, needlework, and other decorative crafts. His first American mezzotint engraving, a portrait of clergyman Cotton Mather (1727), numbers among his finest. Based on Pelham's own painting (American Antiquarian Society, 1727), the bust-length image demonstrates his familiarity with Godfrey Kneller's late Baroque portrait mode, which dominated contemporary London taste. Pelham also made engravings after paintings by John Smibert and John Greenwood. He died in Boston.

His son, painter and printmaker Henry Pelham (1749–1806), owed much to Copley, for he was only a toddler when his father died. While training in his half brother's studio, he posed for Copley's Boy with a Squirrel. In a flagrant bit of plagiarism, Paul Revere copied Pelham's drawing of the Boston Massacre for his own noted propaganda print of The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 (1770). (Pelham soon issued his own version, but voiced outrage that Revere had stolen his design.) As he secured commissions in Boston and Philadelphia, Pelham's miniature and full-size portraits showed promise. However, his American career remained brief. A Loyalist, he sailed for Barbados in 1776 and soon joined Copley in London. For the rest of his life, he resided there and in Ireland, where he died.

Subjects: Art.

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