Revolutionary War Historical Article

George and Martha Washington from a Scottish Artist's Point of View

By Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the May 2001 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter

On rare occasions a researcher encounters an obscure letter or diary entry that is worthy of publishing. Such is the case with the observances of artist Archibald Robertson.

The Earl of Buchan, who wanted a portrait of George Washington, hired 30 year old artist Archibald Robertson, who was already planning on sailing to the new world, to paint it for him. He presented Robertson with a letter of introduction dated 28 June 1791.

To insure that the President of the United States, George Washington, would pose for a painting, the Earl sent a gift. The gift, in the words of the Earl was "I did myself the pleasure to transmit to you by Mr. Robertson of Aberdeen a testimony of my sincere respect contained in a box made of the venerable oak which sheltered our great [Sir William] Wallace after his defeat at Falkirk, which box was cut out of the tree by the proprietor, and sent to the Corporation of Goldsmiths of Edinburgh. It is a respectable curiosity and I will flatter myself be a relic of long endurance in America, as a mark of that esteem with which I have the honor to be, Etc."

Apparently the gift was accepted and President Washington sat for a portrait painted by Robertson. Robertson noted in his diary the meeting with President Washington and sheds a great light on his personality. We have transcribed Robertson's diary which was written in the third person, a practice quite common in the 18th century.

"The bearer of Lord Buchan's compliments, although familiarly to intimate intercourse with those of the highest rank and station in his native country, never felt as he did on his first introduction to the American hero. The excitation in the mind of the stranger was evidently obvious to Washington, for from his ordinary cold and distant address he declined into the most easy and familiar intercourse in conversation, with a view to disembarrass his visitor from the agitation excited by the presence of a man whose exalted character had impressed him with the highest sentiments of respect and veneration for such a lofty virtue."

Washington easily penetrated into the heart and feelings of Lord Buchan's friend, and he left no means untried to make him feel perfectly at ease in his company during the period he intended to spend with him in Philadelphia. The General, not finding his efforts altogether successful, introduced him to Mrs. Washington, whose easy, polished and familiar gayety and ceaseless cheerfulness, almost accomplished a cure, by the aid of her grandchildren, G. W. Custis and Miss Eleanor Custis, afterwards Mrs. Lewis, and the nephews of General Washington. Another effort of the first President to compose his guest was at a family dinner party, in which the General, contrary to his usual habits, engrossed most of the conversation at the table, and so delighted the company with humorous anecdotes that he repeatedly set the table in a roar.

The results of these attentions the General now perceived had nearly produced a radical change, and to have the desired effect of fitting the artist to the task he had undertaken for Lord Buchan, in making as good a likeness of Washington as he possibly could. The artist being now prepared, and left to his own direction in the manner and way he should proceed in his progress, preferred making his original first attempt in miniature on ivory, in watercolors; paripassu, he at the same time painted a likeness of Mrs. Washington as a mate to the General's.

The original one, painted for Lord Buchan was in oils, and of a size corresponding to those of the collection of portraits of the most celebrated worthies in liberal principles and in useful literature in the possession of his Lordship at Bryburgh Abbey, near Melrose, on the borders of Scotland."

The artist then went on to describe in great detail the dinner which he attended. He wrote that it started at 3:00 p.m., was plain but suitable for a family in genteel and comfortable circumstances. There was nothing especially remarkable at the table, but that the General and Mrs. Washington sat side by side, he on the right of his lady; the gentlemen on his right hand and the ladies on her left. It being Saturday, the first course was mostly of eastern cod and fresh fish. A few glasses of wine were drunk during the dinner, with other beverages; the whole closed with a few glasses of sparkling champagne, in about three quarters of an hour, when the General and Colonel Lear retired, leaving the ladies in high glee about Lord Buchan and the "Wallace Box".

Author's Notes: Attending the dinner were General and Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Nathaniel Greene, Colonel John Trumbull, Colonel Tobias Lear; Major Jackson and Archibald Robertson.

The "Wallace Box" was about four inches long, and three inches wide, and two inches deep, constructed of six pieces of the heart of the oak that sheltered Sir William Wallace after the battle of Falkirk. It was about one­eighth inch thick, well polished on the outside, and the whole united by a handsome silver binding. The lid opened on hinges. Inside the box was a silver plate with the inscription: "Presented by the gold­smiths of Edinburgh to David Stuart Erskine, Earl of Buchan, with the freedom of their corporation,. by their Deacon, 1791."

Curiously, George Washington, in his will, bequeathed the Wallace Box back to the Earl of Buchan. Perhaps Washington realized that the Wallace Box belonged in its native Scotland.

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