Major Peirson is Avenged

One of the most striking paintings, and one of the largest, in Tate Britain is ‘The death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781’ by John Singleton Copley (1737-1815). When the picture was exhibited in London in 1784 a brochure given to visitors explained the circumstances that caused the death of Major Francis Peirson:

           ‘A body of French Troops having invaded the Island of Jersey in the year 1781, and having possessed themselves of the Town of St. Heiller’s (sic), and taken the Lieutenant-Governor prisoner, obliged him in that situation, to sign a capitulation to surrender the Island; Major Peirson, a gallant young Officer, under the age of twenty-four years, sensible of the invalidity of the capitulation made by the Lieutenant-Governor, whilst he was a prisoner, with great valor and prudence, attacked and totally defeated the French Troops, and thereby rescued the Island, and gloriously maintained the honor of the British arms; but unfortunately for his Country, this brave Officer fell in the moment of Victory, not by chance shot, but by a ball levelled at him, with a design by his death, to check the ardor of the British Troops. The Major’s death was instantly retaliated by his black servant on the man that shot the Major.’  Pompey, the black servant, is prominent in the painting taking his revenge. Major Peirson is commemorated on Jersey, notably in St Helier’s church.

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