This hand drawn student work, signed and dated inside a wreath of floral branches "ROXBURY Free School Febr. 8th, 1800, Abraham S. Fox Scripsit." is both a tribute and a mourning piece to the recently deceased President George Washington a scant six weeks after the President's death. Abraham S. Fox dedicates this drawing to his teacher "To the Preceptor" in the lower right corner. Perhaps this work was a classroom exercise. The hand drawn tribute predates the nationally declared day of mourning, February 22, 1800 and may therefore have been an assignment in anticipation of that day or a student's gift to his teacher. This work is apparently unique.
The piece is a manuscript work of pictorial art and decorative calligraphy done primarily in black ink on plain paper. The composition is dominated at the top by two large, hand drawn angels in flowing robes, each clasping a large trumpet and together holding up a banner that reads "WASHINGTON" over a funerary urn on a traditional plinth with a hand drawn plate reading "Born February 22nd, 1732 Obt Decr. 14th 1799." Below this funerary urn, hand written in larger letters is a poem unattributed here but likely known from newspaper accounts following President-elect George Washington taking the oath of office April 30, 1789, in full public view on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. The nation's first President placed his hand upon a hastily delivered Bible belonging to the local Masons of St. John's Lodge. The poem Abraham S. Fox inscribes on his work reads:
"Fame stretched her wings and with her trumpet blew.
Great Washington is near. What praise is due?
What title shall he have? She paused, and said
‘Not one - his name alone strikes every title dead."
According to the published notes of the St. John's Lodge about their Bible, it was open to Genesis XLIX for President Washington's oath. The St. John's Lodge Bible has an engraved illustration at this page of angels each blowing a brass horn. After the historic oath taking, the Mason's commemorated President Washington's reliance on their Bible for his oath and inserted an engraved note in their Bible to preserve for posterity this Bible's role (and the Mason's role) in the swearing in of America's first President. The engraved note added by the St. John's Lodge to their Bible includes both the poem later transcribed verbatim by Abraham S. Fox in his composition and the St. John's Lodge record of that day:
"On this sacred volume, on the 30th day of April, A. L. 5789, in the City of New York, was administered to George Washington, the first president of the United States of America, the oath to support the Constitution of the United States. This important ceremony was performed by the Most Worshipful Grand Master of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York, the Honorable Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of the State.
This work of art by Abraham S. Fox is apparently unique. Mr. Christopher Heaton, Archivist and Librarian at the Roxbury Latin School of Boston, the successor to the Roxbury Free School, generously spent time speaking with me, checked Roxbury Latin archives and confirmed that there are no examples of this drawing in the Roxbury Latin School Archives. Mr. Heaton documented that Alexander S. Fox is an alumnus of the class of 1803, later Dartmouth College class of 1807, from Roxbury, Massachusetts. Sadly Fox died young in 1810. Mr. Heaton also explained that the early Roxbury Free School preceptors often held only one year appointments while studying for the bar, were frequently alumni and therefore few records were kept of their names, and none for 1800.
The art work and accompanying calligraphy are hand drawn on stiff paper. There is no evidence of tracing the imagery from an underlying model. Abraham S. Fox demonstrates his figure drawing skills –the two angels are likely based on published Bible illustrations of angels in Genesis. Abraham also shows off his repertoire of calligraphic art, both in the block title "WASHINGTON", the calligraphic lettering of the poem, the hand drawn floral frame, his school name "Free School", the city "ROXBURY" and most of all in his own elaborately signed name. The paper has a turned edge, and some evidence of minor trimming to fit its frame.
The penmanship arts were taught in early American schools and early American copy books aided these studies. See Ray Nash, American Penmanship, 1800-1950: A History of Writing and a Bibliography of Copybooks from Jenkins to Spencer. AAS, Worcester, Mass. 1969. I had hoped to find other examples of drawing or penmanship exercises in the archives of the Roxbury Latin School to test the hypothesis that this was a school exercise with models that each student consulted, but no such models at Roxbury Latin exist. We are therefore left to conjecture whether this was a composition from Abraham S. Fox's imagination or influenced by a variety of examples shown to him. The reference to the Mason's Bible and poetry insert in their Bible used at Washington's swearing in may have come from Abraham Fox's father – perhaps he was a Mason. I have not to date located any other published examples of this angel imagery with this poem.
This manuscript piece dated 1800 is rare. By 1820 and onward, George Washington mourning works were common, printed and published as broadsides, pamphlets, prints and even maps composed using conventional imagery such as George Washington's portrait, an American flag, funerary urns and willows.
On the back of this drawing is a hand written narrative. My transcription of this text is: "Grandma Livermore drew this (?these) before she was married in 1808 to Solomon K. Livermore + he wrote the words in – She had pictures of the King + Queen of England in these frames + had to burn them up for fear of being thought a traitor. Told me by Elizabeth Adkins Livermore in 1908."
I discovered this inscription when I removed the Abraham S. Fox drawing from its period, black, wood frame. I have no basis for forming an opinion about this text on the verso of this work.