He’d rather be painting…

Arts & Literature

February 21, 2014
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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The 38th Regiment of Foot, consisting of about 450 officers and men (not to mention about 60 soldiers’ wives and an unknown number of children) arrived in Boston in the summer of 1774. Along with the 5th Regiment of Foot, they were sent to bolster British military presence in a city where political strife was rapidly fomenting open hostilities. In the ranks of the 38th Regiment was a soldier named Joseph Dunkerley.[1]

Due to a gap in the regiment’s muster rolls, we don’t know when Dunkerley joined the army, much less the circumstances under which he did so. It isn’t known whether he was an experienced soldier when he set foot in America, or a relatively new recruit who had enlisted shortly before the regiment embarked for the allure of traveling overseas. Born in 1752, he was the son and grandson of London jewelers;[2] one of many British soldiers from England’s middle classes who had a good education and upbringing but chose to join the army as a common soldier. Some of these men aspired to become officers but lacked the patronage or influence to obtain a commission directly; instead, they hoped that distinguished service in the ranks would earn them the favor of promotion.[3]

If Joseph Dunkerley had ambitions of advancement, they did not pan out. He camped with his regiment on Boston Common, went into winter quarters in the city, donned his knapsack and took up his arms and accoutrements for training marches into the countryside in early 1775, and saw members of his regiment return harried, exhausted and wounded from the expedition to Concord that April. He was probably in the ranks when the 38th Regiment plunged into the fray at Bunker Hill part way through the battle. After this excitement, though, duty in the Boston garrison became routine and then harsh. Sentry duty, sometimes harassed by rebel musket and cannon fire; fatigue duty, working on improvements to the city’s fortifications; the boredom, tedium and danger of living under siege.

When winter came, conditions grew harsh as food and fuel became scarce. Routine military duties continued, but in colder, darker weather. By mid-January, Joseph Dunkerley had had enough. There’s no record of what motivated him – frustration at failure to advance in the ranks, discontent with the distressing situation in Boston, a need to escape some sort of personal trouble – but on 19 January he deserted from the British army. Desertion from peninsular Boston was not easy, but a few soldiers found ways, Dunkerley among them. His military career, however, was not over.

By May 1776, Dunkerley was serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in Colonel Craft’s artillery regiment (2nd lieutenant in the artillery was equivalent to ensign in the infantry, the lowest commissioned rank).[4] A year later, he became the adjutant of Colonel David Henley’s continental regiment.[5] Such positions indicate that Dunkerley had education beyond basic literacy, and perhaps had enlisted in the British army with legitimate aspirations of rising through the ranks. There were others like him, who went from enlisted service in the British army to commissioned ranks in the American army.

Henley’s regiment was among those tasked with guarding British prisoners from the Convention Army interned outside of Boston. Perhaps it was this proximity to his former comrades that gave him pause about his potential fate if he continued to serve as an officer in the Continental army. In a resignation letter penned on 3 May 1778, he wrote:

Joseph Dunkerley's miniature portrait of Mrs. Paul Revere (Rachel Walker), circa 1784-85. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Joseph Dunkerley’s miniature portrait of Mrs. Paul Revere (Rachel Walker), circa 1784-85. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

“Since the commencement of Hostilities, through Principle, I Absconded from the British Army. Since Accepted of the Adjutantcy of Col. Henley’s Regt having Previously Wrote, to my Friends in London; by whose Interest, I Expected a Discharge from the British Army; but have never Receiv’d an Answer. The Unequal Chance I Run, by Appearing in the Field: (If made a Prisoner) according to the Law of Nations I must Expect immediately Death, I therefore intercede with Your Excellency to accept my Resignation. If I Should Receive a Letter from London with my Discharge, the Zeal I have for America will Oblidge me to Appear with Pleasure in the Field.”[6]

His military career over, Dunkerley turned to another pursuit that also attested to an uncommon background: he established himself as a painter of miniature portraits. He had been painting during his military service, his earliest surviving dated work being from 1776. A December 1784 issue of the Independent Chronicle carried an ad in which Dunkerley stated that he “still carries on his Profession of Painting in Miniature at his house in the North Square,” while two months later he and fellow artist John Hazlitt advertised the start of a drawing school “as soon as a sufficient number of scholars apply.”[7] He is known to have rented a house from Paul Revere, and Revere himself created some of the cases for Dunkerley’s miniatures.[8]

Painting was not just a passing fancy for Dunkerley. He made a living at it, and his work was of such quality that it is sometimes mistaken for that of John Singleton Copley, one of America’s finest portrait painters. Many of Dunkerley’s works dating from 1784 to 1788 can be found using an internet search. His work is, however, obscure except among students of early American artwork, perhaps because he confined his work to portrait miniatures which are not as widely reproduced as full-size portraiture.

Around 1788, Dunkerley and his wife left Boston to seek greater fortune in the growing town of Falmouth, Jamaica. He stayed there until his death in 1806, painting prominent members of the local society and playing a role in the establishment of a Masonic lodge on the island.[9]

[Featured image above: A sample of Joseph Dunkerly’s miniature portraits from the collection of T.Gilbert Brouillette, Art Dealer/Consultant, New York City.]


[1] Muster rolls, 38th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/5171, British National Archives.

[2] “American Artist: Joseph Dunckerley,” Michael’s Museum, http://www.michaelsmuseum.com/dunckerley2.htm.

[3] For a detailed discussion of such British soldiers, see Don N. Hagist, British Soldiers, American War (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012), 236-251.

[4] Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, Vol. 5 (Boston, MA: Wright & Potter Printing, 1899), 52.

[5] Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army (Washington, 1914), 207. Dunkerley’s name is spelled in various ways in different sources; here it is spelled Dunckerly.

[6] The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series Vol. 15, Theodore J. Crackel, ed. (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 171-172. Washington replied, “I received yours of the 3d Instant but considering your situation I am willing to comply with your request and accept of your resignation – you will not therefore be looked any longer as an officer in the continental army acting under your present commission.”

[7] Independent Chronicle (Boston), 17 February 1785.

[8] American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures, Yale University Art Gallery, http://cmi2.yale.edu/ym/archive/artists/josephdunkerley/artist.html accessed February 2014.

[9] American Portrait Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, O’Neill, ed., 91.


  • Great profile! I believe the Crafts artillery regiment in which Dunkerley first became an officer was Thomas Crafts’s Massachusetts regiment. Crafts was himself a decorative painter (japanner). Another artillerist who had trained with the same master was John Johnson or Johnston, who also became a portrait painter in the early republic.

    Another interesting person Dunkerley may have crossed paths with in Boston was Andrew Brown, a British army sergeant who deserted in (if I recall right) February 1775. He was in charge of discipline for the Convention Army camped outside Boston, a position his former comrades resented—especially the officers, who recalled him as a mere sergeant. After the war Brown moved to Philadelphia and became a newspaper printer.

    Dunkerley, Brown, and several other men defecting from the British army (e.g., Thomas Machin) seem to have been attracted by the social and economic mobility in America. They were all talented, literate men who had only a very small chance to become officers in the British army, but they were immediately commissioned in the Continental Army and became gentlemen. I almost wonder why Roger Lamb didn’t join them.

    1. You are correct – and foreshadowing future works! Andrew Brown deserted from the the 47th Regiment in Boston on 2 February 1775, only months after arriving in America as a recruit. And he did have quite an interesting life after that – but that, and the tales of many other British soldiers, is another story! (And you can read lots of them on my blog!)

  • Thanks, Don, very interesting. I clicked on the internet link in your article and was intrigued by the miniature of the officer wearing a black coat with red facings, described as an officer of Crane’s Artillery (a Continental regiment from Boston). In researching my book, The Rhode Island Campaign, I came across one of my favorite outfits, called the Boston Independent Company (or Boston Cadets), which consisted of many of the sons of wealthy Boston merchants and lawyers. The soldiers of this company also wore black coats with red facings. Their buttons had written on them “Inimica Tyrannis” (enemy of tyranny). The British found some of these buttons on the field of battle after the Battle of Rhode Island. It would be exciting for me if the painting is of an officer of the Boston Independent Company and not Crane’s Artillery. I am not familiar with the uniforms of Crane’s Artillery, so I cannot be sure.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article, Christian.
      Of all the unidentified military portraits (and there are many), those of artillery men present perhaps the greatest challenge because, during this era, the artillerists of most nations wore uniforms of the same color scheme – dark blue or black with red cuffs, collars and lapels, with gold or brass buttons and gold or yellow lace. This makes it difficult to determine the nationality, and almost impossible to identify the regiment, unless the sitter is explicitly identified. We can only guess whether the officer in Dunckerley’s miniature belonged to to the Boston Independent Company.
      If only there had been a rigidly enforced law requiring portrait painters to clearly identify their subjects. Fortunately, today everyone wisely annotates every single picture they take so the will never be any doubt about who is in it. Everyone except me, that is. And, probably, you. And, sadly, everyone else who has ever used a camera…

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