Jennifer L. Roberts, “Failure to Deliver: Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party,” Art History 34.4 (2011): 674-95.
Abstractd by Tanner Stump
In Roberts’ article, the paintings of John Singleton Copley during pre-revolutionary war times between the 1760s and 1770s reflect the transatlantic between America and Britain. The writer claims that Copley’s tabletop paintings (1760s – early 1770s) reflect the smooth trade and pronounced connection between the two areas, while the painting Watson and the Shark (1778) represents the “catastrophe in Anglo-American material relations” through the puissant acts of the Boston Tea Party (676). Roberts’ explains that the British reacted more favorably to Copley’s paintings that had less attention grabbing aspects in the lower half of the painting, and he made a habit of conforming to this notion throughout the series of paintings proving the influence British culture had in America. The writer also notes that Copley’s tabletops have such a smooth surface that they reflect the objects resting on them. This symbolizes the fluid relationship between Britain’s colonies and Britain itself. Roberts argues that Copley broke the theme when with Watson and the Shark which contained an elaborate lower half that represented the schism between America and Britain that came with the Tea Party. Furthermore, the writer draws parallels between Copley’s literal connections in Boston through family that pulled him into the conflict and ultimately forced him to flee after the Tea Party. Roberts argues that these connections made Copley desire to create a memorial painting for this conflict that accurately depicts the events, but he concluded that the intensity and passion of the issue would cause the painting to be “inevitably ‘misconstrued’” (687). For this reason, the writer claims that Copley drew from the commission of Brook Watson, who owned the tea in the Tea Party, to construct a painting of a non-fatal shark attack Watson personally experienced in Havana in order to indirectly depict the Boston Tea Party through the two events’ parallels concerning location, characters and destructive actions. Roberts claims that the thematic path of Copley’s paintings during this time period illustrated the ephemeral transatlantic relations between America and Britain while concluding that the sea was “an unbridgeable space” that these relations could not surmount (694).