Tag Archives: George Washington

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”.

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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


Scary Busts

I have several odd phobias including busts: I can’t stand to look at a sculpted portrait busts. They look like severed heads to me—even if they are beautiful. And many are: particularly classical ones, also Renaissance and Baroque ones, but after that I think we should have just left that genre to past masters. My distaste for these disembodied sculptures is a perennial problem because I’m a historian, so I often find myself in rare book libraries, which always feature busts. I just sit myself down as far as I can get away from them, and then get down to business. I think my dislike of busts is very consistent, so much so that when the art historian daughter of a colleague brought two busts by Salem’s iconic master woodcarver/architect Samuel McIntire, the namesake of my neighborhood, to my attention, my reaction was not: wow! but instead oh no. Here they are: busts of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, and Voltaire, both commissioned by the Reverend William Bentley in 1798-99 and later donated to the American Antiquarian Society.

Busts collage

Maybe I could be in the presence of Voltaire (right) for a few moments, but that John Winthrop bust is simply frightening! You only have the profile above: here he is, face forward: really scary, even in a lovely watercolor of the actual bust made by Joseph Goldberg for the Index of American Art in the 1930s. We are separated by several degrees, but I’m still afraid.

Bust Winthrop Index of American Design NGA

I did not feel very good about disliking, even fearing, something made by McIntire, who is revered here in Salem of course, until I read the entry in William Bentley’s diary on the day that he received the commissioned work: MacIntire returned to me my Winthrop. I cannot say that he has expressed in the bust anything that agrees with the Governor. So he didn’t like it either! Nevertheless, he accepted it and paid McIntire his $8.00 fee. But it’s not McIntire, it’s me: even the works of the greatest sculptor of that era, Jean Antoine Houdon, are off-putting to me. Houdon’s Voltaire? Horrifying–much more so than McIntire’s. I will say that the famous Houdon bust of Washington seems less alarming to me, although this multi-perspective video creeps me out.

Voltaire collage

Even the most handsome Salemite, Nathaniel Hawthorne, as carved by the most gifted sculptor of his generation, Daniel Chester French, is scary. Granted French chose to depict Hawthorne later in life rather than in his splendid youth, but still: sad and scary. Quite conversely, a bust that was crafted to repel, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Anima Damnata (1619), I find far less threatening: one expects a Damned Soul to be scary, but not Nathaniel Hawthorne or John Winthrop.

Bust of Hawthorne NYPL

Bernini collage


Ghosts of Presidents Past

When a ghost appears, you know that something is not right: restless spirits always have a mission. Sometimes it is inspiration; sometime censure, but one always has to take notice. The relationship between the dead and the living depends on the historical context but in general, the former are often demanding something from the latter: prayers, respect, fortitude, compensation, correction. Medieval people were expected to compensate, in forms of religious ritual, for the premature, unexpected, and “bad” deaths of their dearly departed, while modern people are generally expected to learn from the spectres that haunt them, in one way or another: Dickens’ Christmas ghosts being prime examples. And then there are political ghosts, who have vast powers of assessment and judgement and can be utilized as a supreme moral compass: I don’t think it will be long before we see some of these spectral appearances! Looking through some digitized periodicals in preparation for my Presidents’ Day post last week, first very casually and then more intently, I came across quite a few presidential ghosts: Presidents Washington and Lincoln are clearly the most powerful (and summoned) apparitions, but they were not the only spirits roused from the dead because of compelling earthly concerns. In this first image from Punch (a periodical which utilizes ghosts to put forth its point of view fairly often) King George III asks George Washington what he thinks of his “fine republic” now (1863–in the midst of the Civil War), to which the President can only respond “humph!”.

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Punch, or the London Charivari, January 10, 1863.

This is an unusual presidential ghost sighting; usually we do not go to “Spirit-Land” (which appears to be populated with jellyfish as well as prominent people), spirits descend down to our realm. Much more common are these pair of cartoons commenting on the contentious election of 1884 between two scandal-ridden candidates: James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland: The Honor of our Country in Danger (again, Puck) and The Honor of our Country Maintained (George Yost Coffin, “respectfully adapted” from the Puck cartoon). The assembled ghostly presidents Washington, Lincoln and Garfield (recently assassinated so at the height of his power) are clearly the monitors of “honor”, before and after the election. The narrow winner of this contest, Grover Cleveland, clearly needs all the spiritual guidance he can get, as the ghosts of his predecessors appear regularly throughout his term(s).

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“Honor” cartoons relating to the presidential election of 1884, Library of Congress;  “The Lesson of the Past”, Puck, July 1887: Lincoln inspires Cleveland to assert “I will not fail”.

Theodore Roosevelt inspires lots of ghostly visitations too, including a whole entourage of past presidents in Puck’s July 1910 cover cartoon: “Just Luck”. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Jackson wonder how did we ever run the country without him? while observing an industrious Teddy by the light of the moon. A couple of years later, however, there is a more censorious visitation by Washington when Roosevelt rescinded his pledge not to run for a third term in 1912. This Washington looks positively Dickensian!

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ghost-president-roosevelt

Just LuckcoverPuck, July, 1910; “Anti-Third-Term Principle” cartoon by Clifford Berryman, 1912, U.S. National Archives.

War-time presidents, or those on the verge of war, need lots of encouragement (as do nations), so the ultimate war-time president, Abraham Lincoln, appears behind Woodrow Wilson on the eve of World War I, and several decades later the latter returns the favor for Franklin Roosevelt. In the interim, we have a rare sighting of Warren G. Harding, wishing his successor Calvin Coolidge “Good Bye and Good Luck” and encouraging him to “write his own book”. This strikes me as a bit of over-reach for this device: did we really need to summon the ghost of Warren G. Harding?

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Ghostly back-up in 1917 and 1935, New York Times and Library of Congress; J.N. “Ding” Darling cartoon from 1923, © 1999 J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation and Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.


Ephemeral Elms

Every day, I’m thankful to live on my street because of its amazing architecture: I wake up in the morning, look out the window, and feel both wowed and grateful. But I’m also thankful because about halfway down Chestnut Street there is an elm tree: a graceful survivor, one of a handful in Salem. I walk down and touch it every day. Elm trees are touchstones for us now because they are so rare, of course, but I think it is useful to remember that even before the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease elms were always BIG: majestic, legendary, historical. I have a particular Massachusetts point of view here–the American elm is our state tree–but elms seem to have been held in high esteem wherever they have flourished and perished. Massachusetts had several George Washington elms and an assortment of “Great” elms and it was duly noted whenever they came down—in storms of 1876, 1923 or 1938–well before the tree plague came to our shores. The archives are full of stories about these trees, as well as prints and photographs: I particularly like those captured by international plant hunter Ernest Wilson on his Sanderson camera in the 1920s, part of the collection of the Arnold Arboretum. The first picture below is relatively rare; Wilson preferred to take pictures in the late fall or winter to reveal the trees’ “architecture”, and often posed his wife and/or car–or some nearby boy–in proximity so we can see their great scale.

Ephemeral Elms Lancaster EW AA

Elm Holliston EW AA

Elm Hingham Wilson AA

Elm Hingham sign AA

Elm Framingham EW AA

Great Elms in Lancaster, Holliston, Hingham (+sign) and Framingham, Ernest Wilson, Arnold Arboretum Collection.

There were two notable “George Washington Elms” in Massachusetts, one in Cambridge and the other in Palmer. Both were captured by Wilson as well as many other photographers: these were famous trees, even though there does not seem to be much verifiable truth behind their legends (particularly the Cambridge tree–whose remains or “relics” were scattered about after its death in 1923: you can read much more about it here). The Palmer tree came down in the Hurricane of 1938.

Elm Palmer GW EW AA

Elm Cambridge Wilson AA

Elm Cambridge destruction 1938 Leslie Jones

“George Washington” elm trees in Palmer and Cambridge by Ernest Wilson; the remains of the latter, Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.

An elm tree didn’t have to have Washington or Revolutionary connections to become “great” in Massachusetts: every town seems to have its beloved tree with an “ancient” name or association: the great “Queen Elm” in Lancaster (a town famous for its elms), the “Gulliver Elm” in Milton, the “Winning Elm” in Chelmsford and many “big” and “old” elms, like the stately elm on Boston Common which came down in 1876. In Salem we had the old “Bertram Elm” in front of the Salem Public Library (the former home of John Bertram) and many, many, more–now sadly gone, except for a few singular survivors, like our Chestnut Street tree. I believe there were a few new elms planted this summer, though–so things are looking up.

Elm Boston Common DC card 1876

Elm Salem Bertram postcard

Chestnut Street Elm


What I want now: George Washington

I have no intention of discussing current politics on my blog which is supposed to be a break from reality for me and my readers (I hope), but the rhetoric and reality of this election is really depressing me; I’ve got to get out from under its weight in the only way I know how: by going back. We need a hero! And since today is the birthday of one (the real birthday, as opposed to last week’s more generic “Presidents’ Day”), let us focus on George Washington. Now remember, I am not an American historian so I have a rather romantic view of our first president, which suits my purpose of historical escapism. My glasses are not quite as rose-colored as those of Parson Weems and his fellow hagiographers of the nineteenth-century, but I still want to see the General and the President in vivid twentieth-century color, as an example of someone who was truthful, moderate, restrained and resigned, heroic yet humble, selfless yet self-conscious, never-seeking but always-serving, and predisposed more towards action than words. Here are some twentieth-century images, in color, which capture those qualities.

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Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939, Amon Carter Museum of American Art; (I do believe Washington was truthful, but the cherry tree story is still a fable created by Parson Weems–this is an amazing HISTORICAL painting). Below, the cherry tree story is integral to Washington’s depiction by Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Heroes and Heroines (1933).

George Washington Thornycroft 1933

George Washington 1910 Penfield NYPLDC picture

Washington Lithograph 1930 poster

George Washinton Schuker 1920s

Washington War Bond WW

Washington Morality Poster 1974 Smithsonian

Washington from the 1910s through the 1970s: leaving Mount Vernon by Edwin Penfield, the popular General by Charles Schucker, the standard of civic duty and morality. New York Public Library Digital Gallery and Smithsonian Institution.


Sleeping with George

Even though we live only steps away, we packed up a few things (very few, essentially wine) and headed off to The Merchant to spend Saturday night in the very same room in which George Washington slept when he visited Salem in late October, 1789. The Merchant is the newly-christened Joshua Ward House, built between 1784 and 1788 for one of Salem’s wealthiest merchants; it has a long and interesting history, but is now completely restored, refurbished, and rejuvenated. My husband worked on this project and I’ve always loved this house, so as soon as it opened (November 25) we booked a room: #3, George Washington’s room. It is beautiful, and very tastefully (and patriotically) appointed with a starry ceiling and antique eagle, but we couldn’t possibly limit our presence to just that one room as there was too much else to see: a beautiful central hallway and hotel taproom/lounge adorned in jewel-box colors, amazing woodwork everywhere, details, details and more details. I couldn’t stop touching banisters, doorways and mantels, sanded down to their eighteenth-century origins to reveal very clean lines and then repainted in glorious colors. Once we did retire, I must say we didn’t spend too much time communing with George as the bed (which looked to me like a big Georgian chair covered in blue velvet–it doesn’t show up in the pictures well) was so enveloping: we fell fast asleep and woke up to a sunny Sunday morning which cast the room, and the entire hotel, in an even more illuminating light. But sadly we had to go (trudge) home.

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Merchant Collage 2

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Above, entry hall and room #3 of The Merchant, night and day, with its starry ceiling. Below, window where Washington waved to the crowd outside in 1789, the taproom/guest lounge (with bottles found during the renovation), and back deck, other guest rooms, and a few more amenities (old architectural details/ new herringbone bathroom tile), back hallway and McIntire mantel.

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Merchant Collage

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The Merchant, 148 Washington Street, Salem; 978.745.8100.


My Favorite Portsmouth House

I was running early for Easter dinner in York Harbor, and by myself because of a sick husband, so I decided to take a detour off 95 into Portsmouth to take a look at my very favorite house. As I grew up just over the bridge and down the road apiece in southern Maine, Portsmouth was our go-to town for pretty much everything, and its downtown became my ideal setting: small New England seaport with plenty of historic housing. There’s no question I settled in Salem in large part because Portsmouth was just too far away from Boston. There are several Portsmouth streets to which I return to time and time again, but only one favorite house:  the Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street, which to my untrained eye looks like the purest of Georgian structures. I think I first saw it when I was maybe 16, and it’s been part of my life ever since.

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Lear House 008

The Lear House, built in 1740, was home to several generations of a Portsmouth family including Tobias Lear, one of George Washington’s personal secretaries. After it passed out of the family in the later nineteenth century it descended into multi-family tenement status (along with much of Portsmouth’s South End), only to be rescued by Wallace Nutting, who purchased the Lear and neighboring Wentworth-Gardner House in 1917. Both properties were eventually transferred to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA–the forerunner of Historic New England) and then to the newly-formed Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses Association in 1940, in whose possession they remain. It seems to me that the Lear House has always been overshadowed by the High-Georgian Wentworth-Gardner, which Nutting restored in the Colonial Revival style he preferred for his ghostly photographs. Here is the sentiment of the SPNEA directors in 1919 that captures this “underappreciation” perfectly: the Society was urged to buy this house, which came on the market in 1917 for $1500, a price considerably higher for which it eventually sold. While considerably out of repair, it was a house but little altered since the days when Tobias Lear, private secretary to Washington, was its owner. Although a house we would have gladly preserved, it lacked the distinction worthy of a campaign for its purchase. It was bought by Mr. Wallace Nutting, whose famous Wentworth-Gardner house adjoins it. [Old-Time New England, 1919] It appears that the present-day restoration of the Lear House will have to wait, once again, until the Wentworth-Gardner houses is put to rights; nevertheless, when President Washington visited Portsmouth in 1789 (just a few days after he left Salem and this house), it was the “best parlor” of the Tobias Lear House to which he came.

Lear House 1917 SPNEA Old-Time New England

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The Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street in 1917 and today, and adjacent Wentworth-Gardner House on Mechanic Street.


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