Daily Archives: February 21, 2011

Washington through British Eyes

This weekend I searched through various databases of eighteenth-century British periodicals for critical and comical images of George Washington and didn’t come up with many:  he is clearly not the American nemesis.  The British popular press blamed their own leaders for the humiliating failure of the “American War” (as well as the rest of Europe, allied with the Colonies against Britain) rather than focusing on American strengths.  For cartoon and cariacature representations, the press clung to older images of America, chiefly a young (very scantily dressed) woman and/or a native (always with feathers) American, although as the war progressed the American rattlesnake was increasingly visible.  Here are several very popular cartoons from the beginning, middle, and end of the Revolution from the British cartoon collection at the Library of Congress, with Washington nowhere in attendance:

 The Able Doctor, or American Swallowing the Bitter Draught, 1774:  British Prime Minister Lord North  forces the Intolerable Acts down a bare-breasted America’s throat while the lecherous Lord Sandwich looks up her skirt.

News from America, or the Patriots in the Dumps, 1776:  Lord North again, and a dejected (and again bare-breasted) America.

 The British Lion engaging Four Powers, 1779:  Britain facing the coalition force of a Spanish spaniel, and French cock hen, an American rattlesnake, and a Dutch pug dog.

 The Horse America throwing its Master, 1779:  King George III unseated.

 The Reconciliation between Britannia and her daughter America, 1782.

George Washington appears in only two cartoons that I could find, and only one represents him as a figure of mockery, wearing a dress and referred to as MRS George Washington while lashing  Britain (now herself a submissive woman!).  The  more common depiction of  Washington during the American War is as the dignified Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.  Prints published from 1776 on, and especially from 1780, indicate that Washington had earned the respect of both the British public as well as that of their American “cousins”.

 The Curious Zebra. alive from America! Walk in Gem’men and ladies, walk in, 1778:  Washington holding the tail of the curious zebra, whose stripes represent the 13 colonies.

 Mrs. George Washington.  Bestowing thirteen stripes on Brittania, 1783.





The images below are not strictly British; the first is a profile portrait that was painted by James Sharples in 1796 and copied by his wife Ellen in the following year and the second is the 1908 stamp based on this profile.  The Sharples were English painters who emigrated to America in 1794 and began a family business in which James would paint the initial portrait and Ellen would take and fulfill orders for copies.  This image, copies of which are in the collections of the National Portrait Galleries of both London and Washington, seems to have been quite popular a century ago, but we seldom see it now. Profiles are no longer popular.


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