Following the end of the Revolutionary War (1775- 1783), images of heroic George Washington and other revolutionaries flooded the visual and economic marketplaces. This linen and cotton cloth features revolutionary figures George Washington and Benjamin Franklin surrounded by mythic and historic images. Every aspect of this print incorporated celebratory and symbolic imagery making it a popular cloth throughout the newly independent United States. The likeness of Washington is based on a John Trumbull (1756- 1843) painting that was later engraved by Valentine Green in 1781. Washington is drawn in a carriage by leopards, while an allegorical figure of America holds an oval, “American Independence, 1776,” while two North American Indians blow trumpets, carry flags, and herald his entrance. The stereotypical representations of North American Indians with tobacco leaf crowns and loincloths were typical eighteenth visual iconography alluding to the economic commodity associated with North America. The presence of the stereotypical- putti like- North American Indians harkened to earlier imagery of white colonizers taming the landscape and Native peoples. The integration of earlier visual language repeats throughout the piece since British engravers – many who had never been to America or seen in person the people, flora, or fauna they were depicting— based their engravings on previous designs.
The juxtaposition of historical figures and contemporary objects with mythological imagery firmly elevates the American Revolution into mythical proportions. The “Liberty Tree” with the “Stamp Act” pinned to it surrounded by contemporary articles of war like cannons and cannon balls with romantic war tools like shields further suggest the romanization of the Revolution. Another vignette features Benjamin Franklin accompanied with Lady Liberty holding a banner, “Where Liberty Dwells There Is My Country” towards the Greek style “Temple of Fame.” Minerva, goddess of wisdom and other figures herald the path to the temple with cherubs holding a map featuring the newly independent United States. Franklin, in house slippers, grasps a scroll while Lady Liberty holds a slender spike with a liberty cap or Phrygian hat a reference from antiquity that in the early modern period became association with pursuit of liberty and freedom from slavery. Even the background landscaped incorporated symbolic imagery featuring the industrial American beaver, native flora, and a small scene of Bunker Hill.
At first glance, a British manufacture creating such a celebratory cloth of the American Revolution seems counterintuitive. However, British transmen recognized the large consumer markets throughout the Atlantic colonies and the United States. During the Revolutionary War, American consumers boycotted British made goods. Thus, the newly independent population clambered for manufactured and consumer goods, particularly cloth. French copperplate prints depicting the American Revolution often included visual clues of their own role within the war. Understandably, the British merchants and engravers were less inclined to highlight the role of their country within the visual motifs. Based on the fairly large remaining scraps of cloth, Apotheosis of Washington and Franklin were a popular print for bed hangings and curtains. In 1785, while staying at the President’s House in New York with his uncle Richard Henry Lee, Tommy Shippen commented, “which way soever I turn my eyes I find a triumphal Car, a Liberty Cap, a Temple of Fame or the Hero of Heroes, all these and many more objects of a piece with them, being finely represented on the Hangings.”
Cotton cloth production and printing developed in India and was brought to the Europe through early explorers and colonizers. Indian cotton woodblock print cloth’s increasing popularity led to a ban on its import in England to protect the countries wool industry. In the mid eighteenth century England lifted the import ban leading to a flurry of new printing techniques and a race to develop efficient mass production print. Copperplate printing came into fashion in the 1750s developed by Francis Nixon and Theophlius Thompson in Dramcondra, Ireland. The technique quickly spread to London before J.P. Oberkampf took the technique to France creating the distinctive and prolific Rococo style typical of “Toiles de Jouy” prints. Copperplate prints were created through etching thirty-six by thirty-six copper squares then running the cloth and plate through a press to transfer the image. Due to the level of detail and minimal color pallet, copperplate printed cloth typically depicted scenic or narrative designs. Copperplate production allowed for more detailed and larger scale printing but monochromatic made it ideal for bed furnishing and drapes. Since the cloth was printed through copper etching compared to woven or wood block printing, designs were quickly mass produced making cloth a vehicle for political messages as well as fashionable designs.