When the American Revolution began to escalate in the late spring of 1775, people wanted to see images of its leaders: Englishmen and -women in particular, were eager to see the “rebel officers” that dared to defy the Empire. So English publishers began issuing printed portraits of George Washington, Israel Putnam, Charles Lee, Benedict Arnold, John Hancock and others which were imaginative, to say the least. The mezzotints issued by London publisher “C. Shepherd” were particularly so, and particularly popular, both in Great Britain and on the Continent, where a succession of publishers took even further license. Supposedly Shepherd’s images of General Washington were based on original drawings by one “Alexander Campbell of Williamsburg in Virginia”, but Washington himself commented “Mr. Campbell whom I never saw (to my knowledge) has made a very formidable figure giving him a sufficient portion of Terror in his Countenance”.
I love these prints! Both the idea and the reality of them. At the British Museum, you can see a representative sampling of the original 1775 prints, but there were many variations issued over the next three years, investing them with increasing currency. And then they found their way into illustrated texts after the Revolution: only in the later nineteenth century have I see the word “spurious” attached to them. Also “curious”. As you can see below, Major General Charles Lee looks remarkably similar to General George Washington….and now that I look at him, Israel Putnam too! All those Americans look alike.
Colonel Benedict Arnold looks similar, presented while still “rebellious” by one of C. Shepherd’s competitors, John Morris. Even General William Howe, whose image was published coincidentally with these rebel officers, looks familiar, though I am distinguishing him here by presenting him in color. John Hancock’s bust portrait is the only really distinctive image among these prints: perhaps because he was not a soldier. Supposedly it was “done from an Original Picture Painted by Littleford”, but no one seems to know who Littleford was. More likely the 1774 portrait of Copley was the source although it doesn’t look very Copley-esque.
I was drawn to these prints this weekend when I spotted two French derivatives in an upcoming Swann auction: their embellishment made them even more charming, but at the same time they are even more removed from their original subjects. And something is altered in the translation: Hancock is President of the “Congrés Englo-Amériquain” and Putnam “Chief at the engagement of Bunc-Kershill near Boston 17 June 1775”.
Prints published by C. Shepherd and John Morris, 1775-1777 © Trustees of the British Museum; French prints of Hancock and Putnam, Swann Auction Galleries.