Pelham, Mary Singleton Copley (c. 1710–1789)

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Pelham, Mary Singleton Copley (c. 1710–1789)

Colonial shopkeeper who was the mother of artist John Singleton Copley. Name variations: Mary Singleton Copley. Born Mary Singleton in Ireland, around 1710; died in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 29, 1789; one of three children of John Singleton and Jane (Bruffe) Singleton; married tobacconist Richard Copley (died c. 1741); married Peter Pelham (an engraver, portrait painter, and schoolmaster), on May 22, 1748 (died December 1751); children: (first marriage) John Singleton Copley (1738–1815, the artist); (second marriage) Henry Pelham.

A Boston shopkeeper and mother of the celebrated American portrait painter John Singleton Copley, Mary Pelham was born in Ireland and immigrated to Boston with her first husband Richard Copley around 1738, just before or immediately following John's birth. In Boston, Copley opened a tobacco shop which Pelham took over after his death around 1741. In May 1748, she became the third wife of Peter Pelham, a mezzotint engraver, portrait painter, and schoolmaster who brought to the marriage five children from his previous marriages. The couple added another son of their own, Henry, in 1749. Pelham continued to work, moving her shop from Long Wharf to Lindel's Row, and, according to the Boston News-Letter, selling "the best Virginia Tobacco, cut, Pigtail and spun, of all sorts, by Wholesale, or Retail, at the cheapest Rates." In December 1751, Peter died, and Mary was once again a widow.

John Singleton Copley, who showed early signs of artistic talent, had benefited greatly from his mother's second marriage, having had at his disposal both Peter's expertise and his materials and books. In 1753, Copley exhibited his first paintings, as well as an unusual mezzotint. He went on to become an acclaimed colonial portraitist. In 1774, married and with a family of his own, Copley left Boston to study abroad. Mary would not see him again, although she rejoiced in his ensuing success: "Your fame, my dear son, is sounded by all who are lovers of the art you bid fair to excel in," she wrote to him in February 1788. "May God prosper and cause you to succeed in all your undertakings, and enroll your name among the first in your profession." Mary Pelham died in Boston the following year, age 79.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts