Copley painted this portrait when he was 15, after his stepfather had already died. The portrait has been in the Pelham family for 5 generations and is considered to be that of Peter Pelham. The tools depicted seem to indicate that the man on the portrait is an engraver. The young painter must have worked from either an engraving or another portrait, probably Pelham’s self-portrait.
Young Copley’s stepfather was a remarkable character. Born in England
around 1695, Peter Pelham had been an engraver in London before coming
to America in 1727. In Boston he went into partnership with another emigrant
from England, the artist John Smibert; Smibert painted portraits of public
figures and Pelham made engravings after these works for general sale.
Occasionally Pelham painted his own portraits of well-known Bostonians
and offered prints of them for sale, and he also imported and sold engravings
after European painters.
But the market for engravings was limited in provincial Boston, and to make ends meet, Pelham branched out. In 1732 he opened a dancing school at his house and outraged the puritan public. Pelham was undeterred. In 1738 he advertised a school in which he taught “Dancing, Writing, Reading, Painting on Glass, and all sorts of needle work.” Ten years later, a shortly after his marriage to Mary Copley, he felt the need to supplement the earnings from his engraving trade and his bride’s tobacco shop and sought public patronage for yet another school, though this time, the curriculum was limited to writing and arithmetic. It operated in the evening and may well have been the first night school in America.
Pelham was twice a widower when he married Mary Copley and became stepfather to her 10-year-old son. He had four sons and a daughter from his previous marriages, and at least two of the sons were then living under his roof. On February 14, 1749, he and Copley’s mother had a child of their own, Henry Pelham, who was to be Copley’s closest friend and confidant throughout most of his career.
Peter Pelham died in 1751, when his stepson Copley was only 13.
See: John Singleton Copley. Peter