Peter Pelham (ca. 1695 – December 1751), American limner and engraver, was born in England, a son of a man named "gentleman" in his will. His father, who died in Chichester, Sussex, in 1756, is revealed in letters to his son in America as a man of some property.
Pelham was one of several London artists who learned the then new technique of the mezzotint engraving. Of his use of the medium one writer has said: "Pelham handled the rocker heavily, and so gave to his prints a darker appearance than usual". He obviously was well trained as a portrait painter, and he must have had influential connections, for between 1720 and 1726 he produced portrait plates of Queen Anne, George I, the Earl of Derby, Lord Wilmington, Lord Carteret, Lord Molesworth, Edmund Gibson, and others. Why, amidst such engagements, Pelham should have emigrated is mysterious, if, as seems quite certain, the poor schoolmaster, limner and engraver of Boston, Massachusetts, is identical with the well-employed mezzotinter of London. It is possible that he left in disgrace. His portrait of Massachusetts Governor Samuel Shute, painted at London in 1724, was brought, according to plausible family tradition, to Boston to serve as introduction to local celebrities.
Though various dates for his emigration have been suggested, the record of Peter Pelham's activities at Boston is well established. His portrait of the Rev. Cotton Mather, now at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, was painted as copy for the very familiar mezzotint engraving, reproduced frequently. "Proposals" for printing this engraving were published in the Boston News-Letter on February 27, 1728. Portraits of several other New England clergymen followed. Pelham was seemingly intimate with John Smibert, who settled in Boston in 1730, for he painted Smibert's portrait and made several engravings after Smibert's works. Such professional labors did not produce a sufficient living for an ever-growing family, and Pelham opened a school at which he taught dancing, arithmetic, and other subjects. His first wife Martha dying in Boston, he married on October 15, 1734, Margaret Lowrey, and after her death he married, on May 22, 1748, Mary (Singleton) Copley, widow of Richard Copley, a recently deceased tobacconist originally from Limerick, Ireland. Their home, school, studio, and tobacco shop were on Queen Street (ca.1747) and Lindall Street. In this household were reared the future artists John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham. Peter Pelham died without a will.
- Many reference books give the artist's birth year as 1684, but passages in the Copley-Pelham letters ("Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham", Mass. Hist. Soc. Colls., vol. LXXI (1914), especially p. 8), make it certain that Peter Pelham, Sr., was born later than 1671. The Registers of St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, London (vol. I, 1906) show that Peter Pelham, Jr., and his wife Martha had children beginning with the christening of George Pelham on January 20, 1720. One can infer from these dates that the future artist was born about 1695, when his father would have been in his early twenties. His portrait, painted by his stepson, Copley, presumably from life or from records of his appearance about 1750, is not that of a 66-year-old man. (See Charles Pelham Curtis, Loan Exhibition of One Hundred Colonial Portraits, 1930.)
- He may have been related to the distinguished Pelhams of Sussex described in Mark Antony Lower's Historical and Genealogical Notices of the Pelham Family (1873), but the relationship has not been proved.
- Whitman, Alfred. The Masters of Mezzotint, 1898, p. 26.
- See the letter of Peter Pelham, Sr., dated September 12, 1739, in the Copley-Pelham letters.
- Boston Gazette, or Weekly Journal; Date: 07-21-1747
- A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, XV, 1886, p. 367.
- William H. Whitmore. Who was Thomas Pelham? The New England historical & genealogical register and antiquarian journal. Oct. 1872.
- "Peter Pelham". Dictionary of American Biography. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
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- American paintings & historical prints from the Middendorf collection, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Pelham (no. 54)