Happy Birthday George!

Washington pitcher
Early 19th century English creamware pitcher showing Washington “Ascending into Glory.” DHS collection (Bequest of Dr. Katharine Williamson)

This Presidents’ Day, we take a moment to celebrate George Washington (1732-1799), the nation’s first President and one of the most (if not, the most) iconic figures in American history. Washington was something of a celebrity during his life time, but after his death he was widely mourned and his fame grew even greater. Many different types of Washington tributes celebrated the Commander-in-Chief, but one of the most famous was an engraving by Irish-born artist, John James Barralet, entitled, “The Apotheosis of George Washington.”

The original engraving, published in 1802 to coincide with Washington’s birthday on February 22, shows Washington being conducted heavenward by the allegorical figures of Father Time and Immortality while the figures of Liberty and a Native American mourn at his feet. These figures are also surrounded by various symbols of the American republic, including an eagle and rattlesnakes, while allegorical figures representing Faith, Hope, and Charity look on. Although perhaps a strange image to modern eyes, allegory and references to classical antiquity were common and would have been readily understood and appreciated by nineteenth-century audiences. Barralet’s engraving was so popular with the American public that it was republished and copied multiple times during the early nineteenth century.

Versions of this engraving, such as the one on this creamware pitcher from our collection, even made it onto English ceramics produced especially for the American market. These wares were widely produced in factories in Liverpool (with the Herculaneum Pottery being the most famous) and Staffordshire between about 1800 & 1840. It seems that Washington was a popular subject, since the English potters produced a variety of different designs relating to his life, character, and death.


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