Attributed to John Singleton Copley, 1738-1815
Portrait of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess and 2nd Earl Cornwallis (1738-1805), in uniform
Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess & 2nd Earl

inscribed on a label attached to the reverse of the stretcher " General Henry P****le "

oil on canvas
72 x 60 cm. (28.1/3 x 23.3/4 in.)


General Henry P****le 


Charles Cornwallis, first Marquess Cornwallis (1738–1805), governor-general of India and lord lieutenant of Ireland, the sixth child and eldest son of Charles Cornwallis, fifth Baron and first Earl Cornwallis (1700–1762), and his wife, Elizabeth (d. 1785), daughter of Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend, second Viscount Townshend (1674–1738), was born in Grosvenor Square, London, on 31 December 1738. Lord Townshend, his maternal grandfather, was brother-in-law to Sir Robert Walpole.  James Cornwallis (1743–1824) and  William Cornwallis (1744–1819) were his younger brothers. The family's origins are obscure, possibly Irish, though both the name and the Cornish choughs that adorn the family arms suggest a Cornwall connection. In the fourteenth century Thomas Cornwallis (d. 1384), a sheriff of London, and his son John settled the family at Brome, near Eye, in Suffolk. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Cornwallises had consolidated their position by exceptional loyalty to the crown, a trait which Charles Cornwallis inherited. Sir Thomas Cornwallis (1518/19–1604) built the family manor, Brome Hall. His grandson Sir Frederick (d. 1662), who had fought for Charles I, followed Charles II into exile. After the Restoration he was rewarded by being made treasurer, privy councillor, and, in 1661, first Baron Cornwallis of Eye. His status as a peer was supportable in part because he had inherited in 1660 the estate of Culford, also in Suffolk, near Bury St Edmunds, but it was not until the first marquess's time that the family achieved a fortune to match its acres. Charles Cornwallis's father has been described by his son's biographers as 'a loyal but plodding servant of the crown' (Wickwire and WickwireWar of Independence, 15), who held no office of the first rank. Nevertheless, he was well connected at court and, through his wife, to Walpole, and in 1753 he was created Earl Cornwallis and Viscount Brome. In 1768 the same connections helped secure the election of a younger brother,Frederick Cornwallis (1713–1783) , as archbishop of Canterbury.

Early life and education

Charles Cornwallis, styled Viscount Brome during his father's lifetime, attended Eton College for at least a year; in December 1753 he was listed in the sixth form. He always viewed Eton with affection, and in 1790 he joined the new Eton Club in Calcutta. A passionate hunter and sportsman, he yearned for military glory from childhood, but his chances of an army career were almost scuppered at Eton when Shute Barrington, later bishop of Durham, struck him in the eye during a hockey game. The injury eventually healed, leaving him with slightly skewed vision and a permanently quizzical look. On 8 December 1756 he obtained a commission as an ensign in the 1st foot guards. He had matriculated at Clare College, Cambridge, in Easter 1756, but he sought a military education and in 1757, with the king's permission, he toured the continent with a Prussian officer, Captain H. G. de Roguin, and studied at the Turin military academy. At Geneva in the summer of 1758, he learned that the guards had been ordered to join Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick for the defence of Hanover against the French and Austrians. Having missed joining his regiment, he attached himself as a volunteer to Frederick's army, and for his forwardness was rewarded with appointment as aide-de-camp to the marquess of Granby. He served Granby for over a year, and was at the battle of Minden. In August 1759 he was made captain in the 85th regiment and in June 1761 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel of the 12th regiment. He and his regiment served with distinction at the battle of Kirch Denkern on 15 July 1761 and, in the following summer, at the battles of Wilhelmstadt and Lutterberg.

Meanwhile, Cornwallis had also embarked upon a political career both conventional and yet curiously principled. With a number of siblings and his own military career he urgently needed lucrative office, but he disliked politicking and always put his own sense of honour and personal loyalties above party. Elected MP for the family scot and lot pocket borough of Eye, Suffolk, in January 1760, he inherited the earldom following his father's death on 23 June 1762, and sat in the Lords from the following November. In many ways a natural conservative, especially in his views on the hierarchical ordering of society, he nevertheless allied himself with the Rockingham whigs. He was loyal to the crown and establishment but, in the manner of the old country whigs, whose mantle the Rockinghamites claimed, he was wary of overweening monarchical power and 'big', financially irresponsible government. In 1763 these views, and his friendship with the duke of Newcastle, sent him north to Scotland to rally support for the whig opposition. They also led him to support Wilkes in his battle against charges of sedition. Government spies reported that the two men had met privately in autumn 1763 and in November Cornwallis was one of seventeen peers who signed Lord Temple's protest against the Commons' resolution that 'the privilege of parliament does not extend to cases of seditious libel'. In 1765 he voted with the Rockinghamites against the imposition of the Stamp Act on the American colonies, and when Rockingham won government later that year he was rewarded for his support by being made an aide-de-camp to the king and a lord of the bedchamber. He relinquished the latter in return for the promise of a regiment, and in March 1766 became colonel of the 33rd foot. In 1766 he also voted with the Rockinghamites to repeal the Stamp Act and to outlaw general warrants (by which the previous government had arrested Wilkes and confiscated his property). But he was not a blind follower of party, and when Rockingham attempted to ameliorate the implications of the Stamp Act's repeal by passing the Declaratory Act, which asserted Britain's right to legislate for the colonies under all circumstances, Cornwallis joined the five peers who voted against it. Moreover, when the ministry fell in August 1766, Cornwallis did not go into opposition. One of his closest friends was Lord Shelburne, alongside whom he had fought in Germany, and who had also opposed the Declaratory ActShelburne was willing to serve in Chatham's new administration and in December 1766, following his friend's lead, Cornwallis accepted from the government the chief justiceship in eyre south of the Trent. In 1768, when Shelburne resigned from the government, Cornwallis also withdrew his support and thereafter did not align himself with any political grouping. Nevertheless, he continued to receive the government's favours, and in 1769 he resigned his chief justiceship to obtain the office of vice-treasurer of Ireland. On 21 November 1770 he was made a privy councillor, and on 10 January 1771 constable of the Tower of London. In 1770 ‘Junius’ publicly attacked him for an unprincipled love of sinecures, but other observers were surprised that Cornwallis remained in royal favour when he had never hidden his opposition to the king's well-known opinions on America and a free press. The probable explanation is that, of all the whigs, George III respected this sober young earl, who stated his beliefs openly but also undertook to put his duty to his monarch and country above all else.

Cornwallis's withdrawal from active politicking in the late 1760s was prompted by more than just an awareness that he was not very good at it. On 14 July 1768 he married Jemima Tulikens (1747–1779), daughter of Colonel James Jones of the 3rd regiment of foot guards. It was a love match. The daughter of a professional soldier, Jemima brought no dowry, but she was an elegant beauty who returned her husband's adoration. They had few years together before her premature death, but these years, and their children, Mary (1769–1857) and Charles 1774–1823, gave Cornwallis his greatest happiness. After his youthful passion for action and glory, he came soon to prefer the comforts and consolations of domesticity to every other existence. At the peak of his career only his devotion to duty prevented him from refusing the high commands and offices that dragged him from his beloved family.

Cornwallis in America

This duty was tested to the full when hostilities broke out in America in 1775. Cornwallis, promoted major-general on 29 September 1775, promptly offered his services against the rebellion, even in a subordinate position. He had consistently opposed the policies that had sparked the rebellion, and his wife begged him not to go, but to him his duty was clear. He sailed from Cork on 12 February 1776 in command of seven regiments, including the 33rd, which, after ten years in his care, had earned a reputation as one of the finest and most disciplined regiments of foot. Throughout the long years of war ahead, the loyalty of the rank and file to Cornwallis was undoubted. He displayed a rare humanity in his attention to their interests and sufferings, which they repaid in obedient service and genuine grief at his final defeat at Yorktown.

Cornwallis arrived at the Cape Fear River in North Carolina on 3 May, too late to help restore royal government there. After a hapless assault on Charles Town, commanded by Sir Henry ClintonCornwallis and Clinton shipped their troops up to New York to reinforce the commander-in-chief, General Sir William Howe. Under HoweCornwallis commanded the reserve wing of the army that defeated Washington in the battle of Long Island on 27–8 August. Hotly engaged in the fighting himself, he afterwards refused to condemn Howe for not having pressed home his advantage and for allowing Washington's army to escape across the East River to Manhattan. This reluctance to criticize Howe damned him in the eyes of other British officers, notably Clinton, but he stood by it. In later years his defence of Howe possibly owed something to a consciousness of his own missed opportunities in the war. The first of these occurred after the battle of Fort Lee, on 18 November. Chasing Washington's army south across New Jersey, Cornwallis almost caught up with his quarry on the banks of the Raritan at New Brunswick on 1 December, but there he stopped, acting on orders from Howe to go no further. His critics argued that with just one more push he could have caught Washington and defeated his weary troops, but Cornwallis always insisted that the week-long chase had stretched his own men to the limit and that immediately fording a river and fighting a battle was beyond them. A month later, however, he was given another chance against Washington when Howe ordered him to Trenton, near Princeton, to avenge a defeat Washington had inflicted on the Hessians in British service. Bogged down in winter mud and harried by sniper fire, Cornwallis's 8000 men took a whole day, 2 January 1777, to march the 10 miles from Princeton to Trenton. Arriving at twilight, with a swollen waterway, the Assanpink Creek, between him and Washington's men, Cornwallis decided to rest his men rather than attempt an assault in the dark. Fatally, however, he failed to put the proper outposts in place, and while his men rested in the village of Trenton, Washington again escaped, under cover of darkness. Another furious pursuit by Cornwallis came too late to catch him, and in shock the British pulled back to the Raritan River. The winter campaign was over. It was of this affair that Clinton was to observe famously that Cornwallis was guilty 'of the most consummate ignorance I ever heard of [in] any officer above a corporal' (Wickwire and WickwireWar of Independence, 98).

After Trenton, Washington declined to be drawn into an open fight, and for much of the spring of 1777 Cornwallis was bogged down in minor skirmishes in and around New Brunswick, where he commanded the garrison. Perhaps frustrated by this limited warfare, he supported Howe's decision in the summer to attack Philadelphia, even though it meant diverting the war effort from New Jersey and New England, and split the British forces into three smaller, weaker camps at Philadelphia, Albany, and Manhattan. Washington obliged the British by fighting for Philadelphia, and Cornwallis shone militarily at the battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, a classic British battle of cannonading followed by an orderly bayonet charge. Subsequent attempts to draw Washington into open battle failed, however, and in December, with winter closing in and campaigning slowing, Cornwallis was granted permission to go home on leave.

Cornwallis returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1778 as lieutenant-general and second in command to Sir Henry Clinton, now commander-in-chief in America. The entry of the French into the war after General Sir John Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga (17 October 1777) convinced Cornwallis that a bold plan of occupation of ports where the French might disembark and vigorous aid to the southern loyalists was essential for the British to regain the initiative. But Clinton frittered away the remainder of the campaigning season in small predatory expeditions. Cornwallis then returned to England again on learning of the dangerous illness of his wife, who died on 16 February 1779. Despite his personal distress, he returned to America. Only then was he able to put into operation his bolder plans. Clinton and Cornwallis moved their operations to South Carolina in May 1780 and quickly captured Charles Town. Following Clinton's return to New York, Cornwallis held the south against the American armies for the rest of the year, defeating General Gates at Camden on 16 August 1780. In 1781 Cornwallis decided to strike a decisive blow by marching north to Virginia, the most important insurgent colony, in an attempt to link up with Clinton. He contrasted a successful battle in Virginia which 'may give us America' with a 'defensive [plan], mixed with desultory expeditions' (Correspondence, 1.87). On his way north, Cornwallis was ordered by Clinton to establish himself at Yorktown, though he realized his force was not strong enough to hold such an exposed post. Washington recognized Cornwallis's mistake and joined with the French to attack the British on 14 October 1781. When Clinton finally sailed from New York on 24 October, it was already too late. Cornwallis had been forced to surrender on 19 October and the American War of Independence was effectively at an end.

From his very first campaign most of the problems which were to dog Cornwallis until the final defeat at Yorktown in 1781 were in evidence. The British were hampered by long lines of communication and their desire to fight throughout the thirteen colonies. These problems were exacerbated by the entry of France and Spain into the war from 1778. British military and political co-ordination were threatened by personal and political rivalries. Cornwallis's own relations with Clinton had quickly deteriorated. He was also in conflict with the colonial secretary, Lord George Germain. In addition, parliament and the ministry were hampered by the king's intervention. There were intractable difficulties in America. The British defeated the continental army in almost every major engagement, but could not destroy the American will to fight. The Americans, supported by an increasing proportion of the civil population as British armies visited hardship and brutality on them, simply regrouped, avoiding battle wherever possible. The loyalist militias were regarded with more or less undisguised contempt by Cornwallis and his brother commanders. On the other hand, Cornwallis never seems properly to have understood the spirit of independence which animated his enemies. While at a local level the British maintained their military superiority, their intelligence was poor, and despite his efforts Cornwallis found it difficult to guarantee the troops ample supplies. All the same, the conduct of the war and military administration revealed some constants in Cornwallis's attitudes and approach. In principle, he had sympathized with American liberties, but his essential allegiance to royal authority shone through. He disliked and distrusted settlers, having no time for either loyalist or republican 'banditti'. He was to have little more time for the non-official British in India or the ascendancy élites in Ireland. During his brief period of administration in the Carolinas he was to insist on the sanctity of private property and the unfettered rights of the landlord, another theme which was to resurface in India and Ireland. The best that can be said of Cornwallis's American career was that he emerged as a good commissary general, if a flawed strategist. From the outset he had devoted himself to logistics and to supplying and feeding his men. He seems to have remained genuinely popular among his troops. This concern was to serve him well in the conditions of warfare during the Indian campaigns, with its vast distances and huge armies of camp followers.

The political world in Britain was dimly aware of these deficiencies, so Cornwallis was never really blamed for the collapse in America. As early as May 1782, when still on 'parole', he was asked to go to India as governor-general, but, distrusting the ministry, he refused. He resigned as constable of the Tower in January 1784 when his political friend Lord Shelburne lost office to William Pitt. Having again refused the offer of India when pressed by Pitt and Dundas, he went off on a short military mission to Frederick the Great in August and September 1785.

Cornwallis in India, 1786–1793

Cornwallis was the first governor-general appointed under the terms of William Pitt's East India Act (1784). According to its author, the act's intention was 'to give the crown the power of guiding the politics of India with as little means of corrupt influence as possible' (Moon, 229). Cornwallis was appointed over the only other serious candidate, Lord Macartney, previously governor of Madras, who had made far too many enemies among the East India Company directors for ministerial comfort. Cornwallis's reputation as a good soldier who had been put in an impossible position at Yorktown and his probity attracted Pitt and Henry Dundas, the dominant minister in the new Board of Control for India. Cornwallis had seen the effects of divided control in America and he insisted on enhanced powers in India. Having been assured that he would, if necessary, be able to override his council and that he would also be appointed commander-in-chief in India, Cornwallis accepted the office in February 1786.

Both military efficiency and probity were indeed very valuable commodities in India in these years. The sultans of Mysore had battered the enfeebled Madras administration with constant sallies into their territory over the past quarter of a century. In 1782 the presidency had nearly collapsed under the assault of Tipu Sultan. The lax two-year rule of Sir John Macpherson as governor-general had fully exposed the extent of the corruption and peculation which was thought not only to be undermining the East India Company's reputation, but even to be weakening the British constitution itself. Cornwallis later remarked that Macpherson's government 'was a system of the dirtiest jobbery' (Correspondence, 1.371). What he found in India when he arrived in October 1786 strengthened his already strong aversion to the untrammelled activities of British subjects overseas, who he believed were undermining the crown. Cornwallis's relations with Dundas in his first few years, however, were to be rendered difficult by Macpherson's attempts to return to India and by ministers' apparent willingness to countenance this. Back in England, Macpherson, presumably irritated by Cornwallis's stoic reputation, circulated a story to the effect that the new governor-general was on the point of marrying a sixteen-year-old girl. Pained that Dundas had given credence to this, Cornwallis complained that if he had so far forgotten his duty 'at the age of forty-nine … forgetting likewise his grey hairs and rheumatism', then Macpherson's return would be of little note as his own administration would already be sliding into a similar decadence.

Fighting corruption consumed much of Cornwallis's time in India. It was to have long-term consequences not only for the nature of British rule but for the place of Indians within colonial government and society. On an early visit up-country to Benares he remarked that almost all the company's servants were involved in commerce under the names of friends and relatives and that they used their parallel position as judges and collectors to undermine the company's interests, becoming 'the greatest oppressors of the manufacturers' (Correspondence, 1.271). Cornwallis moved urgently to ensure that company servants were not involved in private trade and he separated the judicial from the revenue-collecting branch of government in the districts. Yet the root of this corruption, Cornwallis thought, lay in close British dealings with Indians. In Benares, he asserted, 'The Rajah is a fool, his servants rogues, every native of Hindostan (I really believe) is corrupt and Benares six hundred miles from Calcutta'. Later, in Bengal, he castigated a British official who had 'a strong propensity for jobbery and intrigue … [and] has formed connections with the worst black people in Bengal' (ibid., 2.134). Before 1791 Cornwallis therefore instituted a new system of law courts in which Indian agency was greatly decreased. He introduced 'European principles' into legal judgments, dispensing with measures of Muslim law (shari'a) such as the right of relatives of a murdered man to play a role in sentencing. He also brought the local Indian police in Calcutta, and later across the whole of Bengal, more closely under British supervision. The governor-general's strong aversion to the administration of 'natives of influence' effectively created a racially divided government, whereas under Warren Hastings a mere ten years before, Indians could still reach major administrative positions.

Scarcely had Cornwallis begun to see the fruits of his reform measures than he was forced to spend the best part of 1791 and 1792 in the field in southern India fending off the threat from Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Tipu feared British encirclement and had repeatedly spurned British offers of treaty relationships on the grounds that other princes had lost independence by entanglement with the Europeans. Seeing a build-up of British influence on the south-west coast of India, Tipu had moved, in December 1789, against a British ally, the raja of TravancoreCornwallis did not trust the abilities of the Madras government and its army; he was suspicious of his Indian allies, the Marathas and the nizam of Hyderabad, and he felt that, in view of the outbreak of the French Revolution, this was a good time to try to restrain what he saw as the enmity and implacable ambition of Tipu Sultan. Hesitating to intervene prematurely, Cornwallis only took command in Mysore in late 1790, worried by early military set-backs to the company's forces. By April 1791 he had taken Mysore's key city, Bangalore, and captured 'vast numbers of cannon' and a huge quantity of grain. But not until more than a year later (25 February 1792) did Cornwallis finally force Tipu to accept peace terms, and even then the sultan was only obliged to cede half his territory, outlying districts which included much of the kingdom's poorer and less productive land.

A logistical commander par excellenceCornwallis found himself in a potentially vulnerable condition throughout the campaign. His advance was several times delayed by his massive baggage train and army of camp followers. But the baggage train was necessary because the Mysoreans adopted a scorched earth policy and destroyed all villages and crops. The Maratha light horse which was sent to deal with the still powerful Mysorean light cavalry failed dismally. Cornwallis had few maps and charts and 'a lack of all satisfactory information' (Correspondence, 2.20). Terrain and weather were also against him. The monsoon made the countryside treacherous and in the 1791 campaign he had found it impossible to get his heavy cannon across the wide and boulder-strewn flood plain of the Kavery River which protected Tipu's final redoubt, the fortress city of Seringapatam. When, during the spring campaign of 1792, Cornwallis effectively defeated Tipu in front of Seringapatam, the governor-general did not risk an all-out attack on the city, sensing the underlying weakness of his own position. His troops were exhausted, his allies were unreliable, and disease had broken out among his European troops. Politics counselled otherwise also. He did not want to build up his dangerous allies, the Marathas and Hyderabad, too much. A balance of power in south India was better, with Tipu's wings neatly clipped. Cornwallis was also enough of a politician to see that the significant body of British opinion which rightly believed that Tipu had been antagonized by long-term British ambitions in the south would protest if the sultan was destroyed. The imminence of war with France was also a strong argument for strategic caution. The view of some that Cornwallis had simply shrunk from the final battle was less easy to maintain, given the huge loss of territory and massive indemnity which Tipu had been forced to accept.

The India Act of 1784, spurred by claims that Warren Hastings's government had been despotic, noted the complaints that 'diverse rajahs, zemindars and other native landholders had been deprived of their lands, jurisdictions and privileges'. On arriving in India, Cornwallis was plunged into a long-standing official debate about the best way to administer the system of land taxation which the British had inherited from the Mughals. This was to culminate in the governor-general's permanent settlement of the land revenues of Bengal in 1793, his most important act in the view of economic and social historians. Philip Francis had broached the idea of a permanent settlement in the 1770s, but opinion remained divided. John ShoreCornwallis's ablest aide on the financial side of government, collected a huge amount of data on the nature of tenures and the past history of landholding during 1788 and 1789. Ultimately, Shore came down on the side of a ten-year settlement with the landholders rather than permanency. It was Cornwallis's personal intervention, therefore, which in 1793 set the Bengal revenues at £3 million and ensured that 'they [the zemindars] and their heirs and lawful successors will be allowed to hold their estates at such an assessment for ever' (Selections from the State Papers, 1.206). In this Cornwallis was inspired by pragmatism. War with France seemed inevitable, and it was important for the British government to placate the Bengal countryside and put itself into a position in which it could count on stable revenues for some years ahead. But Cornwallis was not entirely immune to the teachings of theory. He appears to have believed that, while Indian politics were decadent and corrupt, Indian landlords were nevertheless motivated by an underlying spirit of economic rationality. Some have perceived the indirect influence of Adam Smith here. Given stability, the landlords would invest in the land, succour the peasantry, and boost the sluggish internal trade of Bengal. Later administrators, Indian nationalists, and modern historians have often blamed Cornwallis for abandoning the Bengal cultivators to a rapacious landlord class. But this is unjust, as he believed that the zemindars' rights could coexist with an equally inviolable peasant right of occupancy. Only under the later dispensation of regulation 7 of 1799, when Cornwallis had long left India, was the balance tipped decisively in favour of the landlords. As the 'permanency' was pushed through the cabinet and court of directors against considerable opposition, Cornwallis's first tenure of the governor-generalship was ending. Within six months of France's declaration of war on Britain in February 1793, he was homeward-bound from Madras on the Swallow, after accepting the capitulation of the French enclave of Pondicherry.

On his return to Britain Cornwallis was rapidly enlisted in an attempt to boost the allies' ailing fortunes against the French republican armies. Fending off attempts to make him a local field marshal in central Europe to replace the duke of York, who was regarded as incompetent, Cornwallis was persuaded in February 1795 to become master-general of the ordnance, with a seat in cabinet. His task was to prepare the defences of England against an expected French invasion, but there were more imminent dangers threatening other British dominions. In February 1797 he was again sworn in as governor-general of India with a brief to suppress the mutiny which was brewing among white officers of the company's armies. Their unrest resulted from plans which Cornwallis, as part of his programme of Indian reform, had devised to transfer the company's troops to the crown. In the event, timely pecuniary concessions from the court of directors quelled the discontent and Cornwallis did not embark.

Lord lieutenant of Ireland (1798–1801)

The threat of an uprising in Ireland, aided by the French, had clouded Britain's war counsels for months. By early 1798, with the United Irishmen in open rebellion, Pitt's need for a cool-headed administrator in Ireland had become urgent. With his extensive military and administrative experience, Cornwallis was the obvious choice, but he was unenthusiastic when Lord Spencer floated the idea that he should become both commander-in-chief and lord lieutenant: 'I said, You are too good to me, to wish to place me in so easy a situation' (Correspondence, 2.334). Nevertheless, by early June he had accepted Pitt's entreaty to take up the double burden, while retaining his cabinet post as master-general of the ordnance. The immediate military responsibilities were not as onerous as expected. On 21 June, the day after he arrived in Dublin, generals Lake and Moore defeated the rebels in battles at Vinegar Hill (Enniscorthy) and Wexford. Cornwallis had only to take the field once, in a short campaign against General Joseph Humbert's French invasion force which landed in late August. It surrendered to Cornwallis near St Johnstown on 8 September.

Rebellion aside, Cornwallis was appalled at the task before him in Ireland. His primary duty, he believed, was to strengthen the empire by coaxing Ireland into a lasting and peaceful co-existence with Britain. To his shame and anger, however, he found that the most ardent champions of the British connection were the least likely advocates of peace and conciliation. It was the loyalists, he decided, who, by their hatred of Catholics, had succeeded in transforming a small Jacobinical rebellion against church and state into a religious civil war. He marvelled at the bloodlust of the loyalist troops, complaining variously that they 'delight in murder', or that 'murder appears to be their favourite pastime' (Correspondence, 2.355, 357). Worse, however, was the attitude of the leading protestants. There was little to be looked for in the Irish parliament, he informed the duke of Portland, as both houses were 'adverse to all acts of clemency'. Left to their own devices Irish MPs would 'pursue measures that could only terminate in the extirpation of the greater number of the inhabitants, and in the utter destruction of the country' (ibid., 2.358). Even his own dinner guests partook of this barbaric 'system of blood', enlivening the viceregal table with the happy news of the murder of yet another Catholic priest. Within ten days Cornwallis had concluded that 'the life of a Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland comes up to my idea of perfect misery' (ibid., 2.356). By the following April, even India looked attractive. 'Sincerely do I repent that I did not return to Bengal', he lamented to his brother (ibid., 3.93).

Cornwallis's one source of consolation in Ireland was the young Viscount Castlereagh, an Ulsterman and MP for County Down who shared his faith in the efficacy of clemency and conciliation. Castlereagh had been acting chief secretary in Ireland since March 1798 and in November Cornwallis pressed to have him confirmed in the post. By unwritten law the Irish chief secretary was almost never Irish, but Cornwallis asked for an exception to be made in this case because, as he put it, Castlereagh was 'so very unlike an Irishman' (Correspondence, 2.439). It was a clumsy compliment: Cornwallis meant that of all the leading protestants he had met, only Castlereagh seemed willing to put the future of his nation above personal ambition and religious prejudice. Perhaps Cornwallis relied upon Castlereagh's judgement and local knowledge too much. Certainly it was during these years that the chief secretaryship began to rival the lord lieutenancy in executive importance at Westminster. From the outset Castlereagh shared Cornwallis's view that it was essential 'to soften the hatred of the Catholics to our Government'. This meant conceding religious and political rights to Catholics—a change that could safely be accommodated only within the confines of an Irish union with Britain, as this would have the effect of reducing Catholics to a manageable minority of the population. A union might even save Ireland's protestants from the consequences of their own actions, though Cornwallis did not look for gratitude from them: 'they arrogate to themselves the exclusive knowledge of a country, of which, from their mode of governing it, they have, in my opinion, proved themselves totally ignorant' (ibid., 2.404–5). Pitt and his ministers agreed that union was the only way forward for Ireland, and Cornwallis and Castlereagh were authorized to sound out Irish attitudes towards it. Cornwallis was soon disappointed to learn, however, that there was no intention of granting concessions to Catholics at the same time. He pleaded his case in an impassioned letter to Pitt of 17 October. Where was the sense, he asked, in making an alliance with a small party in Ireland which already enjoyed Britain's protection and, moreover, had exploited it 'to wage eternal war against the Papists and the Presbyterians … about nine-tenths of the community' (ibid., 2.418)? Pitt sympathized, but denied that it was either practicable or proper to link Catholic emancipation to the union. The lord lieutenant would have to be satisfied with the undertaking that no clause in the act of union would explicitly bar Catholics from future participation in parliamentCornwallis was never fully reconciled to this position, and henceforth his faith in the union as a panacea for Ireland's ills wavered. After the initial vote against the union in the Irish parliament in January 1799, he left it up to Castlereagh to negotiate most of the payment—in money, patronage, and honours—required to persuade a majority of Irish MPs to end their institution and associated perquisites. To Cornwallis this was jobbery, not compensation, and he recoiled from it, even while allowing that it had to be done. He concentrated instead on wooing Ireland's Catholic voters to back the union. His relations with the Catholic bishops were cordial, even sympathetic, and with their blessing he toured the southern market towns drumming up support for the union among Catholic professionals and merchants. In London, however, complaints grew louder that he did not communicate freely with the cabinet. He had previously excused himself on the grounds that, as a newcomer to Ireland, he found it hard to come to definite conclusions. In fact he had formed his opinions within days of arriving; he simply did not see his way clear to implementing them with the unpromising material of the Irish parliamentarians. He allowed that none of the MPs or their backers had legitimate or rational grounds for opposing the union. In his eyes, all were in pursuit of their 'own private objects of ambition or avarice' (ibid., 3.8). To the chagrin of his fellow unionists, and in spite of his studied attempts at courtesy, Cornwallis's disdain for the government's friends was visible to all. Edward Cooke, the civil under-secretary, complained that half the battle for the union was occasioned by Cornwallis's 'total incapacity, self-conceit and muleishness' (McDowellIreland, 699). Protestants resented his disapproval of their severity towards Catholics, Cooke explained, feeling that Cornwallis did not understand their difficulties. This failure to find common ground with the loyalists was another indication that, for all his time in America and India, Cornwallis remained essentially metropolitan in outlook, unable to empathize with the concerns and culture of a colonial class.

Cornwallis may have hated the horse-trading that preceded the Irish parliament's vote for union in June 1800, but he was determined to salvage some honour from the proceedings. When, a few days after the victory, Portland wrote brusquely saying that he and Castlereagh had been too liberal in their offers of peerages to secure support for the union and that he would have to find a way of extricating the government from their promises, he was furious and threatened to resign. The cabinet and George III backed down. Pitt had hoped that, once union was a fact, a united cabinet might be able to persuade the king of the wisdom of Catholic emancipation. Like Cornwallis and Castlereagh, he had hinted to Catholics that emancipation was imminent, though he had also quietly promised anti-papist peers that they could safely vote for the union. With the union safe, however, the cabinet's flimsy undertaking to Cornwallis and Castlereagh to grant Catholics relief fell apart and, lacking vital support, Pitt dared not broach the issue with the king. His ministerial malcontents were not so reticent. They spent the months before the union parliament was due to meet stiffening George's resolve against emancipation until, on 29 January 1801, he declared his implacable opposition to any measure of relief. This, added to the dissension in the cabinet, guaranteed that Pitt could never force a relief bill through the Lords. Already ill with worry about the war and the national debt, he seized the opportunity to resign. A few days later, in mid-February, Cornwallis and Castlereagh followed him out of office, Cornwallis also resigning as master of the ordnance. naïvely underestimating the anti-Catholic feeling in the cabinetCornwallis had let himself become almost cheerful about the imminence of emancipation, and his disappointment was correspondingly bitter. To General Ross at the ordnance he explained that he could no longer serve an administration 'so blind to the interest, and indeed to the immediate security of their country, as to persevere in the old system of proscription and exclusion in Ireland' (Correspondence, 3.337). He had to remain in Dublin until May, when his successors arrived to take office, but once freed he looked forward to exchanging the detested factionalism of public life for a quiet retirement at Culford.

Peace with France

However, in early July 1801, with rumours of a French invasion, Cornwallis was prevailed upon to accept the command of the eastern district, with headquarters at Colchester. He grumbled, but was settled there within the week. Towards the end of September, and with much more enthusiasm, he agreed to serve as the British plenipotentiary to negotiate peace with France. With his son, Viscount Brome, he sailed from Dover on 3 November. He was favourably received in Paris by Napoleon Bonaparte on the 10th but, finding that further talks with the first consul eluded him, he moved at the end of the month to Amiens to open negotiations with the French plenipotentiary, Napoleon's elder brother Joseph, and his formidable adviser Charles de Talleyrand. As ever, Cornwallis's sense of duty informed his undertaking, but perhaps pride played a part too. Pitt is said to have observed that Cornwallis had always wanted to head a diplomatic mission, which, if true, was a measure of Cornwallis's delusion, for he was not a natural diplomat. To bluff or hedge or lie was anathema to him, and his scrupulous adherence to a notion of gentlemanly conduct rendered him helpless before the wily charm and intrigues of the elder Bonaparte and Talleyrand. Soon his lugubrious pen was complaining of the French negotiators' want of candour and 'unsteadiness and tergiversation', and of the little dependence that could be placed on private conversations with them (Correspondence, 3.439). Too late, it dawned on the British plenipotentiary that he was 'too much a John to delight in foreign society' (ibid., 3.406).

Cornwallis was further handicapped in the negotiations by the unhelpful terms of the preliminary articles signed in London and the extent of his own military knowledge. Even before the Austrians' defeat at Marengo (14 June 1800), which deprived Britain of her last ally, he had shuddered at the sight of British raw recruits being sent off to battle, fatally lacking in training, discipline, and hope. Whereas politicians suspected that Britain's war effort was unsustainable, Cornwallis knew it for a painful, bloody fact. By January 1801, when Austria agreed terms with France, he was desperate for peace. It is unfair, however, to say that he underestimated France's own need for peace. His biggest fear was that Bonaparte would be swept from power before the definitive treaty could be signed. He was not helped by the conciliatory terms of the treaty preliminaries that Britain had agreed before his departure; nor was Lord Addington's flailing government able to infuse him with either confidence or authority. In the end he settled for a 'peace that will not dishonour the country and will afford as reasonable a prospect of future safety as the present very extraordinary circumstances of Europe will admit' (Correspondence, 3.437). The peace of Amiens was signed in March 1802, though in the meantime many of the considerations which had led the British to agree the preliminaries had evaporated.

Return to India, death, and character

For three years after Amiens Cornwallis led the peaceful country life which he had desired for so long. Then, abruptly, he was again sent to India as governor-general, arriving with great misgivings in July 1805. After the hectic career of expansion embarked on by Richard Wellesley which had tripled the company's debts, the directors yearned for peace in India. After a rapid assessment Cornwallis decided to make immediate overtures to the Maratha leaders, Holkar and Shinde, although the outgoing commander-in-chief, Gerard Lake, regarded this as a virtual capitulation. Historians of the imperial era criticized Cornwallis for a move which would have allowed central India to slip back into its pre-colonial 'anarchy', but this has since been disputed. Besides, Cornwallis knew that the company's troops were on the point of mutiny because their pay was seriously in arrears following the collapse of the company's credit on the Indian money market. But peace on these terms was never concluded because, after only two months in India, Cornwallis fell ill on his way up-country and died on 5 October 1805 at Ghazipur, near Benares. He was buried just outside this small town and a monument to him in the style of a classical temple was erected on a high bluff overlooking the River Ganges.

A corpulent man of rather severe appearance, Cornwallis has often been treated by historians as a leader of outstanding competence rather than brilliance, promoted again and again because Britain possessed so few outstanding proconsuls at this time of international emergency. Cornwallis's formal minutes do indeed seem staid and orotund, his devotion to duty almost too classical for his contemporaries or for the post-colonial age to bear. The charge of dullness is, however, belied by the vigour of his less official letters to his friend General Ross and to Dundas, and that of mere competence by the clarity and persuasiveness of his vision. Cornwallis should be seen as a transitional figure. His devotion to the crown had at its heart something archaic. It rose in part from his peculiar position in aristocratic society as a man who was independent yet without patronage: 'Here was no fortune to be mended … Here was no beggarly mushroom kindred to be provided for. No crew of hungry followers, gaping to be gorged!' (Moon, 231), as Dundas colourfully proclaimed of him in parliament. At the same time, Cornwallis's career also pointed forward to the new Victorian type of crown servant. He saw the world in stark colours of race and moral independency. Indians were corrupt; Americans little more than banditti; the Irish tiresome and petulant. Yet this was not the racism of high imperialism with its urge to 'improve'. Still less was Cornwallis a harbinger of colonial capitalism. Caste and the Muslim religion were, he wrote to the bishop of Salisbury, 'insuperable bars' to the progress of Christianity in India. His reverence for the principle of property came not from a desire to encourage a vigorous market in land, but from his sense that a society's moral worth was underpinned by agrarian stability.

Cornwallis's son

Cornwallis's only son, Charles Cornwallis second Marquess Cornwallis (1774–1823), landowner, styled Viscount Brome until he inherited on his father's death in October 1805, was born on 19 October 1774 at Culford, Suffolk, and educated at Eton College (c.1783–4, 1786–9) and St John's College, Cambridge (admitted October 1792, MA 1794). His health was delicate and his father did not want him to have a military career. He was a tory MP for the family pocket borough of Eye, Suffolk (1795–6), and for Suffolk (1796–1805). He married, on 17 April 1797, Lady Louisa Gordon (1776–1850), daughter of Alexander Gordon, fourth duke of Gordon, and his wife, Jane, née Maxwell: 'having expressed to the Duchess some hesitation about marrying her daughter on account of supposed insanity in the Gordon family, he received from her the gratifying assurance that there was not a drop of Gordon blood in Louisa!' (GECPeerage, 3.457). They had five daughters. He was a captain in the Suffolk yeomanry from 1795 to 1802 and colonel of the Suffolk militia from 1802 until his death. He was master of the buckhounds from 1807 until his death. Following disease, for which he was about to visit the continent, he died on 9 August 1823 at his residence in Old Burlington Street, London, and was buried at Culford, Suffolk. At his death the marquessate became extinct. The first marquess's brother James Cornwallis, bishop of Lichfield, became fourth earl.


  • C. A. Bayly
  •  and Katherine Prior   DNB

Artist biography

John Singleton Copley, (1738–1815), portrait and history painter, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 3 July 1738 at Long Wharf, the first and only child of Mary Singleton (c.1710–1789) and Richard Copley, shopkeepers who emigrated from Ireland some time in the mid-1730s. Richard Copley died some time in the mid-1740s, but his widow and son continued the family business of cutting and selling tobacco until 1748.

America, 1738–1774

Copley's formal education during his childhood remains a mystery. But his home on Long Wharf, the centre of Boston's thriving merchant economy, which accounted for 40 per cent of the total volume of colonial American shipping, was a de facto classroom that taught Copley market lessons that he would later apply to his artistic career.

In 1748 Copley's widowed mother married Peter Pelham (1695–1751), an émigré English artist and schoolteacher who had arrived in America in 1727. Pelham had been married twice before and had four sons and a daughter of his own. Ten-year-old Copley and his mother moved into Pelham's house on Lindel's Row, which was in a district of artisans near the centre of Boston. A half-brother, Henry Pelham (1749–1806), born the next year, would become a miniaturist, printmaker, and map maker of some reputation.

Copley's artistic education must have begun at about this time. He learned to mezzotint, a print technique that generates form in tonal areas rather than in lines, from his stepfather, who had achieved prominence in London and Boston for his work in that medium. Copley's first artistic effort, a mezzotint of the Revd William Welsteed, was printed in 1753 from the rescraped plate his stepfather had used to produce his own portrait of the Revd William Cooper ten years earlier. Peter Pelham also opened his library of English prints to his stepson and probably arranged to have Copley visit the studio of John Smibert (1688–1751), the leading artist of Boston during Copley's childhood. The ambitious late baroque pictures (241 painted in Boston) of this Scottish émigré, who arrived in Boston in 1729 after pursuing a moderately distinguished career in London, had established a new standard of excellence for many American colonial artists. Smibert's studio also offered Copley a look at English and European prints, theoretical treatises on art, and plaster casts from the antique. As a result, Copley's first paintings, of 1754, were mythological works: The Forge of Vulcan (priv. coll.), Galatea (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and The Return of Neptune (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), all based on European prints and more consistent with baroque English taste than the traditional American taste for portraits.

Pelham also passed entrepreneurial skills on to his stepson. Like most household producers in Boston, Pelham, and later Copley, had to be marketing tacticians capable of identifying, satisfying, and at times creating the desire to own works of fine art. Copley in particular was at the forefront of the process of Anglicization, in which the newly wealthy merchant élite of Boston began to covet and consume luxury English goods, or facsimiles of them, including portraits in the formal English style. Even in his early twenties, the marketwise Copley competed with the English rococo artist Joseph Blackburn, then resident in Boston, for commissions. He imitated Blackburn's technique so successfully that the English artist was forced to return home in 1763, leaving the 25-year-old Copley in control of the burgeoning market for paintings in Boston.

Without the benefit of an art academy or further instruction from Pelham, who died in 1751, Copley taught himself, often by imitating the English prints that could be bought or viewed in Boston. He studied prints after paintings by Sir Godfrey KnellerThomas Hudson, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. For example, his Mrs Daniel Hubbard (1764; Art Institute of Chicago), is explicitly based on John Faber's print after a Hudson portrait of Mary Finch, Viscountess Andover (c.1746). The prints were of twofold importance in Copley's self-improvement: first for teaching him contemporary compositional patterns, and second for providing knowledge of current English imagery that allowed his upmarket Anglophile clients to be persuasively portrayed as sophisticated English ladies and gentlemen.

In the late 1750s and early 1760s, Copley developed his signature style, which was descriptive and marked by meticulous detail, crisp lines and edges, strong colour, and dramatic tonal contrasts. His portraits of Mary and Elizabeth Royall (c.1758; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Moses Gill (1764; Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island), and Nathaniel Sparhawk (1764; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) are exemplary. He was so fastidious in his technique that Gilbert Stuart once commented on a realistic passage in Copley's Epes Sargent (1760; National Gallery of Art, Washington): 'Prick that hand and blood will spurt out' (S. BenjaminArt in America, 1880, 20). Copley's sitters often mentioned the numerous sittings he required, one recalling the twenty visits needed for Mr and Mrs Thomas Mifflin (1773; Philadelphia Museum of Art). Though he often based his compositions on English prints, he could not learn English brush technique from them, and as a result his paintings veered away from the fluid effects of the artists of London, such as Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, who preferred painterly brushwork and atmospheric veiling. In that way he was like other artists, such as Joseph Wright of Derby and Tilly Kettle, who were working in provincial areas of Britain.

In an effort to improve his art and to acquire an English metropolitan manner in his early career, he shipped his portrait of his half-brother Henry PelhamBoy with a Squirrel (1765; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), to London for exhibition at the Society of Artists the following year. Reynolds said it was 'a very wonderfull Performance', but noted 'a little Hardness in the Drawing, Coldness in the Shades, An over minuteness' (Jones, 41–2). Benjamin West also praised Copley's painting, but thought it 'too liney, which was judged to have arose from there being so much neetness in the lines' (ibid., 44). Reynolds and West agreed that Copley must leave America to study in Europe and London before, as the former phrased it, 'your Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in your little way at Boston'.

The exhibition, however, did result in Copley's election as a member of the Society of Artists in London. In 1767 Copley sent to London a second picture, Young Lady with a Bird and Dog (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio), but to English academic eyes he again missed the mark. Citing first the overall detailing and the opacity and brightness of colour, West added that 'Each Part being … Equell in Strength of Coulering and finishing, Each Making too much a Picture of its silf, without that Due Subordanation to the Principle parts, viz they head and hands' (Jones, 56–7). He repeated the admonition to come 'home' to London 'before it may be too late for much Improvement' (ibid., 60).

Though Copley wrote back to lament a situation in America in which he had to paint pictures in a place where 'the people regard it no more than any other usefull trade … like that of a Carpenter, tailor or shew maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World' (Jones, 65–6), he was, none the less, extremely popular in the late 1760s, producing some of colonial America's most memorable images. Among them are the merchants John Hancock (1765; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Nicholas Boylston (1767; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts), and Jeremiah Lee (1769; Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut); the ladies Mrs Samuel Quincy (c.1761; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Mrs Thomas Boylston (1766; Harvard University), and Rebecca Boylston (1767; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); the ministers Myles Cooper (1768; Columbia University, New York) and Nathaniel Appleton (1761; Harvard University); and the artisans Paul Revere (1768; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Nathaniel Hurd (c.1765; Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio).

In the 1760s Copley also pioneered miniature and pastel painting in America, in both of which he was self-trained. His experimental oil on copper miniatures of the late 1750s were superseded about 1762 by a more delicate watercolour on ivory technique (for example, Jeremiah Leec.1769; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Copley drew about fifty-five pastels in America, beginning in 1758 (for example, his Self-Portrait, 1769; Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware).

By 1771 Copley had become so renowned in New England and along the Atlantic seaboard that he was invited to New York city, where he spent six months and reached the pinnacle of his American fame with portraits so powerful and austere that they bear more resemblance to the French neo-classical art of Jacques-Louis David than to contemporary English painting. His portraits of Mrs Thomas Gage (1771; Putnam Foundation, Timken Museum, San Diego) and Samuel Adams (c.1770–72; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), painted in Boston, are among the most arresting pictures painted in colonial America.

In 1769 Copley married Susannah Farnham Clarke (1745–1836), the daughter of Richard Clarke, the official agent of the British East India Company in Boston, and purchased a 20 acre farm on Beacon Hill, next to the estate of John Hancock. Political events, especially the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767, the non-importation movements that they provoked, and the Boston massacre of 1770, led to the destabilization and polarization of Boston society. Copley had friends and clients in both tory and whig factions. On the one hand he counted radical whigs such as Samuel AdamsJohn Hancock, and Paul Revere as his friends, actually painting Adams as a political firebrand. On the other hand, he had married into a prominent tory family and painted many tories, including Thomas Gage, the British commander in North America and the colonial governor of Massachusetts from 1774 to 1775. Copley, however, never labelled himself politically and rarely expressed a clear political position. But he did have a political opinion, namely that he felt threatened, both personally and professionally, by the growing crisis, and wished the clock could be turned back a decade or two to when America was under the invisible benefaction of English rule. He claimed to dissociate himself from partisan politics in the higher name of art, and began, as early as 1766, to imagine himself emigrating, breaking the ‘shackels’ of relentless portrait painting, and abandoning the comforts of his annual income of 300 guineas.

The defining event in Copley's decision to emigrate was the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Because his father-in-law had been importing tea under an exclusive contract with the East India Company, a situation that was emblematic of British control of American markets, he was under ferocious whig attacks led by Samuel AdamsCopley attempted to forestall political action against the Clarkes, but after Adams exhorted 8000 Bostonians at South Church in November of that year, a group of activists disguised as Mohawks boarded Richard Clarke's tea ship and dumped all 342 casks in the harbour. That and other pre-Revolutionary events traumatized the Copley and Clarke families. Copley himself was threatened by marauding whigs; the retaliatory Coercive Acts and Boston Port Bill ruined the economy; British warships began filling the harbour; and Copley knew he had to leave the city, which he did on 10 June 1774, lamenting the inevitable 'Civil War', as he called it. In May of 1775, war having broken out, his wife, three children, and the Clarkes left for England. His mother, Mary, half-brother, Henry Pelham, and sickly infant son, Clarke, remained in Boston.

Britain, 1774–1815

After a 21-year career in America, Copley moved on to a fourteen-month tour of the continent, largely in Italy, and then to a highly successful second career of some forty years as a portrait and history painter in London. Though John Adams had lauded him as 'the greatest Master that ever was in America' (L. H. Butterfield, ed., Adams Family Correspondence, 1963, 2.103), he was known in London only as the author of two exhibition pictures and as a correspondent with Benjamin West; on the continent he was unknown entirely. In order to adapt to and succeed in his new cultural environment he embarked on a study of antiquity and the old masters, long beyond the age at which English artists had done so. Travelling with the English artist George Carter, he set off late in 1774 for Rome via Rouen, Paris, Lyons, Marseilles, Toulon, Antibes, Genoa, Pisa, and Florence. He studied the work of Raphael in particular, unapologetically basing his first European painting, The Ascension (1775; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) on the Italian's late Transfiguration. Late in 1775 he travelled via Parma, Venice, the Tyrol, Mannheim, and Cologne to London, where he joined his wife and three eldest children: Elizabeth (b. 1770); John Singleton Copley, later Baron Lyndhurst (b. 1772); and Mary (b. 1773). His son Clarke died in Boston, and a third daughter, Susanna, was born.

In 1776, at the age of thirty-eight, Copley settled into a house on Leicester Fields, was elected associate of the Royal Academy, and submitted his portrait Mr and Mrs Ralph Izard (1775; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) to the Royal Academy's annual exhibition. Ever ambitious, he submitted four more pictures to the Royal Academy in 1777, including the large Copley Family (1776–7; National Gallery of Art, Washington) which was attacked in the London press. His English portrait style was a modification of his American style, keeping many of the poses, the sharp light and dark contrasts, and bright colouring he was accustomed to, but now loosening the brushwork somewhat, reducing the details, attempting more group portraits, and concerning himself more with the representation of social rank. Exemplary works are Sir William Pepperell and his Family (1778; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh), Clark Gayton, Admiral of the White (1779; NMM), Henry Laurens (1782; National Portrait Gallery, Washington), William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield (1783; NPG), The Three Youngest Daughters of George III (1785; Royal Collection), Richard, Earl Howe, Admiral of the Fleet (c.1791–1794; NMM), Baron Graham (c.1804; National Gallery of Art, Washington). During this period Copley was elected a Royal Academician (1779); saw the birth (1782) and death (1785) of his third son, Jonathan; and the death of his daughter Susanna (1785). He moved to George Street near Hanover Square, London (1783), visited Ghent, Flanders, Brussels, and Antwerp (1787), and lost the election for the presidency of the Royal Academy to Benjamin West (1792). It was remarkable that Copley, whose artistic education had taken place thousands of miles from London, would vie for the president's chair of the Royal Academy. But it was equally understandable that he would lose, for he thought of himself, more so than his peers at the Royal Academy, as an autonomous professional with a style of his own. Decades of self-reliant work in Boston, without the company of professional colleagues, had set him on that path, as had his innately independent thinking.

Copley's primary artistic goal in London was to paint historical subjects, which Reynolds and others considered the highest branch of painting. He painted seven religious subjects. Prominent among them were The Tribute Money (1782; RA), which was his belated diploma picture for the Royal Academy; Samuel Relating to Eli the Judgements of God on Eli's House (1780; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut); and Saul Reproved by Samuel for not Obeying the Commandments of God (1798; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). He once painted a subject from literature, The Red Cross Knight (1793; National Gallery of Art, Washington), from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen.

Copley's primary focus, however, was on contemporary history painting, on which he intended to build his artistic reputation. His first, and most spectacular and novel, was Watson and the Shark (1778; National Gallery of Art, Washington), which the London press favourably reviewed. Unlike most contemporary history paintings that depicted heroic subjects of national magnitude, for example, Benjamin West's The Death of General James Wolfe (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; replica, Royal Collection), Copley's picture was commissioned by Brooke Watson, a merchant and, later, lord mayor of London, and is concerned with a macabre and wholly personal episode in Watson's young adulthood. In 1749 the fourteen-year-old Watson, who was then a crewman on a British ship, went for a swim in Havana harbour, where he was attacked by a shark that mutilated his right leg below the knee. Copley's picture depicts the climactic moment of the shark wildly pursuing its already injured prey moments before a group of fellow crewmen drive it away and pull Watson from the waters. Despite the idiosyncratic and biographical nature of the subject, Copley based passages of the picture on old master paintings, according to the theoretical dictates for history painting advocated by Reynolds and practised by West. For example, the man in the prow who is about to jab the shark with a boat hook suggests traditional pictures of St Michael casting out Satan; the crewmen reaching out of the boat towards Watson are based on figures in Raphael's Miraculous Draught of Fish; and the wild-eyed figure of Watson flailing in the water is adapted from another in Raphael's Transfiguration.

As a tale of physical trial and emotional trauma, followed by salvation, the subject of Watson and the Shark was more in the literary tradition of Daniel Defoe's The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) than it was in the pictorial tradition of English history painting. The theme of triumph over adversity must have been on Watson's mind when he commissioned the picture, however, for he bequeathed it to Christ's Hospital, London, with the hope that it would 'hold out a most usefull Lesson to Youth' (will of Brooke Watson, 1807, TNA: PRO).

Copley's next historical subject, the Death of the Earl of Chatham (1779–81; Tate collection), incorporated portraits of fifty-five of England's noblemen. It shows William Pitt, first earl of Chatham, collapsing in the House of Lords on 7 April 1778 during his reply to the duke of Richmond's speech in favour of American independence. Not only did Copley break with tradition by combining history painting with portraiture, he also marketed his picture in a novel way, by renting a private venue for its exhibition, which was in direct competition with the Royal Academy's annual exhibition of 1781. He charged for admission and earned more money from prints made after the painting and marketed for him by the print publisher John Boydell.

Boydell commissioned and eventually paid Copley £800 for The Death of Major Peirson (1782–4; Tate collection), which was again exhibited privately and for profit at 28 Haymarket. Boydell also arranged for the accompanying print sale. A highly dramatic picture, painted at the peak of Copley's powers, it depicts the events of 6 January 1781 when Peirson valiantly died leading his troops during the French invasion of the island of Jersey. Copley carefully researched the details of the town's appearance and correctly recorded the uniforms, but in accord with Reynolds's theory of history painting he also idealized Peirson's death, turning him into a modern Patroclus. The picture's composition was based on the tripartite structure of Benjamin West's The Death of General James Wolfe (1771) but now made more densely populated and physically animated.

The Peirson attracted the interest of George III, who reportedly devoted three hours to study of its 'various excellencies, in point of design, character, composition, and colouring' (Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 22 May 1784). The picture, with its brilliant reds and whites, theatrical lighting, and sophisticated composition, all put to the service of glorifying English heroics, captured the patriotic imagination of viewers who eagerly looked to military events, such as the defence of Jersey in 1781 and the defence of Gibraltar in 1782, that would ease their sense of the impending loss of America. The corporation of London rewarded Copley for the Peirson with a commission for a huge picture, The Siege of Gibraltar (1783–91; Guildhall Art Gallery, London), for a final sum of £1100. The picture glorifies British magnanimity in the midst of battle as officers risk their lives in the aftermath of victory to rescue the enemy from their exploding ships. General George Augustus Eliott (later Lord Heathfield) is depicted large on a white horse, directing the rescue.

To display the picture, which took eight years to paint, Copley had to erect a tent in Green Park, London. He said that 60,000 came to see it, paying the 1s. admission price (Anecdotes of artists of the last fifty years, Library of the Fine Arts, 4, July 1832, 25). Four years later Copley exhibited at Spring Gardens Charles I Demanding in the House of Commons the Five Impeached Members (Boston Public Library). Earlier in subject than his previous history paintings, the exhibition of the picture was not well attended. In 1799 Copley attempted a last private showing of a historical picture, The Victory of Lord Duncan (1798–9; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums), which depicts the surrender at the battle of Camperdown of the Dutch Admiral DeWinter to Admiral Duncan on 11 October 1797.

After 1800 the quality of Copley's work was in decline. One version of The Offer of the Crown to Lady Jane Grey (1807–8; Somerset Club, Boston) was well received at the Royal Academy. But his George IV (1804–10; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), an equestrian portrait, was poorly composed and highly criticized. In the early nineteenth century he became preoccupied with petty squabbles with clients and fellow artists. He went into debt. Commissions became scarce. His half-brother Henry Pelham drowned in Boston in 1806. Finally, his health deteriorated and he became feeble in both mind and body. His Battle of the Pyrenees (1812–15; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and The Siege of Dunkirk (1814–15; College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia) were inept. When the young American artist Samuel F. B. Morse visited Copley in 1811, he wrote:

He is very old and infirm … His powers of mind have almost entirely left him; his late paintings are miserable; it is really a lamentable thing that a man should outlive his faculties. He has been a first-rate painter, as you well know. I saw at his room some exquisite pieces which he painted twenty or thirty years ago, but his paintings of the last four or five years are very bad. He was pleasant, however, and agreeable in his manners.

E. L. Morse, ed., Samuel F. B. Morse: his Letters and Journals, 1914, 1.47

Copley suffered a stroke at dinner on 11 August 1815. He was left paralysed and incapable of speaking. He died at his home in George Street, London on 9 September 1815, and was buried in Croydon, Surrey. After his death, the family was supported by John Singleton Copley junior, a lawyer, who was elected to parliament in 1818, made Baron Lyndhurst in 1827, and was the first lord chancellor to have been born outside Britain.

Copley was the greatest and most influential painter in colonial America, producing about 350 works of art. With his startling likenesses of persons and things, he came to define a realist art tradition in America. His visual legacy extended throughout the nineteenth century in the American taste for the work of artists as diverse as Fitz Hugh Lane and William Michael Harnett. In Britain, while he continued to paint portraits for the élite, his great achievement was the development of contemporary history painting, which was a combination of reportage, idealism, and theatre. He was also one of the pioneers of the private exhibition, orchestrating shows and marketing prints of his own work to mass audiences that might otherwise attend exhibitions only at the Royal Academy, or who previously had not gone to exhibitions at all.