Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Death of a Hero - The Story Behind a Painting

by Mark Patton.

Victor Hugo once described the British Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm as "little pieces of France, dropped in the sea and picked up by England." They are certainly closer to France than they are to England, although today they are mainly English-speaking. The coast of Normandy is clearly visible from the north and east coasts of Jersey, and from the eastern coast of Alderney.

In fact, the islands were not dropped by France, but retained by England when, in 1204, King John lost his other possessions in Normandy to the French King Philippe-Auguste. Ever since, the islanders have found themselves on the front line whenever England (or, later, Britain) was at war with France.

In a current exhibition on British history-painting at Tate Britain in London, the centre-piece is a painting by the American artist, John Singleton Copley, of "The Death of Major Peirson." The painting is owned by the Tate, but is, ordinarily, on display in Jersey as part of a loan agreement. From 9th June to 13th September, however, those of us who live in, or have the opportunity to visit, London have the opportunity of viewing it.

"The Death of Major Peirson," 
by John Singleton Copley. Image: Tate Britain

The events depicted took place in January 1781. On the night of 6th January, a French force led by a mercenary adventurer who styled himself "Baron de Rullecourt" (his name was Philippe Macquart, and his noble title self-adopted) landed on the south-east coast of Jersey, under cover of darkness. He had with him around two thousand troops, but his choice of landing ground was disastrous, and he had lost almost half his force by the time he came ashore.

The coast of La Rocque, Jersey, where De Rullecourt landed his force.
A labyrinth of jagged rocks is to be found beneath the shallow waters,
making it the graveyard of many ships.
Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

Philippe Macquart, "Baron de Rullecourt"

He had luck on his side, however (or perhaps this really was military judgement), in that the night in question was Twelfth Night, the last evening of the Christmas festivities, and most of the British garrison were celebrating, presumably consuming large quantities of the cider for which the island was then renowned. With his remaining troops, he reached the town of Saint Helier and surprised the island's Lieutenant-Governor, Moses Corbet, in bed, placing him under arrest and forcing the "surrender" of the garrison.

Knowing that Corbet's "surrender" had been made at the point of a gun, neither the British garrison, dispersed between several barracks around the island, nor the local Militia, had any inclination to comply with it. Command was assumed by the senior officer of the regular garrison, 24 year old Major Francis Peirson. He mustered his force on a hill overlooking Saint Helier (he had available around 6000 regular troops and 3000 militia, but it is not known how many of these were actually deployed) and advanced into the town.

Major Francis Peirson
thought to be by Jean Sullivan

The actual fighting lasted for less than fifteen minutes, the French force being decisively outnumbered, but both Peirson and De Rullecourt were killed in action. Copley's painting, commissioned by a London Alderman, John Boydell, shows Peirson falling at the centre of the market-place (now the Royal Square), but it is not thought that he ever reached this position: he was taken out by a sniper in the opening moments of the battle.

The painting also shows a black man (supposedly Peirson's servant, Pompey, although it is unclear that any such man existed) taking aim at the sniper. The uniform worn by this man appears to be that of Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment (which had nothing to do with Ethiopia, but rather was raised from escaped slaves in the American Colonies): soldiers of this regiment never served outside the American colonies.

Detail of Copley's painting,
showing "Pompey" taking aim

Peirson was buried in the crypt of the Town Church nearby, and De Rullecourt in the adjacent church-yard. The context for the invasion, backed by the French King, Louis XVI, was a desire to end the activities of Channel Island privateers, which were harrying French and American shipping on both sides of the Atlantic. With its defeat, these activities were free to continue.

It is unclear whether Copley, who lived and worked in London at the time, actually visited the island, or worked from commercially available prints, but most of the topographical and architectural details are correct, even if aspects of the battle are not.

Saint Helier's Royal Square in the early 19th Century
Visible are the statue of George II and the court-house
behind it, both of which can be seen on
Copley's painting, as well as the church where
Peirson and De Rullecourt lie buried.

Copley's painting went on public display in London in 1784, with an admission charge of one shilling, and attracted lengthy queues. For a brief season, the name of Peirson was celebrated as that of Nelson would later be (it still is on the island, where Copley's painting has featured on bank-notes and stamps).

Poster advertising the public exhibition
of Copley's painting in London.
Photo: Man Vyi (Public Domain).


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

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