Purchase Story

Lost and Found: Copley Portraits Reunited

If a longtime trustee had not asked Tom Denenberg, director of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, to take a look at a Modernist painting illustrated in Sotheby’s online catalog for a December 11, 2020, American art sale, he might not have known that John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Mrs. John Scollay (Mercy Greenleaf Scollay), signed and dated “J.S.Copley.Pinx.1763,” was for sale.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Mrs. John Scollay (Mercy Greenleaf), 1763, oil on canvas, 35¼

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Mrs. John Scollay (Mercy Greenleaf), 1763, oil on canvas, 35¼" x 28". Collection of Shelburne Museum, purchased with funds from Judith and James Pizzagalli, Marna and Charles Davis, Christine and Robert Stiller, and Heidi Drymer and Peter Graham. Image courtesy Shelburne Museum.

When Denenberg saw lot 23, he was surprised to find an 18th-century Copley portrait in a sale of mostly Modernist works. He knew at once it was the pendant to Copley’s portrait of John Scollay, which hangs at the front of Shelburne’s Webb Gallery of American paintings, and he was delighted to find it in its original frame, possibly carved by John Welsh in Boston.

He was surprised to read in the catalog notes “Mr. Scollay, a chairman of the Boston Selectman and member of the Sons of Liberty, commissioned this portrait of his wife as a pendant to another portrait of his own likeness (presently unlocated).”

If the cataloger had looked in Jules David Prown’s 1966 John Singleton Copley: In America, 1738-1774 or searched online for “John Scollay by John Singleton Copley,” he or she would have learned the portrait was exhibited at Old South Church in Boston in November 1876 in an exhibition of Revolutionary relics and is now at the Shelburne Museum.

Electra Havemeyer Webb with the portrait of John Scollay by John Singleton Copley, 1960, gelatin silver print, 5

Electra Havemeyer Webb with the portrait of John Scollay by John Singleton Copley, 1960, gelatin silver print, 5" x 4". Webb bought the painting at the Old Print Shop in 1959. Collection of Shelburne Museum Archives. Image courtesy Shelburne Museum.

Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of the Shelburne Museum, bought the Copley painting of John Scollay (1711-1790) in its original frame from Harry Newman at the Old Print Shop in New York City in 1959. Proud of her purchase, Webb had her picture taken with her new acquisition.

John and Mercy Greenleaf Scollay were prominent figures in 17th-century Boston. A Boston merchant—Prown calls him a shopkeeper—John Scollay was a member of the Sons of Liberty along with John Hancock and Samuel Adams and was elected one of seven selectmen (the local government board), serving as chairman from 1772 until his death in 1790. He was also Boston’s fire marshal for 35 years and a Mason in the same lodge as Paul Revere. He was president of the Scots Charitable Society, founded in Boston in 1657. The first Boston Scollays emigrated from Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

John and Mercy Scollay had ten children, eight of them boys. Their youngest son, William, followed in his father’s footsteps and took his civic responsibility seriously. Listed in Boston directories as an apothecary and druggist, he was active in real estate with the architect Charles Bulfinch. His Scollay building at Court and Tremont Streets gave the name to the later infamous Scollay Square in Boston, now the site of Boston’s Government Center.

Their daughter Mercy (1741-1826) was engaged to widower and patriot Dr. Joseph Warren. When he was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill, she was taking care of his four children, ages two to ten, and they evacuated from Boston to Worcester. Mercy continued to look after the children for a few years until Warren’s youngest brother, Dr. John Warren, married and adopted them, and she raised money for their support from Benedict Arnold. Her portrait, painted by Copley in 1763 when she was 21, is owned by the Terra Foundation in Chicago. Mercy never married and died age 84 in 1826.

The Scollays’ daughter Priscilla married Major Thomas Melville who, dressed as a Mohawk, took part in the Boston Tea Party. (Tea leaves found in his shoes were preserved in a bottle as a family heirloom.) Their son Allan was the father of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, making John and Mercy Scollay Herman Melville’s great-grandparents.

A related pastel of Mrs. Scollay, signed and dated by the artist in 1764, 16" x 17", has been in the collection of Harvard Art Museums since 1943. A pastel of Mr. Scollay is in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Both are illustrated online. Both pastels were done a year after the oil paintings.

Denenberg said in a phone interview that his first encounter with the portrait of Mercy Greenleaf Scollay in Sotheby’s catalog was just three days before the sale. “I contacted the accessions committee and proposed buying it, and they said, ‘Go for it,’” Denenberg recounted. It was estimated at $150,000/250,000. Denenberg, bidding by phone, won the lot for $126,000. Denenberg said four donors replenished the acquisitions fund after the sale.

Ten other portraits by Copley have sold for more in the last two decades, some for a lot more. A three-quarter-length portrait of the elegant Mrs. Theodore Atkinson Jr., in a satin dress and pearls with her pet squirrel, painted in 1765 when she was 19, brought a Copley auction record of $3,376,000 on November 30, 2005, when it was consigned to Sotheby’s by the New York Public Library; it was bought by Alice Walton for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

In a webinar on February 27 to present the acquisition of Mercy Scollay’s portrait to museum members, Denenberg said that Mercy Greenleaf Scollay (1719-1793) was 44 years old, middle-aged for that time, when she sat for Copley in 1763, wrapped in satin and lace that Copley kept in his studio. Her portrait is more painterly than that of her portly husband, a flatter rendering of the Boston shopkeeper in his plain brown suit and powdered wig, the white powder evident on his collar. His portrait appealed to Electra Havemeyer Webb, who collected vernacular portraits by itinerant limners along with a broad range of 19th- and 20th-century portraits.

Denenberg pointed out in his webinar that Copley painted John Hancock in 1765, Paul Revere in 1768, and Samuel Adams in 1772. In 1774 he left for London, and his family followed in 1775. In London Copley painted large history paintings he could not find a market for in Boston, and he continued to paint portraits, some of visiting Americans. He never returned to America. Was America’s finest 18th-century portrait painter a Tory like his wealthy father-in-law, Richard Clarke, consignor of the tea thrown overboard at the Boston Tea Party? Denenberg said he remembers the words of his history professor: “A third of Bostonians were patriots, a third were Tories, and a third did not care.”

Curiously, patriots John and Mercy are not painted facing each other. Most early Copley pairs of portraits do not face each other, as pendant pairs do in later portraiture. Perhaps John and Mercy Scollay hung on either side of a doorway or were separated by a fireplace.

What matters is that after living apart for at least 61 years, the portraits are reunited in Vermont and have a good story to tell. Tom Denenberg’s enlightening talk can be watched online. There is a link from the Shelburne Museum’s website (www.shelburnemuseum.org).


Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2021 Maine Antique Digest

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