“The Remainder of Our Effects We Must Leave Behind”: American Loyalists and the Meaning of Things


IN MARCH 1776, Peter Oliver, former Chief Justice of the colony of Massachusetts, embarked upon an evening ride through the countryside south of Boston. His trip shares some similarities with the now epic journey made nearly a year earlier by Paul Revere. Like Revere, Oliver traversed an area rife with hostile troops and weaponry while the darkness of the early-falling March night helped to conceal his maneuverings. But if the patriotic need to extend a warning prompted Revere’s risky ride, what compelled Oliver to make a similarly dangerous trip? The answer: a silver sugar box made for the Oliver family in 1702 by renowned Boston silversmith Edward Winslow (fig. 1)1 Oliver, as a loyalist, was preparing to enter into exile and his trip that night recovered a number of pieces of his family’s substantial silver set, which he had left at his country home. The rescue of the silver kept objects like the sugar box out of enemy hands while simultaneously enabling Oliver to take a piece of convertible currency and his family’s history with him into exile.

At least sixty thousand loyalists, or as many as one in forty late-eighteenth-century Americans, fled from Great Britain’s thirteen rebellious colonies during the Revolutionary War.2 And all of these political refugees were forced to make choices like Oliver’s in regard to their possessions. Crammed onto tightly packed ships, most could take only as much as they could carry with them. Many attempted to protect abandoned possessions by leaving them in the care of family members who stayed behind, while others entered into long legal battles to retrieve lost items. Still others replaced lost possessions with newly-fashioned substitutes.3 This essay examines instances of each of these strategies—rescue, protection, and replacement—in order to elucidate the role of objects within the circumstances of spousal abandonment, personal loss, and familial fragmentation that the loyalists confronted. As Massachusetts loyalist Samuel Quincy wrote from his exile in London, where he was physically separated from his wife, children, and home, the situation had “something in it so unexpected, so unprecedented, so complicated with evil & misfortune” that it had become “almost too burthensome for my spirits, nor have I words that can reach its description.”4 Paint, silver, and mahogany provided a vehicle for processing the upheaval attendant upon loyalism that other means could not adequately capture, making objects the central rather than secondary source for understanding the loyalist experience.

Fig. 1. Edward Winslow, Sugar Box. Boston, 1702. Silver. Gift of Henry Francis du Pont. Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del.

This is not to suggest, however, that the objects at the center of this material history of the loyalist experience operated in a unique manner. Rather, loyalist possessions were entangled in circumstances, although incredibly intensified, common to eighteenth-century objects at large. Temporal and spatial dislocations shared by people and things drove inheritance patterns and the organization of transatlantic networks, social systems that in turn contributed to the structuring of eighteenth-century existences.5 Yet scholars have only recently begun to consider the transformative power of the object’s imbrication in these networks during the colonial period. Anthropologist Igor Kopytoff’s concept of the “cultural biography of things” has largely driven these new perspectives, which focus upon the pre-revolutionary object’s movement through space and time rather than its significance as a relatively static signifier of status, a view that previously dominated studies of eighteenth-century art and material culture.6 The loyalist experience of loss and exile only served to personalize and heighten the impact of these spatial and temporal dislocations, causing them to become more evident in both the form and meaning of their things. Throughout this essay, I label these objects as “loyalist” due to their provenance and entanglement in these heightened circumstances, but it is important to remember that they speak on a general level to spatial and temporal upheavals that were not limited to one political party, or the immediate period of the revolution. The paintings, pieces of silver, and mahogany furniture I consider in this essay serve as a lens through which to better view and understand eighteenth-century objects in general.

It also bears stating that although my work is indebted to the recent scholarly interest in movement mentioned above, it is not limited to an investigation of a possession’s literal mobility at the expense of explorations of transitions in ownership over time, or vice versa. Instead, it combines an examination of spatial and temporal movement in order to explain how loyalist objects worked as agents responsible for structuring personal relationships that could, in turn, persist across space and time. Theories that posit the object as a collector of meanings, such as Walter Benjamin’s conception of the obdurate object that conceals its multiple meanings beneath its opaque surface, are crucial to this endeavor.7 Gift theory, that articulated by Marcel Mauss in particular, also plays a central role. Like Benjamin, Mauss posited that objects are imbued with an inalienable spirit, a spirit that enmeshes the object within a never-ending cycle of giving and receiving.8 A self-perpetuating network is created as a result, pushing the gift/object and its accompanying accrual of meanings forward through time, signifying a sense of evolution that often, though not always, involved a spatial shift as well. What is at stake here is an understanding that the object’s potential to take on multiple and even conflicting meanings and simultaneously move and evolve casts it as an agent active within the loyalist experience.

As family lore has it, Peter Oliver, “travel-stained and weary” after riding rapidly over 40 miles “at the edge of evening,” entered his Middleborough home that aforementioned March night, “collected a few valuables from a secret drawer and, bidding farewell to his housekeeper, left, not to return again.”9 Yet the story of the sugar box, the only object amongst these “valuables” to be identified with some certainty, truly begins in 1702. Boston silversmith Edward Winslow raised, cast, and chased the box that year at the bequest of William Partridge, who gave it as a gift to Daniel Oliver and his niece-in-law Elizabeth Belcher Oliver on the occasion of the birth of a son. The box’s inscription reads as much; “O/D·E/Donum W:P 1702” is found on its underside, which is a glyph for “To Daniel and Elizabeth Oliver, Given by William Partridge, 1702.”10 Replete with iconography referring to “chivalry, courtly love, marriage, and fecundity,” the function as well as the impetus behind the box’s production mirrored these themes as the consumption of sugar often occurred as a part of courtship rituals. The birth of a child was such ritual’s most propitious consummation.11

Peter Oliver, the original owner’s third son, eventually inherited the box as well as the enmity of Massachusetts’ patriot colonists.12 Although the box commemorated the birth of Daniel Oliver Jr., he did not survive infancy, and as a result it was likely bequeathed to Andrew Oliver, the couple’s eldest son surviving at the time of their deaths. At some point, possibly at the time of Andrew’s death in 1774 when Peter became the family’s patriarch, the box entered the latter’s possession. Peter had acquired the reputation as a rather vehement “tory” as the box progressed along its path of inheritance to him and, as the brother of a former Lieutenant-Governor and himself the Chief Justice of the colony, his loyalty to the British and the animosity it caused hardly comes as a surprise.13 By the time of Oliver’s midnight ride then, the box carried a web of intricate family associations at a moment when its owner faced political exile and leaving the place, perhaps permanently, where these associations were fostered.

Silver, of course, stood as one of the objects fleeing loyalists favored; in addition to being highly portable, it could easily be converted to currency.14 Yet as Oliver’s mythic adventure alludes, something powerful lured him into the countryside that night. Whether it was the need to grab something that would be easy to carry, a preemptive move to insure the availability of quick cash, or the pull of the personal value and inalienable spirit intrinsic to an object passed down from generation to generation remains obscure, but his gesture further destabilizes the notion that eighteenth-century objects acted largely as signifiers of status.15 If that were their sole or even primary function, Oliver would not have risked his life riding through a landscape teeming with patriots to secure the sugar box and the accompanying pieces of silver; he would have simply replaced the lost objects, at least for status’s sake, as soon as financial circumstances allowed. Furthermore, that the sugar box somehow made it to Boston and eventually crossed the Atlantic, where it contributed to the establishment of a patrimony for the family in its new home in England, combined with the fact that it remained in the Oliver family’s possession until at least the late nineteenth century, suggests that it was the sugar box’s intimate family meaning that served as the primary motivation for its retrieval.16

For every object like the silver sugar box that loyalists “rescued” before venturing into exile, however, many more were left behind. Loyalist families often attempted to secure these abandoned items by entrusting them to relatives remaining in the colonies, and married women were the likely candidates for such a task for a number of reasons. Their role as the primary caregivers of young children, the latter of which were thought incapable of enduring long sea voyages, often led them to stay in the colonies, as did their own fears regarding the harrowing experience of transatlantic passages.17 Yet another factor contributed to the likelihood of their remaining at home—the ambivalent political position of women rendered them ideal protectors of loyalist property.

Eighteenth-century legal codes linked political agency with property ownership, and property ownership was bound with gender. A complicated triangulation resulted in which women forfeited the right to own property when they entered marriage and simultaneously lost their political agency as the latter depended on the former. The roots of this legal practice lay in English precedent, which defined politics and society in the North American colonies until after the Revolution. According to English law, property ownership was the condition that defined each citizen’s relationship to the state. Propertied upper-class men residing in England constituted the only group possessing a demonstrable relationship to the state as they could vote for political representation in Parliament. Property-less men in England and male colonists enacted an indirect relationship as they could negotiate contracts and, in the case of propertied male colonists, serve in crown-appointed and elected office. Single women owning property also possessed a similar relationship as they paid taxes on that property, although voting rights certainly did not extend to this group of taxpayers. But married women were completely removed from these forms of citizenship through the law of coverture. Originating in medieval English legal tradition in which the conception of “Baron and Feme” or “lord and woman” defined domestic relations, a woman, upon marriage, relinquished her limited civic identity to her spouse. Thus her interests were “covered” by those of her husband, who gained control of any property she brought to the marriage. The only right to property that remained to a married woman was dower, a one third share in her husband’s estate claimed after his death and only available to the widow during her lifetime.18 The temporary nature of property ownership under dower did not suffice for civic inclusion, and as property served as the means for entry into a relationship to the state, marriage severed that connection for many women and cast them as apolitical.19

It is important to note, however, that coverture and the resulting political alienation of women existed as an ideology, the way things were supposed to function in an ideal Atlantic world. As historian Marylynn Salmon described it, coverture was a “benchmark,” a “goal of the law” that was “hoped for but never realized.”20 Several colonies allowed for “separate estates,” or provisions in marriage contracts that enabled married women to own and control property separately from their husbands, while historiography has long established that women developed and actively advocated their own political opinions throughout the Revolutionary period.21 Although the aforementioned instances of property protection involved male relatives, other loyalists recognized the power of the legal ideology of coverture and used it to their advantage. The logic is easy to follow. Because married women could not legally own property as an individual, they were incapable of asserting political identities independent of those of their husbands.22 And because they could not legally assert a political identity, the lands and goods in their possession, particularly the one-third share of their husbands’ property guaranteed by the right of dower, could not be defined by the state as either patriot or loyalist in the absence of those husbands. Fleeing loyalists therefore hoped that the objects they entrusted to their wives who stayed behind would remain immune to the confiscation laws enacted by fledgling state legislatures in order to punish loyalist traitors and shore up the coffers of struggling revolutionary governments.23

Loyalist Harrison Gray relied upon this legal lacuna. As Gray shut up his home in Boston in preparation to embark with the British troops, he did so with the knowledge that his daughter, Elizabeth Gray Otis, would fill his place, taking up residence in the house and protecting the goods he had left behind.24 Although several sources deem Gray a “moderate” Tory, the Massachusetts government acted quickly against his property because Elizabeth, as Gray’s daughter rather than wife, exercised no legal right to its possession.25 On July 6, 1776, Elizabeth wrote her father that “the Committee has taken most of your Estate into their hands.” “[I] wish you had carried more of your Effects with you,” she continued, and “hope and pray you may be well provided for, to say the least I think Colo. Murray treated me very ungenteelly in carrying off so many of our things, but these are strange times.”26 The items Elizabeth watched the specially-appointed committee remove from the house were never returned to either her or her father. The only restitution Gray received from the state of Massachusetts resulted from intricate legal maneuvering regarding outstanding debts owed to him when he entered exile.27

Some instances of loss were expected during the eighteenth century. The influx of many finished goods into the colonies depended on the capricious nature of transatlantic shipping. Loss, damage, and delayed arrivals seemed unavoidable, and the expectations of those buying or receiving the goods were adjusted accordingly.28 The nature of life in the eighteenth century—particularly in cities where crowded streets and public spaces invited pickpockets and where frequent vaults into and out of carriages loosened items secured to bodies (jewelry, watches, ribbons) and concealed in pockets (snuffboxes, pocketbooks, notes)—also gave rise to circumstances in which theft and loss became relatively commonplace. This was the era when the publishing of advertisements for lost items began to gain real strength, especially for the lost-person possession, the runaway slave. London even had its own broker of lost and stolen things during the first quarter of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Wild, who brought together thieves and victims to negotiate prices for the return of goods obtained through nefarious means.29 These occurrences of loss disrupted the owner, who invested and recognized themselves in the object, creating, as literary scholar Jonathan Lamb has termed it, a “desire of owners to be reacquainted with a material portion of their selves.”30 For the loyalists, who lost almost all of their possessions rather than an earring here and a pocketbook there, the circumstances were enormously more unnerving. Not only had they lost parts of themselves, they had lost the parts of their history and their family members—both dead and living—that had also become invested in the objects they were forced to leave behind.

When protective strategies worked, then, the “rescued” objects became even more significant in the lives of their owners. A monumental desk-and-bookcase, commissioned in 1749 from a highly-accomplished Boston cabinetmaking shop for the Deblois family, provides an example (fig. 2). Like the Oliver sugar box that carried heightened significance as a family heirloom well into the nineteenth century after its midnight recovery a hundred years earlier, the desk-and-bookcase became a venerated object. Unlike the sugar box, however, and in direct contrast to Gray’s experience, a married woman’s agency combined with her peripheral yet extremely useful legal position preserved the piece. Gilbert Deblois fled Boston in March 1776 while his wife, Ann Coffin Deblois, remained behind with the couple’s youngest children. It was not until nearly three years after Gilbert’s departure that Massachusetts acted against the family. “Gilbert Deblois, merchant” appeared prominently on a list of proscribed and banished persons passed by the legislature in the fall of 1778 and the state confiscated his estate shortly thereafter.31 Ann, however, as a wife or widow who had “remained within the jurisdiction” and “actual authority” of the United States, continued to exercise her dower rights as long as she resided therein.32 As a result, Ann’s presence in Massachusetts meant that the Debloises avoided the fate of many other loyalist families—the complete loss of their possessions and property. Yet while Ann’s mere presence limited the impact of confiscation, her agency as a legal advocate for the family enabled her to reacquire the two-thirds share of the house and land that the government did eventually seize; she repurchased it from the state after the war.33

Fig. 2. Desk-and-Bookcase, attributed to John Welch (carver). Boston, ca. 1756. Mahogany. Private collection. Courtesy, Sotheby’s New York.

One of the many objects Ann secured from confiscation and loss was the aforementioned mahogany desk-and-bookcase.34 Standing more than seven-and-a-half feet tall, and spanning a width greater than three feet, the piece, although separable where the desk and bookcase meet, hardly fulfills eighteenth-century standards of easy mobility or storage. It follows that had the entire Deblois family fled, the desk-and-bookcase would have been amongst the “effects” they were forced to leave behind in Boston, where it would have been either stolen or confiscated and sold. Ann’s advocacy in terms of protecting and repurchasing the confiscated portion of the estate is manifest materially in the desk and bookcase itself. It does not carry the plethora of physical bruises associated with constant shifts in ownership—the dents, the dings, the replaced panels, large swaths of missing ornamentation, or incomplete provenance typical of a piece that, although very large and cumbersome, would have changed hands repeatedly had it been left behind.35 Here, what is absent is as significant as what is present. Ann’s labor and its successful outcome—preservation—are invisible; they are only manifest in the absence of change. Furthermore, Ann’s fight to hold onto the desk-and-bookcase inspired subsequent generations of the family to follow her lead. Like the Oliver sugar box that carried heightened significance as a family heirloom well into the nineteenth century after its midnight recovery a hundred years earlier, the desk-and-bookcase became a venerated object that stood proudly in a series of family homes and figured actively in the family’s lore as a result. Maintaining the desk-and-bookcase’s unaltered condition over time required still more invisible work, and as a Deblois descendent advised his son in 1951 in a statement that conjured Ann’s much earlier efforts, “hold tight to it [the desk-and-bookcase] through thick and thin!”36

Although any object—a silver sugar box, a mahogany desk-and-bookcase, or even a letter—could be implicated within these personal relationships strained by the realities of war, portraiture was a uniquely doubly-valent medium. As an object similar to the sugar box, it could carry multiple meanings and serve as a connector between family members separated by time, space, and death. Yet due to its representational program, it could simultaneously manifest those same meanings and connections visually. Portraiture’s special status as both an object among other loyalist objects and a representation capable of crafting visual solutions leads to the focus of the remainder of this essay—the loyalist portrait.

In January 1777 Roger Morris, living in political exile in London, wrote his wife, Mary, who had remained in New York, that “tho you cannot conceive how much I think of you, you easily will how much I miss you . . . your constant proofs of tender love & Esteem, so daily occur to my mind, that in my present Situation I am totally unhinged.”37 The letter, which so poignantly described the anxiety the couple’s two-year separation had caused, was just one of a series that crisscrossed the Atlantic, maintaining the couple’s bond despite their physical absence from one another. The letters themselves can be considered moving objects that connected the couple despite the ocean that lay between them; Roger worried ceaselessly about them becoming lost or waylaid, numbering the letters so Mary would recognize their place in the seriated dialogue.38 Other objects also performed such work—including the gowns and shoes the couple trafficked back and forth—but none as powerfully as portraits. Roger wrote to Mary earlier in their separation, admitting that “There is one particular, I own, I wish much to see, & that is your miniature Picture.” “You know my dear,” he continued, “it had been for some time past, in one of your Band Boxes.” Given its neglected state, he mentioned that “[I] should be extremely happy to have it sent,” but only if a “very very safe Conveyance” was available as “[I] would by no means run the risk of losing it.”39 Roger continued to ask Mary for the miniature until he wrote that he had received “a little Box” the contents of which he had “placed where I always wished it to be, & where I purpose to continue it.”40 For Roger, this likely meant on his person, as most eighteenth-century men carried portrait miniatures in their pockets.41

The importance of the miniature, which is no longer extant, lay in its ability to connect Roger to Mary. As mentioned previously, although any object could create connections between displaced family members, portraits, especially miniature ones that embarked on transatlantic voyages relatively easily, added the significant dimension of presence.42 Miniatures, which were designed to be held and worn, enabled the viewer to come into intimate contact with their absent loved one’s representation through touch.43 Furthermore, the hair of the sitter (or person being commemorated in the case of mourning miniatures) was often woven into elaborate motifs and enframed on the backs of miniatures during the late eighteenth century, making a physical aspect of that body present within the object and subsequently, the space of those who held or wore it.44 While the larger size of wall portraits prohibited such a bodily interaction, they were said to enter into “conversations” in which the figure in the portrait “spoke” to the viewer from which they were physically estranged.45 Yet as the above examples indicate, these intimate interactions depended upon absence—one did not need to hold a miniature or speak with a portrait if the person portrayed was present. This points to the dialectical nature of portraiture as a genre; while it enacts presence through representation, it simultaneously enforces the absence of the portrayed because it is a representation, or a painted substitute for the real. As art historian Hans Belting has relayed, portraiture encompasses “the ancient antithesis between representing and being present, between holding the place of someone and being that someone.”46 It follows that portraiture looks forward beyond the moment of its production, when the subject of the portrait was presumably present, to the future when separation or death subsequently created an absence the representation must fill.47 This complicated oscillation between the intimate and reassuring aspect of a limned likeness’s ability to substitute for an absent loved one and its concurrent re-enforcement of that absence led to the ambivalent role the genre played within the experience of a displaced loyalist in possession of a portrait. Not only did it provide comfort, the portrait constantly re-invoked the separation that needed to be bridged as well.

Yet the oscillating effect of presence and absence inherent to portraiture also had other implications. Because portraits carried a likeness and, as a consequence, acted as substitutions in situations where families were separated by space or death, they were objects with a uniquely referential relationship to a family and its members and required special protection as a result. It comes as little surprise then that Roger Morris, similar to his prodding regarding the miniature, urged Mary on several occasions to take “particular” care of “Copley’s Performance.”48 The three-quarter length portrait in question, produced by the artist during his 1771 stint in New York City, had been placed in Mary’s care with Roger’s departure. She obviously heeded his request as it remained in the family’s possession throughout the war, which required a concentrated effort on Mary’s part as constant troop movements in and around Manhattan forced her to shuttle back and forth between four residences (fig. 3)49 And this impulse was not exclusive to the Morris family; many other loyalists displayed a similar mindset in their devotion to the portraits of their family members.50

Fig. 3. John Singleton Copley. Mrs. Roger Morris (Mary Philipse). 1771. Oil on canvas. Courtesy, Winterthur Museum.

While the likenesses present in portraiture made these objects particularly important within the loyalist experience, images produced in the war’s wake had a unique opportunity to act as a bridge between family members driven apart by divergent political views, flight to far-flung locations, and even death. Not only could their materiality challenge these occurrences, which was enhanced by the effect of presence likeness offered, their representational program could create narratives that simultaneously acknowledged and contested these realities. John Singleton Copley’s large-scale group portrait Colonel William Fitch and His Sisters Sarah and Ann Fitch, painted between 1800 and 1801, serves as a case in point (fig. 4). The largest of Copley’s surviving group portraits, its vast size contributes to the overall sense of drama it presents.51 Three figures—from left to right, Sarah, Ann, and William Fitch—stand amidst a rural landscape complete with autumnal foliage, a stream that flows quickly to the front of the image (indicated by its frothy white capped waters), and mountains in the distance that demarcate the painting’s low horizon line. Swirling clouds fill a sky tinged with the pinks and golds associated with either a rising or setting sun, while Sarah’s floating veil and the animated locks of the horse’s mane and tail emphasize that the winds that whisk the clouds in the background also whistle through the foreground space occupied by the siblings and William’s horse. The contrapposto stance of both William and his mount accentuates this sense of movement. Not only are winds flowing through the canvas from background to foreground, sky to earth, William is caught mid-turn as he begins to twist from his sisters to mount his horse and proceed across the stream and into the space of the canvas.

Fig. 4. John Singleton Copley. Colonel William Fitch and His Sisters Sarah and Ann Fitch. 1800/1801. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art. Gift of Eleanor Lothrop, Gordon Abbott, and Katharine A. Batchelder. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A network of outstretched arms attempts to make connections between the three figures situated in this swirling landscape. Sarah—who is in the midst of moving forward as her skirt and veil trail behind her—reaches her right arm toward the left arm of her brother, which grasps an overturned hat and a walking stick. Ann, too, reaches toward her brother, resting her pale left hand on the brilliant scarlet coat of his military uniform. Establishing a connection with William’s twisting figure drives the women’s actions, who direct their glances as well as their arms toward their brother. In a reciprocal action, William’s left hand disappears behind the hat he holds, merging into the blackness of Ann’s skirt and connecting his body to hers. In fact, if one divides the canvas in half, the two figures on each side—Ann and Sarah at the left, and William and his horse at the right—also seem to merge. The arms of the two women intertwine, Sarah’s left forearm and Ann’s right uniting to form one side of an elegant X-shape, which is crossed by the more full extension of Sarah’s other limb, connecting the bodies of the women in this intersection of arms. Furthermore, the manner in which the women stand—Sarah turned in three-quarter view against Ann’s frontally positioned body—folds the bodies of the two women into each other. Two outstretched arms encompass one unified body rather than two separate entities.

This same sense of merger characterizes the figure of William with that of his horse. William’s body presses against the horse’s shoulder in an effort to still the stirring animal, exemplified by his taut left arm, which extends over the saddle as a steadying force. In fact, the Colonel’s body aligns with the body of the horse, his head in mirrored profile with that of the equine, and perfectly placed within the confines of its neck and mane. This coalescing of man and animal continues as the eye moves down the curve of the horse’s snout and neck and through William’s head and torso as the man’s legs double for those of his horse. Like the sisters on the opposite side of the canvas, two bodies connect and converge.

This theme of connection amidst a moving and shifting landscape visually manifests the Fitch family’s intentions. According to family tradition, the Fitches commissioned Copley to paint the portrait as a gift for their maternal uncle, Dr. James A. Lloyd, a prominent surgeon in Boston, Massachusetts.52 Although the Fitch siblings had resided in England for many years by the time Copley executed their portraits, they had spent their adolescence in Boston. Their father, Samuel Fitch, served as Advocate General for the colony of Massachusetts Bay and, because of his support of the British government as Revolutionary fervor spread, fled Boston with his family when the British evacuated the city in March 1776. As Fitch made clear in a claim he submitted to the British government in an attempt to garner compensation for his losses, his loyalty to the crown meant that he had been “compelled” to leave his home in Boston; he did not do so “voluntarily.”53 The political allegiance of James Lloyd, Elizabeth Lloyd Fitch’s brother, was hardly as ardent or as unwavering and such equivocal politics caused tension when confronted by Fitch’s absolute loyalist stance. When Samuel Fitch left Boston with his wife and 20-year-old William, 17-year-old Ann, and Sarah, the youngest at thirteen, in tow, their departure cemented a cleavage with family members that had been brewing for several years.

By the time Copley painted the portrait of the Fitch siblings, however, that breach had begun to heal, and the image itself served as an active agent in that process. The Fitches commissioned the image with the explicit intent that it traverse the Atlantic as a gift to an estranged uncle in hope of repairing family ties strained by the war. The connections Copley so painstakingly emphasized in terms of the iconography of the portrait’s merging bodies transformed the painting’s purpose—the reconnection of the Fitch and Lloyd families—into a visual motif. Furthermore, the portrait also carries the sense of movement—brisk winds, shifting figures, quickly moving waterways—that it would encounter as an object being shipped from London to Boston. The goal of the image as object became encoded in its visual structure.

It remains important to note that it was the Fitch children that carried out this project of reunification with the Boston branch of their family. Samuel and Elizabeth Fitch had died a few years prior to the portrait’s painting, and Sarah, dressed in what could be read as a bridal costume in the early nineteenth century, was set to marry a fellow loyalist expatriate, Leonard Vassall.54 Although white bridal wear had yet to become ubiquitous, many brides during this period did choose to don the color for the occasion and, given the concurrent timing of the portrait’s production and Sarah’s impending nuptials, reading her ensemble as a reference to her upcoming marriage seems appropriate.55 It follows that the portrait’s commissioning occurred at an important moment of transition for the Fitch siblings; they now served as heads of the Fitch family line, and Sarah’s forthcoming marriage marked the moment at which that line gained the potential to continue.56 The portrait thus marked their successful attainment of majority, and all that meant for the perpetuation of the family into the future, as well as their effort to reconnect with family members divorced from them by the circumstances of the war.

While Sarah’s white dress and bridal veil allude to the family’s future line, Ann’s black dress functions as a reminder of her parents’ recent death, and serves as a portent of things to come.57 The sense of movement that characterizes the portrait foreshadows the transatlantic trip the image was created to take, but it also serves another purpose. Like Ann’s black dress that stands in such sharp contrast to the white of her sister’s costume and the scarlet of her brother’s coat, it too lends an air of unsettledness to the painting.58 Overall, while connection constitutes a major theme of the painting, its opposing force—disconnection—also bubbles to the surface. The circle formed by the siblings’ arms never truly closes and completes itself. While William’s hand disappears behind his overturned hat and merges into the folds of Ann’s skirt, it fails to meet with Sarah’s pale and beseeching fingers. The glances of Ann, Sarah, and William also betray a broken connection. Ann and Sarah direct all their bodily and visual attention in William’s direction while he fails to meet their glances, gazing off into the distance at the left of the painting. Furthermore, none of the figures look in the viewer’s direction. All of the looking in the portrait—between the figures themselves and the figures and the viewer—is unacknowledged.

The Fitches, however, are separated by more than unreturned glances and diverted gestures. While they all stand upon an outcropping or “terrace” above the stream that flows rapidly into the foreground, the waterfall that marks its beginning constitutes the middle of a triangular region of space that separates William from Sarah and Ann.59 William’s arm and his hat perched atop his walking stick outline a zone through which the arms of the women cannot penetrate, and the water rushes forward, almost pushing the figures further apart. Copley employed the theme of water as an agent and metaphor of spatial separation in another group portrait of a loyalist family—that of his own painted in 1776–77 (fig. 5). The story of the Copley family’s imbrication in loyalism, however, begins more than ten years earlier. Copley, as a Boston resident in 1765 when the enforcement of the Stamp Act first incited protest, saw much of the initial revolutionary activity first hand. His marriage to Susanna Clarke, the daughter of the city’s leading importer, in 1769 implicated him even further. Richard Clarke’s mercantile firm served as the consignee for the English tea that found its way to the bottom of Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. Protests had taken place in front of Clarke’s home the previous November, and Copley attempted to mediate during the conflict, delivering a letter from the consignees to the angry Bostonians that same month.60 Yet Copley’s mediation ultimately failed; rather than being viewed as a neutral party, Boston radicals, who were quickly becoming known as patriots, linked him with supporters of British colonial policy like his father-in-law. Copley’s choice to sail for England in June 1774 in order to complete his artistic education and later forge a career there rather than the colonies confirmed to many that the artist had loyalist leanings, although he maintained his neutrality throughout the Revolution and its aftermath.61

Fig. 5. John Singleton Copley. The Copley Family. 1776–1777. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art. Andrew Mellon Fund. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Copley’s embarkation on a Grand Tour while his family faced the trepidations associated with being labeled as loyalists caused a great deal of anxiety and unsettledness. The family was separated for a year and a half before Susanna and the children sailed for London, and The Copley Family was painted to commemorate their reunion.62 In the image, Copley stands slightly outside the group composed of his young family and father-in-law; a stream of rushing water very similar to that in the Fitch portrait sets him apart spatially from his wife and three of their four children. The image’s emphasis on the seemingly contradictory aspects of inclusion and exclusion, mediated by a body of water, indicates the hesitancy of a family attempting to reconstitute itself after a harsh and uncertain separation. Of course, the water can be read as part of the natural landscape so often found in the background of individual and group portraits produced in the eighteenth century. In the case of both the Fitch and Copley images however, it also alludes to each family’s dispersal across the Atlantic ocean, a spatial diffusion linked to loyalist politics and, in Copley’s case, the practice of art. Furthermore, in relation to the Fitch portrait, the river, which the sisters and brother are united against in terms of standing upon the same bank, yet simultaneously separated by, also carries another metaphorical meaning. In Greek mythology, the River Styx acted as the symbol for the passage of death, the journey one took between Earth and the underworld.63 Copley’s engagement with mythology and his application of it in his paintings has been well demonstrated in terms of his 1775 portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard, yet another image heavily implicated within the experience of loyalism (fig. 6)64 Interestingly, Copley situated the krater, another allusion to classical culture, at the left of the image of the Fitch siblings in a manner nearly identical to that in the portrait of the Izards, linking these two paintings visually as well as in their interest in mythological subject matter and, similar to The Copley Family, their shared loyalist context.65

Fig. 6. John Singleton Copley. Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard (Alice Delancey). 1775. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass. Edward Ingersoll Brown Fund.

The biographical facts of William’s life cast the Fitch portrait’s allusion to disconnection in a different light. Although William appears very much alive in the portrait, he had died nearly six years before Copley painted it. In fact, the portrait presents a moment in 1795 when the sisters bid farewell to William who, as an officer in the British army, was embarking on military duty to Jamaica. William received a mortal wound while engaged in combat there; as art historian Ellen Miles described the painting, it depicted a “literal and figurative farewell.”66 The painting’s dialectical sense of connection and simultaneous disconnection emphasizes the ambiguity of the pregnant moment portrayed.

Contemporary reviewers of the portrait, which Copley submitted to the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy of the Arts before it departed London as a gift for Dr. Lloyd, reacted in tepid tones to the work. One bemoaned the “preponderance of portraits” at the exhibition in general, while another commented that the image was “well conceived,” but the figures were “still and ill drawn” and the “wooden horse” was abominable.”67 Some of this negativity stemmed from the fact that several of the reviewers knew of William’s fate and believed the Fitch portrait simply attempted to accomplish too much on one canvas; it was, after all, a “military image, a family group, and a memorial portrait” all at once.68 The painting’s equivocation in terms of the genres and narrative moments it set out to portray caused one reviewer to extend his analysis further in an attempt to elucidate the ambiguity at its core. “The fate of the Colonel,” he stated, “attaches to this piece a degree of interest which it would otherwise have failed to produce.” While the reviewer praised the figures as “well drawn,” and the coloring as “natural and chaste,” he found that the sisters’ “countenances indicate too much a presentiment of their brother’s fate, which at the time they cannot be supposed to have foreseen.”69 The two temporalities in the canvas—the moment of William’s departure, and the hint of his impending death—disturbed the critic and ultimately caused him to review the portrait negatively. The image contained too much to be recognized as real—it referenced shifts in time that simply could not exist.

These seemingly impossible shifts in time, however, were integral to Copley’s and the Fitch sisters’ conception of the work. The portrait sought to memorialize and connect a dead brother with his sisters despite depicting a moment before that death occurred, and also served as a gift to an estranged family member in Boston meant to strengthen weakened ties of affection. Without these shifts in time—a reversal to a moment before William’s death and a simultaneously advancement to that death through iconographic and narrative elements—the implied connection of the siblings across death would have remained incomplete. And without this connection of the siblings, however fraught it might have been, the portrait would have had difficulty serving as a bridge between family members divided by political views and physical space. After all, if the painting could connect a living yet simultaneous dead brother with his sisters, it certainly could repair family bonds strained by the distance created by the war and the Atlantic.

When families such as the Fitches became politically and spatially divided by the Revolution, and the death of family members permanently altered their composition, paint became the means for reunification and resurrection. The portrait Copley painted for Sarah and Ann Fitch resurrects William’s body through the production of a posthumous portrait and also attempts to resuscitate the dying Fitch family by acting as a gift and connection between its divided branches. The concerns of Copley’s wife regarding the painting’s transatlantic journey affirm that those connected to the object recognized its capacity to perform such work. In an undated letter to her daughter, Elizabeth Copley Greene, who resided in Boston, Susanna Clarke Copley mentioned that “Miss Fitch has sent her picture to Mr. Lloyd. It went from this in very good order.” She went on to instruct Elizabeth that “should it, by being shut up, or by the dampness of the sea, contract a fog, it will only be necessary to have it well rubbed with a warm, soft handkerchief, which will restore the varnish. I mention this, as perhaps they [the Lloyds] may be at a loss, and apply to you for information.”70 As Susanna described it, the portrait might corrode, or “contract a fog” when it crossed the ocean. That “fog” could be reversed, but her conception of the potential dangers of its journey alludes to the almost preternatural power of distance and space to harm both loyalist paintings and families. These damaged families had to be repaired and reborn—resurrected in paint—and the Fitch portrait combines allusions to the family’s figurative death and its rebirth. Because the painting’s iconography and narrative could capture both union and dissolution and the painting as an object could physically shift and move, it could enact these connections and resurrections that mere bodies could not achieve.

Portraits, with their ability to simultaneously function as objects and representations, acted with particular potency in the loyalist experience. Whether through the ambivalent intimacy created by likeness or a temporally ambiguous narrative that presaged a brother’s death while facilitating his rebirth, the portraits of the Morris and Fitch families actively mediated and structured their experience of loyalism. While portraits are unique in their ability to both create and represent familial connections, reading other, less representational objects such as Peter Oliver’s silver sugar box, the lost possessions of the Grays, and the monumental Deblois desk-and-bookcase with this agency in mind helps to reveal similar activities that often become obscured beneath the patina of mahogany or the shine of silver. And, as discussed previously, these readings of loyalist objects can be extended beyond the scope of particular political parties or the immediate years of the Revolution. The ability of the loyalist object—whether it be a portrait or a piece of silver—to engender persistent yet flexible family relationships across space and over time is an ability inherent to almost any object enmeshed in a close and reciprocal relationship with a subject. The loyalists, then, in this period of heightened relation to their objects, help us understand the multiple and shifting meanings embedded in eighteenth-century things.