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  EXTREMELY EARLY COPY OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE ON SILK, DESIGNED AFTER WOODRUFF, ENGRAVED BY H. BRUNET ET CIE, LYON, FRANCE, CA 1820-25

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): 39.25" x 32"
Flag Size (H x L): 28" x 20.75"
Description....:
Declaration of Independence, engraved on silk and signed by H. Brunet of Lyon, France. Made ca 1820-1825 for distribution to the American market, the image is executed after a well-known engraving by American William Woodruff, which he published in Philadelphia on parchment in 1819.

Before 1818, Americans were not able to view copies of the Declaration of Independence. The text had been published in some newspapers during the 18th century, but at the time it was more of a tool to achieve independence and not precisely the iconic treasure that it would soon become, and there were no large-scale, printed copies that reproduced the actual document or any representation thereof.

John Binns began taking subscriptions to fund a facsimile of the Declaration in 1816, but failed to produce the work until three years later, in April of 1819. In the meantime, rival printer, Benjamin Owen Tyler, became the first to publish an engraved rendition, which he released in 1818. Printed on parchment, velum, linen and silk, this appeared in a simple, unembellished style, without pictorial imagery. Almost all were printed on parchment. Today just four of Tyler's engravings are estimated to survive that are printed on cloth. This is actually a fairly remarkable number, because, according to Declaration expert Seth Kaller, only 6 may have ever been ordered. Tyler's original ledger book is among the holdings of the University of Virginia, where it is part of the Albert H. Small Declaration of Independence Collection. Having had the opportunity to pour through the book to compile data, Kaller counted "roughly 1,694 copies sold on paper, 40 on vellum, 3 on silk, and 3 on linen."

The Binns version was to be much more fanciful. In his design, the text appeared within an oval wreath that featured circular medallions containing the seals of the original colonies, crowned by formal portraits of George Washington, John Adams, and John Hancock. Washington's image, in the top center, is cradled by cornucopia, set beneath a federal eagle, and flanked to the right and left by groups of battle flags, tipped at ninety degrees in reverence to the general. The base of the oval is adorned with wheat spray and laurel leaves. Binns used five artists to complete his work. He listed his credits as: “Originally designed by John Binns, ornamental part drawn by Geo. Bridport, arms of the United States and the Thirteen States drawn from official documents by Thomas Sully, Portrait of Gen’l Washington painted in 1795 by Stuart, Portraits of Thomas Jefferson in 1816 by Otis, Portrait of John Hancock painted in 1765 by Copley, Ornamental part, arms of the United States and the Thirteen States engreaved by Geo. Murry, the writing designed and engraved by C.H. Parker, Portraits engraved by J.B. Longacre, Printed by James Porter.”

While Binns was developing his design, the concept for it is alleged to have been stolen by William Woodruff, who formerly worked for an employee of Binns' by the name of George Murray. While working for Binns, Murray had been responsible for designing the Arms of the United States and the 13 state seals on his version of the Declaration.

Woodruff went about producing a very similar printing, with some alterations, including different portraits of Washington and Jefferson, the replacement of John Hancock's portrait with one of John Adams. The Woodruff design had signatures that were uniformly printed in script (save for the signature of Hancock), rather than being facsimiles of the actual signatures. He included trumpets in the array of flags, slightly raised, plus a much larger eagle and branches of oak that were woven through the entire wreath. Woodruff completed the project at a lower cost and released his version two months before Binns, in February of 1819 as opposed to April. Binns accused Woodruff of stealing his concept and filed a lawsuit against him, but lost because the magistrate declared that “neither the design, nor general arrangement of the print, nor the parts which composed it, were the invention of the plaintiff.”

In or about 1820, the Woodruff version was copied in black ink on white silk by H. Brunet in Lyon, France. Producing for the American market, it reproduced the Woodruff illustration almost exactly, with but minor differences. Most notable is a fine black border with 6-pointed white stars in relief, each with a pierced center. Brunet's title in the bottom center actually includes Woodruff's name. This reads: "To the People of the United States this Engraving of Declaration of Independence is most respectfully inscribed: Woodruff." The title is the same as that on Woodruff's printings, but omits the closing words "by a fellow citizen." On Woodruff's own versions, his name appears on a lower line, proceeded by either "Wm." or "William" (two styles are known). The body of the Declaration in the Brunet example is very similar, but is laid out a bit differently. The calligraphic signatures are also different. The Brunet version includes his signature in fine script, to the lower right of the medallion in the bottom center. Wrapping around the oak leaves, this reads: "Lith di H. Brunet Cie. a Lyon".

An example of the Brunet printing is in the collection of the New York Historical Society and is documented in "Threads of History: Americana Recorded on Cloth, 1775 to the Present" by Herbert Ridgeway Collins (1979, Smithsonian Press) as item 57 on p. 72. Collins lists two versions, one by Decombreause and one by Brunet, both in Lyon, but this appears to be an error.* Whatever the case may be, the Frenchman, Brunet, seems to have foreseen the opportunity to produce a superior object for a more discriminating client, printed on the finest cloth instead of parchment. He may have forecast increased interest in purchasing copies of the Declaration with the forthcoming 50-year anniversary of American Independence in 1826, and/or in accompaniment of Lafayette's final visit to America and his nation-wide tour in conjunction with the event (July 1824 - Sept. 1825).

In summary, this is one of the earliest copies of the Declaration in any form that was made available to the American people. It was printed on the finest cloth, during the Federal period, and on the heels of another British defeat in the War of 1812. The French town of Lyon was known for its expertise in silk manufacturing. French involvement in the American victory during the Revolutionary War and the ongoing French conflicts with the British add a degree of color to the origin of this textile, surviving examples of which are extremely rare. Thus far my research has uncovered approximately four known examples, of which this is one.

It is of interest to note that the first identical copies of the Declaration of Independence were not made until 1823. With the 50-year anniversary of the document close at hand, fear of the degradation of the original caused John Quincy Adams to seek out the services of William J. Stone of Washington, D.C., who soaked the original in order to make a copperplate engraving. Stone then printed a copy on rice paper for each state and each surviving signer. It was not copied again until 1843, when the Stone plate was allowed to be used by Peter Force for another printing that was inserted in a book.

Mounting: The textile was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by masters degree trained staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.

The black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed molding is Italian. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass. Feel free to contact us for more details.

Condition: There is moderate to significant foxing and soiling at the top and bottom and on the outer edges to the left and right, accompanied by much more minor exposure to this elsewhere. There is some fabric breakdown with associated loss around the perimeter, mostly on the white edge beyond the black border, though slightly into the border in limited areas. Fabric of similar coloration was placed behind the textile during the mounting process for masking purposes. The underlay fabric was professionally painted where necessary to match.

* There seems to be a discrepancy of some sort in the Collins text, which describes the NYHS example as "lithographed by "Decombreause," Lyon, France," and appearing in "Black on Yellow" silk, and measuring 27 1/2" x 28". The textile pictured by Collins is obviously not square, as the measurements would suggest. At the end of the Collins citation, he notes "A similar silk bandana was lithographed by H. Brunet et Cie, Lyon, France ca 1820 in size 28 1/4" x 21 1/8." Both the Brunet textile at the NYHS, and the one in question in this write-up, appear to match the rectangular one that is actually pictured by Collins. The on-line database for the NYHS includes a citation for an H. Brunet version in their collection, but mentions nothing about one by "Decombreause." Internet searches for a Decombreause version resulted in zero hits and I can find no record of any printer or engraver by that name. It seems likely that the Collins citation faced some editing issues. Maybe Decombreause was the engraver, while H. Brunet was the printer, but the name could have simply been transposed from somewhere in error. Whatever the case may be, a signature at the bottom of the textile in question in this write-up reads "Lith di H. Brunet Cie. a Lyon."

As for the color of the silk being listed as "yellow," it may be that the textile was once white and oxidized towards yellow, and was subsequently recorded as such by someone compiling the data in the museum. Further, the width was probably "21 1/2", mis-transposed by someone as 27 1/2", misreading the "1" as a "7". If this is true, then the tiny remaining differences of 3/8" and 1/8", in width and height, between what Collins records in his book and what the NYHS records today on their website, is probably just margin of error. The two are probably one-in-the-same. Early textiles are seldom ever square and the slight inaccuracy of two people measuring the same textiles would not be big surprise.

My research has uncovered many discrepancies throughout the Collins text, but by stating this I mean no disrespect to the author. In all fairness, the 566-page book, with its compilation of 1,501 objects from all over the country, would have been very difficult to produce in 1979, with no digital formatting. The book was never reprinted. The opportunity to edit digitally and to reprint would have certainly coincided with tons of corrections. Collins' work is both magnificent and invaluable in the study of early American political cloth.
Collector Level: Advanced Collectors and the Person with Everything
Flag Type:
Star Count:
Earliest Date of Origin: 1820
Latest Date of Origin: 1825
State/Affiliation:
War Association: 1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
Price: SOLD
E-mail: Inquire
 

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