John Singleton Colby (1738-1815)

Deemed the finest colonial artist in America John Colby's life went full circle. Born on 3rd July 1738 in Boston Massachusetts Bay to impoverished Irish immigrants who owned a tobacco shop he died at his home in London on 18th August 1815 in debt as with his talent diminished his paintings failed to sell and his health had deteriorated both mentally and physically. His father had left the family when he was born to go and live in the West Indies so he did not have the easiest start in life.

Colby became famous for his portraits of the most important figures in Colonial New England and that soon raised him to become a member of the local aristocracy. His paintings were unique because he always included artefacts in the portraits that were connected to the sitter and he was in great demand from the noblest and wealthiest families around.

When he was twenty eight his fame spread to England when he exhibited one of his most famous paintings The Boy With The Squirrel at the Society of Artists in London which earned him a Fellowship of the Society of Artists of Great Britain. The painting was of his half-brother Henry Pelham sitting at a table playing with a pet squirrel and it attracted much praise and attention.

It was his marriage to Sukey, the daughter of a Bostonian merchant that planted the seed for his move to England. His father-in-law was the recipient of the tea that provoked the Boston Tea Party and after that incident political and economic conditions in Boston started to deteriorate. In June 1774 Colby left America to embark on a nine month European tour, he started in Paris and moved on to Rome before travelling to Germany as he wanted to experience as much of Europe as he could before he settled down again to family life.

His wife and children remained in Boston but when he bought the family home at 25 George Street,Hanover

Square his wife and son, later to become Lord Lyndhurst, joined him. His daughter Elizabeth remained in Boston where she married a wealthy man. The Colby family remained at this address for the rest of their lives.

His success in England had already been established by The Boy with the Squirrel and between 1776 and 1815 he exhibited forty-three paintings at the Royal Academy in London and was elected a full member in 1783 which to him was a great honour. He was enjoying his fame and success and he liked living at such a prestigious London address but it was not to last.

His work gradually deteriorated and his fame and success ended due to personal and political causes he involved himself in. The last fifteen years of his life were blighted with severe depression and disappointment. The house in Hanover Square cost a lot to maintain and educating his son to become a young barrister took its toll on his finances.

His health deteriorated mentally and physically and a bad fall in 1810 prevented him painting for a month. He suffered a severe stroke on August 18th 1815 but he seemed to recover and he started painting again but his recovery was short-lived. He suffered a second fatal stroke on September 9th and he is buried in the famous Highgate Cemetery in London.

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