This was the plight of John Singleton Copley. Born in 1738, he'd learned his craft from his stepfather who was an engraver. He'd paid his dues as a portrait painter, and a very GOOD one at that. His portrait of Paul Revere, for instance, and several group portraits of his own and other colonial families before the war raised him to perhaps the preeminent portrait artist in the colonies. And, residing in Boston, he probably could have lived out his years quite comfortably as the New England equivalent of Philadelphia's Gilbert Stuart, or Charles Wilson Peale. Many would argue, in fact, that he was a better painter than either of these countrymen. Instead, he chose England, and later, at the behest of Benjamin West, studied in Italy. He arrived in London in 1774. Later, seeing war on the horizon, his family joined him there.
Probably Copley's greatest, non-portrait masterpiece is Watson and the Shark, painted in 1778. The work is considered history painting in the broad sense, because it depicts an actual incident, although it doesn't encompass an epic event such as a war or a coronation. It many respects however, it is one of the most dramatic and exciting paintings of its kind ever done. The scene is Havana harbor in Cuba where a nude boy of perhaps 18 (Brook Watson) with long, flowing, blond hair is about to be attacked by a sizable shark. The boy and the shark are arrayed in the watery foreground while in the middle-ground, in a longboat, a harpooner is about to plunge his weapon into the shark passing just in front of the boat. Meanwhile seven other figures in the boat strain to rescue the hapless young man. A misty Havana waterfront can be seen in the background. The work, commissioned by the boy's father, is a masterpiece of planning, draftsmanship, and emotion-filled action. The painting served as a sort of "grand entrance" for Copley into London art circles. So successful was he in London that after the war, Copley and his family never returned to this country.