Several Proofs of Separation

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”.

Rebel officers Washington

Rebel Officers George Washington on Horseback MAIN

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.

Rebel Officers Charles Lee BM

Rebel Officers Israel Putnam

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.

Rebel Officers Arnold

Rebel Officers WilliamHowe1777ColorMezzotint

Rebel Officers Hancock

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”.

Hancock French Swann

Putnam SwannPrints published by C. Shepherd and John Morris, 1775-1777 © Trustees of the British Museum; French prints of Hancock and Putnam, Swann Auction Galleries

6 responses to “Several Proofs of Separation

  • bonniehurdsmith

    This is absolutely hysterical, and why your English sensibilities are so important to those of us who wallow in the New World!

  • Eilene Lyon

    Interesting images. That Bunc-kershill is priceless!

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    What a great segue to our approaching Patriot’s Day to share this intriguing collection of portraits of our founding fathers as they were depicted across the pond at the time of the “late unpleasantness.” Who knew?

    As always, great burrowing into the archives to illustrate a point …

  • marybryne

    Great blog to get us in touch with the real feel of Patrot’s Day; I wonder if Salem had anything akin to the “pole hat climbing” featured in the Metro section of the Globe today in Bedford. And love the interpretations of the time!
    Thanks for an always great, entertaining and timely blog.

  • Brian Bixby

    Ah, the secret is out: all the great Revolutionary War leaders were actually brothers!
    I’m reminded of a portrait series I saw of Scottish kings done for James VI. As most of those men had no contemporary portraits, the French artist hired for the purpose just painted from imagination . . . however making sure that one of James’s distinctive facial features turned up every 2-4 generations!

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