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John Singleton Copley, 1738–1815, American, active in Britain (from 1776)

Richard Heber

Oil on canvas
65 1/4 x 51 3/16 inches (165.7 x 130 cm)
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
ball | bat | boy | breeches | buckles | child | cricket | landscape | paddle (ball game equipment) | portrait | ruffles | stockings
Associated People:
Heber, Richard (1773–1833), book collector
On view in the galleries
IIIF Manifest:

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a family of Irish immigrants, John Singleton Copley was largely self-taught. In the 1760s, he sent pictures to London for exhibition with the Society of Artists. His work was praised by Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, but they were also critical of his “hard line” and coloring. Despite unrivaled success as a portraitist in the colonies, Copley left for England in 1774 shortly before the American Revolution. In London he maintained a successful practice for the next forty years. The clergyman Reginald Heber commissioned this portrait of his son Richard (1774–1833), aged eight, when Copley was at the height of his powers. In a loose and vigorous composition, Heber is cast as a cricketer leaning casually on his bat and looking fearlessly toward the bowler. Nothing in the portrait suggests the sitter’s studious future, as a classical scholar and one of the leading book collectors of his generation.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016
With his long hair and loose shirt, and holding his jacket nonchalantly over his arm, the eight-year-old Richard Heber shows the signs of that "naturalness" that was such a desideratum of British portraiture toward the end of the eighteenth century. The paraphernalia of cricket underlines the idea that this is a boy who enjoys healthy sport and the outdoors. Looking fearlessly toward the bowler's end, leaning on his bat and holding the ball-which means that play cannot start until he chooses-he strikes a pose that combines ease with control. The portrait was commissioned by the boy's father, the Reverend Reginald Heber, Rector of Malpas in Cheshire, a well-to-do, intellectually-minded clergyman who had been a Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford. Richard's mother, Mary Baylie, had died shortly after his birth. At about the time the portrait was painted, in the summer of 1782, the father remarried; it is tempting to speculate that the two events were in some way connected, although exactly how remains elusive. Despite the references to cricket in the portrait, there is no record of any athletic tendency on the part of the sitter, and the ruling passion of his life was to be the distinctly indoor pursuit of book collecting. Even at the age of eight, when he posed for the portrait, he had not only books but enough of a collector's mentality to have compiled a catalogue of them. He was to be one of the leading bibliophiles of his generation, dubbed by his friend Walter Scott "Heber the magnificent, whose library and cellar are so superior to all others in the world." From his father he inherited estates in Shropshire and Yorkshire. He represented Oxford University in Parliament from 1821 to 1826 and in 1824 was one of the founders of the Athenæum Club. His search for rare volumes, especially editions of English poetry and drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, led him to travel widely at home and abroad. In addition to his country properties he owned houses in London, Oxford, Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent. When he died, unmarried, in 1833, these were found to contain a total of some 150,000 volumes. Heber is credited with the saying: "No gentleman can be without three copies of a book: one for show, one for use, and one for borrowers." From the cricketing point of view, perhaps the most intriguing feature of the portrait is the wicket with its bail dislodged, which is difficult to explain or interpret. Surely the artist would not have wished to imply that Heber has been bowled out. Perhaps the previous batsman has been bowled, and he is the next man in, although he would be unlikely to be holding his jacket if that were the case. In the end, the portrait hardly stands up to such a literal, narrative reading and was probably never intended to show a particular moment in a game. As the implausible setting of woods and stream makes clear, the boy's cricketing is notional rather than actual. The cricketing objects are included more as emblems, like the attributes of a saint in an altarpiece, and the wicket may be shown with its bail down only to signal its function in a general sense. It may even be down for purely compositional reasons: in other words, because the artist felt that a diagonal would work better than a horizontal at this point in his design. It is just possible, however, that it is biographical, the image of a motherless childhood: dependent on his father as a single parent, the boy is like a dislodged bail leaning on a single stump.

Malcolm Warner, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 106, no. 39, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

John Singleton Copley in England (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1996-02-04 - 1996-04-28) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

John Singleton Copley in England (National Gallery of Art, 1995-10-04 - 1996-01-07) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

[ Advertisement : Front Matter ] Agnew, Burlington Magazine, v. 128, no. 1003, October, 1986, p. xix, N1 B87 + (YCBA) Available online on JStor. [YCBA]

Acquisitions : The First Decade 1977-1986, Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1986, p. 12, no. 10, N590.2 A7 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

American Artists and American Art - III, Magazine of Art, January, 1879, p.95, J10 M268 + (LSF) Available online in British Periodicals II database [ORBIS]

Art Treasures and Industrial Exhibition at Wrexham, British Architect and Northern Engineer, vol. 6, no. 4, July, 1876, p, 62, Available Online (British Periodicals II) [ORBIS]

Malcolm Cormack, A Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 68-69, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

J. Davies, Art Treasures Collection of North Wales and the Border Counties at Wrexham, 1876, Academy, no. 222, August 5, 1876, p. 144, Available Online in British Periodicals [ORBIS]

Allen Guttmann, Sports and American art from Benjamin West to Andy Warhol, Amherst, MA, 2011, pp. 21-22, pl. 2, N8250 .G88X 2011 (LC) (HAAS) [ORBIS]

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp. 106-7, no. 39, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Paul Mellon's Legacy, a passion for British art. [large print labels] , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 3, N5220 M552 +P381 2007, Mellon Shelf (YCBA) [YCBA]

Jules D. Prown, John Singleton Copley ..., 1, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, vol. 2, pp. 294-95 (v.2), fig. 424, NJ18 C75 +P76 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Duncan Robinson, Acquisitions : The First Decade 1977 - 1986, , Burlington Magazine, vol. 128, October 1986, p. 12, no. 10, N1 B87 128:3 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Denys Sutton, Art Treasures on the Move, Apollo, v. 114, no. 235, September 1981, p. 145, pl. II, N1 A54 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Angus Trumble, The Finger : A Handbook, , Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010, p. 178, GT498.F46 T78 2010 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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