Articles

The Art Trophies from When the White House Went Up in Flames

by Allison Meier on September 1, 2014

Engraving of the capture of Washington, DC by the British during the War of 1812 (via Library of Congress)

Engraving of the capture of Washington, DC by the British during the War of 1812 (via Library of Congress)

The 200th anniversary of the burning of the White House passed without much hullabaloo last week, aside from the British Embassy in Washington, DC, having to apologize for their tweet that in questionable taste joked they’d only be lighting the President’s home with sparklers on a cake this time. The rather erroneously named War of 1812 (it stretched until 1815) is one of the lesser-known wars of the United States. Still, art looted away in the calamity of August 24, 1814, the day the British torched the White House and other buildings in Washington, DC, remains scattered along the war lines.

A story shared last week on the BBC’s Magazine Monitor details some of these artifacts, notably four paintings of King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte taken from the White House by the British. While First Lady Dolley Madison whisked away the Landsdowne portrait of George Washington from the threatening flames (with significant help from a slave named Paul Jennings), she likely didn’t have as much interest in the royalty. Along with the art, the soldiers took a grandfather clock and a receipt book used by James Madison, all of which ended up sailing to Bermuda with the British Navy. Now the paintings gaze with regal confidence from the walls of Bermuda’s parliament and house assembly.

The Bermuda House of Assembly, with the paintings of King George III & Queen Charlotte Sophia in the background (via bermuda-online.org)

The Bermuda House of Assembly, with the paintings of King George III & Queen Charlotte Sophia in the background (via bermuda-online.org)

The looting wasn’t, of course, one-sided, as the BBC points out, with the Americans still having many War of 1812 trophies in the US Naval Academy in Maryland, such as a gilded lion stolen away from York, now Toronto. Amends are slowly being made, even if they often take a light-hearted tone, such as in 2013 when the United States replaced books taken from Toronto’s library during the Battle of York. Inside the reconstructed White House burn marks remain, and you can find a bit of the charred timber now in the Smithsonian. It’s likely King George III won’t be returning to the White House anytime soon.

George Munger, "The President's House" (1814-15), watercolor on paper, showing the burned-out White House (via the White House Historical Association)

George Munger, “The President’s House” (1814-15), watercolor on paper, showing the burned-out White House (via the White House Historical Association)

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