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|Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
|Would you believe that Andy Warhol's elegiac send-ups of contemporary figures have an 18th-century precursor? In honor of President's Day, Feb. 21, consider the devotion shown to our Founding Father, George Washington. For glorification of a single character, nothing beats period memorabilia emblazoned with George's image.
Even lowly textiles were subject to Washington's cult of personality. One early 19th-century kerchief, a mere square of muslin, bears a print detailing the death of George (he's flanked by his two physicians and a weeping Martha). Presently with textile dealer Cora Ginsberg, this kerchief is really the printed T-shirt of its day and its laudatory language is a paean from the past:
First in War, first in Peace, first in the hearts of Americans, first in the Eyes of the Worlds…he is embalmed by the tears of AMERICA, entombed in the hearts of his Countrymen, admired by the enlightened of all Lands, immortalized by his own great actions and the regrets of Mankind.
The price for such patriotic glory on a 21-inch square? A mere $1,500. "It's exceedingly rare," explains Ginsberg's Titi Halle.
Printed textiles were the method of deification for George. Shortly after John Turnbull painted the President's portrait in 1780, it was engraved in profusion and Washington patterns became highly sought after. Fabrics bearing his likeness were sold in Philadelphia as early as the 1780s.
Other renditions at Cora Ginsberg include a cotton panel with a copper engraved pattern of the "apotheosis of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington." Dating from 1785, this fabric is taupe on a white background and costs $1,300. There's even an 1876 print with George in medallions interspersed with navy shields containing scales of justice. "Often such fabrics were made up as bed hangings or draperies," says Hall. Somehow, the thought of cruising through a room bedecked with curtains and swags of George seems peculiar, to say the least. Today, clients often frame the textiles to accompany their Americana furniture.
As the years rolled by, our Founding Father was lauded in other forms. Right now, Lauren Stanley Gallery on Madison Avenue is featuring a timely exhibition titled "George Washington American Medallion Silver." In the 1860s, some 30 manufacturers turned out medallion silver, predominantly faced with Greek and Roman gods. A second wave of medallion silver occurred two decades later. "But silver with George is especially rare," says dealer Stanley Szaro.
Back in the 19th century, medallion silver was hardly considered a common trinket. Then, a silver fish fork and knife with the presidential profile cost $40 or the equivalent of a month's wages by a skilled laborer.
Amidst the soup ladles, serving spoons and salt spoons on display are a one-of-a-kind sugar spoon and butter knife by the prominent New York silversmith, Joseph Seymour. Dating from 1865, the spoon and knife are decorated with the common housefly -- done in 18-karat gold no less. "Naturalism was important in those days," says Szaro. So much for flies on the flatware.
Much of the silver is from private collections, but some are for sale, with a single spoon priced at $300.
But the crème de la resistance could just be a French clock at Israel Sack, crafted in gilded brass and bronze topped with a bust of George. The price is $75,000 for the 1810 clock. "But a similar one sold for $165,000 at Sotheby's recently," says Albert Sack.
Clearly, George sells strongly. If you should want such a memento, act quickly. Last Thursday, Dean Levy sold a George Washington clock in record time. "The demand for clocks with President Washington is incredible," says Levy.
Cora Ginsberg, 19 East 74th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021 (212) 744-1352, by appointment only.
Lauren Stanley Gallery, 300 East 51st Street, New York, N.Y. 10022 (212) 888-6732. "George Washington American Medallion Silver" is on view Feb. 22- April 3, 2000.
Israel Sack, 730 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019 (212) 399 6562.
Bernard & S. Dean Levy, 24 East 84th Street, New York, N.Y. 10028 (212) 628-7088.
BROOK S. MASON writes on decorative arts and antiques.