The Tale of Two Georges: A tour of the Royal Collection

The Tale of Two Georges: Queen Elizabeth II gives President Trump a tour of the Royal Collection

During his recent trip to London in connection with the 75th anniversary of D-Day, President Trump was given a tour by Queen Elizabeth II of selected items from the Royal Collection, one of the largest collections of art and historic artifacts in the world.

This post will discuss “The Tale of Two Georges: George III and George Washington,” one of eight specially created exhibits on display at Buckingham Palace during President Trump’s visit with her Royal Highness, the Queen. In addition to a discussion of each of the items displayed in the exhibit, this post will also provide background about King George III and the Royal Collection.

The “Tale of Two Georges” exhibit contained the following items of historical significance to Americans, which are each discussed below: 

  • A letter from George Washington to John Jay about the growing crisis under the Articles of Confederation and the possibility of re-entering politics (contained in a bound collection of John Jay’s personal correspondence);
  • a rare first edition book printed by order of the Continental Congress  in 1781 containing the the Declaration of Independence, the Article of Confederation and the constitutions of the original 13 states (printed by Francis Bailey in 1781);
  • a map of New York in 1775;
  • an account of a conversation between Benjamin West and George III about George Washington (according to Joseph Farington’s diary George III described George Washington as the “greatest man in the world” if he stepped down as Commander of the Continental Army after the Revolutionary War);
  • an engraved portrait of George Washington;
  • an engraved portrait of George III.

John Jay Correspondence with Washington:

In the mid-1780’s George Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison recognized that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate to hold the new nation together.  On August 15, 1786, George Washington wrote to John Jay agreeing that “our affairs are drawing rapidly to a crisis.” In the letter, Washington opined that a stronger central government was required:

I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the different state governments extends over the several States. To be fearful of vesting Congress, constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes, appears to me the very climax of popular absurdity and madness.

In the August 1786 letter, Washington expressed his reluctance to re-enter politics, but his colleagues would eventually prevail upon him to attend and preside over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. According to Washington:

Retired as I am from the world, I frankly acknowledge I cannot feel myself an unconcerned spectator. Yet having happily assisted in bringing the ship into port & having been fairly discharged; it is not my business to embark again on a sea of troubles. Nor could it be expected that my sentiments and opinions would have much weight on the minds of my Countrymen—they have been neglected, tho’ given as a last legacy in the most solemn manner.

The letter, written by Washington as a private citizen, is included in a bound volume of Jay’s correspondence (pictured below), which was written during the formative years of American history. 

For a link to a description of the book click here: Jay’s autographed letters in the Royal Collection. Click here for a link to the The Papers of John Jay: Volume 1 (1763-1780), Volume 2 (1781-1782), Volume 3 (1782-1793), Volume 4 (1794-1826).

John Jay was one of the most important founding fathers, who served in all branches of government. He was a delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congress from New York. During the Revolutionary War he served as President of the Second Continental Congress.

In addition to holding elective office, Jay served as minister to Spain, France and Great Britain, in which capacity he negotiated the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War. He then served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs (Secretary of State) under the Articles of Confederation. 

Jay helped draft the New York Constitution and served as Chief Justice for New York state. Along with Hamilton and Madison, Jay was one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, which was written to convince New York to ratify the Constitution. After the new Federal government began operating in 1789, Jay was appointed by Washington to serve as the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He later stepped down from the U.S. Supreme Court to become the Second Governor of New York.

The book of Jay’s signed correspondence was presented to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VII), during his visit to the United States in 1860. At the time, the future king (the oldest son of Queen Victoria and grandson of King George III) travelled under one of his lesser titles, Lord Renfrew. The front cover of the volume is inscribed, “For, Lord Renfrew, with the compliments of John Jay. The Jay Homestead, Bedford, Westchester County, New York. October 10. 1860.” The John Jay who gifted the book to Prince Albert was Chief Justice John Jay’s grandson, also named John Jay.

During his travels in America in 1860, Prince Albert attempted to promote Anglo-American relations. The goal of the trip was to demonstrate that the ill will generated by the American Revolution was resolved. For example, while touring Washington, D.C., Prince Albert contributed to the Washington Monument Fund. In the Capital rotunda, Prince Albert admired John Trumbull’s painting depicting Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. At the request of the Mount Vernon Association, he planted an Oak tree sapling near Washington’s final resting place.

American state and federal Constitutions printed by order of Congress (printed by Francis Bailey in 1781)

The second book contained in the Tale of Two Georges exhibit is an exceedingly rare first edition work containing the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the original state constitutions published in 1781. The volume was published by order the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. It is recognized as having played an important role informing the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.

“This work was the first authoritative and original printed texts of these important documents…It is, in short, the book which may be considered as the Magna Carta of the United States. It is scarcely necessary to say that this important work has been repeatedly reprinted.” (Sabin)

The full title of the publication is The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America; the Declaration of Independence; the Articles of Confederation between the said States; the Treaties between His Most Christian Majesty and the United States of America (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1781). It was published based on a resolution of the Continental Congress (pictured below) on December 29, 1780 that “a committee of three be appointed to collect and cause to be published 200 correct copies of the declaration of independence, the articles of confederation and perpetual union, the alliances between these United States and his Most Christian Majesty, with the constitutions or forms of government of the several states, to be bound together in boards.”

Click here for a link to a description of the book on the Royal Collection Trust’s website: Royal Collection link. Click here for a link to a digitized copy of the second edition of the work, published in 1783.

Pictured above is the title page of a privately held copy of the publication, pending the release of an image of the Queen’s copy.
Pictured above is the cover of a privately held copy of the book, pending the release of an image of the Queen’s copy.
Pictured above is a copy of the resolution by Continental Congress authorizing the publication of 200 copies of the rare publication.

Engraving of President George Washington

Pictured below is an engraving of President Washington which was on display in the Tale of Two Georges exhibit. The engraver, Christian Gobrecht, would become the third U.S. Coin Chief Engraver for the United States.  The engraving is simply titled “George Washington.” The full bust portrait shows Washington wearing a dark coat and a lace cravat. He is set against a stippled dark background.

The full bust portrait was engraved by Christian Gobrecht, based on a portrait drawn by B. Trott

Engraving of King George III

Copied below is an engraving of a young King George III, circa 1760. The mezzotint was created by Richard Houston, based on a painting by Robert Morland. A mezzotint is a print made from an engraved copper or steel plate, the surface of which has been partially roughened, for shading, and partially scraped smooth. The technique was commonly used in the 17th to early 19th centuries for the reproduction of paintings.

It is unclear if this is the exact mezzotint engraving on display during the state visit. This post will be updated as additional information becomes available.

Map of New York (1775):

“A Plan of the City of New York & its Environs,” by John Montresor, a military engineer working with the British army in the years leading up to the American Revolution

The British controlled New York City following the Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn). The British victory on April 27, 1776 was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. Following the battle, the British controlled New York City (and its strategic ports along the Hudson River Valley) through the balance of the war.

During the battle, the British outflanked the Continental Army and could potentially have captured George Washington. General Howe failed to aggressively pursue the Americans to Brooklyn Heights, allowing George Washington and his remaining forces to retreat from Manhattan on August 29 by boat. During the Battle of Brooklyn, the Americans suffered 1,000 casualties with the British losing only 400.

Approximately 1/3 of New York City was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1776. The fire began on the night of September 20. It is suspected that the fire was started by American rebels. British General William Howe reported to London that “a most horrid attempt was made by a number of wretches to burn the town.” In a letter to his cousin dated October 6, 1776, George Washington wrote that “Providence—or some good honest Fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves, as near One fourth of the City is supposed to be consumed, however enough of it remains to answer their purposes.”

Following the fire Howe imposed martial law in the overcrowded city. The homes of Patriots were seized for British officers. Churches not affiliated with the Church of England were converted into prisons, barracks, and infirmaries.

New York City’s trees, which weren’t destroyed by fire, were cut down for fuel during a series of brutal winters during the war. George Washington’s diary on July 18, 1781 and reconnaissance reports describe that “the Island is totally stripped of Trees and wood of every kind.” Thus, the City’s orchards and old woods were collateral damage to the American Revolution. Click here for a discussion of the British occupation of New York during the war and Alexander Hamilton’s representation of British loyalists after the war.

Diary entry containing King George III’s description of George Washington as the “greatest man in the world” should he step down after the War

Perhaps the most personal item in the exhibit was a selection from the diary of  Joseph Farington, describing a conversation between King George III and the American painter, Benjamin West. According to Farington, King George had high praise for Washington, if he were to step down as President. The full passage from the diary is copied below:

West told me that during the American War, a sort of Committee of American Loyalists sat at New York, who had such influence with the Ministry here that their advice was followed in everything. It consisted of Andrew Eliott, a Scotchman married & settled in America, — Franklin, — and Joseph Galloway,– the latter of whom came to England and was the acting adviser here. — After the defeat of Lord Cornwallis, a report was circulated here that the Royal Standard was raised in Philadelphia. — West was one day with the King when He came from Court to Dinner, & His Majesty mentioned the circumstances & asked West if He corresponded with any persons in America & had heard of it. West told his Majesty that a Quaker was lately arrived from Philadelphia and was with him the day before, and He asked the King when the Standard was raised. The King said the day mentioned was June 25th. — West observed that the Quaker left Philadelphia July 1st. — and knew nothing of such a circumstance. The Queen was present at this conversation.

The next day West had occasion to go to the Queens Palace to transact some business for the Queen, which when He had done it, she asked him if He was engaged that morning. He said not. She then told him to go into Her Closet with Her which He did & found the King sitting there. — The King began to talk abt. America. He asked West what would Washington do were America to be declared independant. West said He believed He would retire to a private situation. — The King said if He did He would be the greatest man in the world. He asked West how He thought the Americans would act towards this country if they became independant. West said the war had made much ill blood but that would subside, & the dispositions of many of the Chiefs, Washington, Lawrence, — Adams, — Franklin, — Jay were favorable to this country which would soon have a preference to any other European Nation.

Benjamin West was a Pennsylvania-born painter who spent his adult life in Europe, much of which was spent painting for George III. West was elected President of the Royal Academy and trained many painters, including Charles Wilson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull. The conversation described in Farington’s diary is reported to have taken place at the end of the Revolutionary War, after the Battle of Yorktown (not after General Washington had completed his presidency, as is sometimes asserted).

In other words, President Washington had recently died when Benjamin West reported the remark to Farington — but neither would have known of Washington’s passing at the time. Washington died on December 14, 1799, but the news did not reach London until late January, 1800. Farington’s diary entry is dated December 28, 1799. Click here for a link to Farington’s diary. Farington was an 18th Century landscape painter and writer. His daily diary of thirty years has proved a valuable reference for historians, particularly for its insights into the London art scene. 

Royal Collection Trust:

The Royal Collection is housed in 13 locations across the United Kingdom, including Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and the Tower of London. One of the largest and most important art collections in the world, the Royal Collection is one of the only European royal collections that remains intact. The Collection covers the spectrum of fine and decorative arts and contains more than a million items. In addition to paintings, the collection also includes books, papers, prints, photographs, furniture, sculpture, jewelry, porcelain, clocks, arms and armor.

As described on the Royal Collection Trust’s website, the Collection is a “unique and valuable record of the personal tastes of kings and queens over the past 500 years.” However, the majority of the Crown’s possession were sold by Oliver Cromwell after Charles I was executed in 1649. Thus, the Royal Collection was largely compiled following the Monarchy’s Restoration beginning in 1660’s.

The Royal Library dates back to the 1470s when it was formed by Edward the IV.  The separate Royal Archives includes the papers of various monarchs, including King George III. The British Library, akin to the Library of Congress, holds 170 million items.

The Royal Collection has grown over the centuries, with particularly important additions being made by Frederick, Prince of WalesGeorge III; George IVQueen Victoria and Prince Albert; and Queen Mary, the consort of King George V. The Royal Collection is held in trust by The Queen, which means that she does not own it individually.

The Academicians of the Royal Academy 1771-1772, oil on canvas by Johan Joseph Zoffany
Pictured above is the East Library in Buckingham House, that George III made available to scholars upon application.

King George III

King George III was the first monarch from the House of Hanover to be born in Great Britain. As a result he spoke English as his native language and was passionate about books and learning. George III established the British Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 and may have donated more than half of his personal income to charity. In addition to the loss of the American colonies (and the loss of his mind), he is remembered by scholars as a collector of books and a patron of the arts. He also rebuilt the Royal library which he made available to scholars.

Recognized as one of the most cultured royals, George III was the first king to study science along with agriculture. He even had his own astronomical observatory. Examples of his scientific instruments can now be seen in the Science Museum.

Exchange of Gifts

While beyond the scope of this post, it is useful to note that during his state visit, President Trump was presented by Prime Minster Theresa May with a draft of the Atlantic Charter, signed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1941. The Atlantic Charter declared common goals for the world, including free trade, disarmament and the right to self-determination and democracy. The Atlantic Charter helped lay the groundwork for the United Nations and the World Trade Organization following World War II and underscores the special relationship shared between the U.S. and United Kingdom.

Prior to viewing the display at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth presented to President Trump a 1959 first edition of The Second World War by Winston Churchill, along with a leather box containing a three-piece Duofold pen set. 

Additional Reading:

The Queen shows President Trump Copies of Declaration of Independence, June 3, 2019 (Daily Mail)

The Queen shows President Trump on of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence, June 3, 2019 (Express Mirror)

Trump gets royal treatment with state visit to the United Kingdom, June 3, 2019 (ABC News).

Christian Gobrecht engraving of Washington based on Trott drawing in Mount Vernon collection

Richard Houston engraving of George III, based on Henry Robert Morland drawing in National Portrait Gallery in England

The Magna Carta of the United States (Bauman Rare Books)

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