|A painting of Charles Pelham by John Singleton Copley.|
The painting, according to the art dealer, was allegedly by the artist John Singleton Copley, and the subject was believed to be one Charles Pelham. The only clue that there was any Masonic connection was a small medallion worn near the breast. My intrigue was increased by the fact that the symbols on the medallion did not include the normal square and compass, the main symbol that the public recognizes us by. Only a brother who had spent some time in lodge learning our symbols would have recognized that this medallion marked him as a Mason. Truly, there must have been a great treasure hunt ahead of me, because we all know that the best treasure hunts start with small, seemingly innocuous clues!
Let’s step back a bit for an art history lesson. John Singleton Copley was a painter in colonial America, who produced around 350 paintings and drawings before his death in 1815. Included in his works were some prominent Freemasons of the time, such as Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere, as well as men who had strong Masonic connections such as Samuel Adams and James Warren. While Copley himself was not a Freemason, he had significant familial connections to the early American Freemasonry through his mother Mary, which may have contributed to him painting the Freemasons that he did.
John’s father dies when he was around the age of 10, and Mary remarried a portrait artist by the name of Peter Pelham. Peter taught many of his techniques to John, including the newly rediscovered mezzotint printing method which Copley later incorporated into his artwork with great effect.
|A close-up of the medallion in the painting.|
If you’ve managed to follow the twisted family tree here, you’ll see that Charles Pelham was the step-brother of John Singleton Copley, the artist. This made it significantly more likely that the portrait in question was, in fact, a true work by Copley of Pelham. Looking into it closer, there is another known painting by Copley of Pelham. This one was painted when he was a younger man, while the subject I received appeared to be of a man later in his life. Even with this age difference, the resemblance is strikingly close enough to feel certain that both subjects are, at the least, very closely related, if not of the same person.
While we could spend hours discussing the artist, he was not a Mason, nor of much interest to me. Instead, my interest lay in the subject himself. Not much is known of Charles Pelham’s early life. He never achieved the level of success as his father or his brothers in artistic endeavors, and remained mainly neutral during the American Revolution. We don’t even know for certain when or where he was born; all we do know is that he was baptized in December of 1722. While Charles did not lead a fascinating public life, his Masonic life is much more interesting for our considerations. He was raised in 1744 at First Lodge, and was placed as their Secretary at the following business meeting. I cannot even imagine asking a newly raised Mason to take over as Secretary today, and it was very unusual, and somewhat controversial, at the time.
|A self portrait of Copley.|
In 1740, Charles’ father Peter was installed as Secretary for First Lodge. Strangely, the handwriting on his original petition and in his private correspondence does not closely match up with the handwriting in the lodge minutes. In fact, it’s almost as if it was written by a completely different hand! Even more curious is the fact that the handwriting is an identical match with that from Charles during the following years when he was secretary.
Examining the handwriting, it appears that Charles was transcribing the lodge minutes for his father for four years before he had been accepted into the lodge! This discovery would explain the rush to move him in – he would have already known many Masonic secrets due to his work transcribing the minutes, and until he took his obligation he had no requirement to keep them.
He was obviously exceedingly good as a Secretary, as he continued to serve his lodge until 1754, and during the years of 1750-1752 he also served as Grand Secretary for the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
|A known painting of Pelham by Copley.|
A large part of Charles’ service to the Grand Lodge was to copy the proceedings of the Provincial Grand Lodge of New England into the permanent records of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, forming their first few volumes of proceedings. The written history of American Freemasonry can all trace back to Charles’ work!
Having established what I believed to be, at best, a reasonably convincing amount of proof, I re-contacted the art dealer with the information I had uncovered, and while I didn’t feel completely certain that we had the correct brother, I felt safe in saying that we were definitely in the correct family. At this point, I proceeded to close out all of my research websites, feeling that there was no further information to be teased out of the picture, and ready to start thinking about my next research piece.
Our story would have ended there, should have ended there, but I received one more e-mail from the London art dealer with a subject that got me excited all over again: “I’ve x-rayed the painting, and found something important!” Included was another photo, showing the x-ray, and my hands nearly shook while opening the attachment.
The fact that I’m explaining all of this here, instead of in my exclusive tell-all interview with The History Channel, is due to the fact that The History Channel no longer returns my calls, and the author of my life doesn’t write grand adventures of discovery for me to go on.
|An x-ray taken of the area where the medallion is located.|
In the end, who knows the truth about this brother’s life? Until this paper, I doubt you had ever even heard his name, and I doubt you’ll long remember it after we’re done. That is why, to me, it is very important to recognize him as a Freemason: he does not represent the celebrated artist who gained international prestige, or the great orator who brought peace in times of war. He represents the everyday majority of us, silently toiling away in the darkness, trying to bring a little bit of light to the world. To quote Jung, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” If that is true, I can think of no greater example to emulate than Right Worshipful Brother Charles Pelham.
Bro. Adam Thayer is the Junior Warden of Lancaster Lodge No 54 in Lincoln (NE) and the Worshipful Master of Oliver Lodge No. 38 in Seward (NE). He’s an active member of the Scottish Rite, and Knight Master of the Lincoln Valley Knights of Saint Andrew. Adam serves on the Education Committee of the Grand Lodge of Nebraska. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org