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This medicine chest, composed of walnut, brass, and ivory, was created in the late eighteenth- early nineteenth century and belonged to President James Madison.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

When the President’s House was consumed by fire in 1814, furnish­ings purchased over twenty-five years by the United States government for Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were lost. Among them were the eighteenth-centu­ry objects from the two resi­dences occupied by President Washington in New York in 1789 and 1790 and from the Philadelphia home in which he and then Adams lived from 1790 to 1800. Jefferson, the first president to live in the White House for a full term, inherited those earlier furnish­ings and passed them along to President and Mrs. Madison, who commissioned specially designed furniture for the Oval Drawing Room (today’s Blue Room) in 1809 from their friend, the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. We know from Latrobe’s surviving drawings that the ensemble of chairs and sofas followed the fashion­ able Grecian style intro­duced to England by Thomas Hope and popular­ized thereafter by Thomas Sheraton and others.1

Many objects with fam­ily histories linking them to the building before the fire have been brought to the attention of the White House, but few can be documented. Because the in­terior perished in the fire, it is the rare surviving items—a wallpaper border, a medicine chest, and paintings of George Washington, Dolley Madison, and an English officer, Captain Richard Shaw—that provide a glimpse of the house and the individuals and stories connect­ ed to one of the most dramatic chapters in Washington and White House history.

One of two objects in the White House associated with the British military forces which participated in the inva­sion of Maryland, Virginia, and the city of Washington in 1814 is a small, portable medicine chest of walnut, which belonged to President Madison. It came into the possession of Thomas Kains, a purser on the British warship Devastation, which sailed up the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, in August 1814. “How time mel­lows our perspective of events. . . President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Kains’s grandson, who presented the chest to him in 1939 with a family history of having been looted from the President’s House.2 He said that it would become one of his most cherished possessions; it went to the Roosevelt Library, which has generously lent the chest to the White House since 1961.

This portrait of Richard Henry Shaw was a watercolor done on ivory, c. 1815

White House Collection

A recent gift to the White House collection is a miniature painting of a young man, Richard Henry Shaw, a member of the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Fourth Regiment of Foot), one of three infantry bat­talions selected to form part of a force sent to North America that was engaged in the inva­sion of Washington. (More than half of the Fourth Regiment was killed in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.) Captain Shaw, who appears on the British Army List of 1814, is depicted in the uniform of a flank company officer of his regiment of Foot.3 Accompany­ing the painting is a brass-plat­ed iron regimental buckle engraved with the arms of the “King’s Own Regiment,” which Shaw is wearing in the portrait, and a handwritten note stating that Captain Shaw had served honorably “by setting fire to the White House during the War with America 1814.”

This portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart was saved by First Lady Dolley Madison from being destroyed along with the other paintings during the burning of the White House.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Americans are familiar with the account of the rescue of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, purchased for the President’s House in 1800, which was saved in 1814 because of Dolley Madison’s insis­tence on its removal from the house in the midst of the chaos surrounding the impend­ing British invasion. Stories relating to its rescue have entered the realm of White House mythology.

Two decades after the fire, Dolley Madison wrote that she had ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas removed. Other nineteenth-century accounts describe the Madisons’ maitre d’hotel, Jean Sioussat, cutting the painting from its frame because of the difficulty of unscrewing the frame from its location in the State Dining Room amidst the rush to vacate the house.4 When conservators examined the painting in 1978, however, no evidence was found to indicate that the canvas had been cut or that it had been taken from its stretcher and rolled up before being placed in a wagon and taken away for safekeeping.5 Mrs. William Thornton saw the portrait of Washington among a cartload of goods carried from the President’s House as the defeated American troops escorted the Thorntons and other Washingtonians out of the city ahead of the British.6

The painting was taken temporarily to a private house in nearby Maryland by the two men, Jacob Barker and Robert DePeyster,who had carted it away. It remained there until it was returned to the care of the government a few weeks later. In 1817 it was placed again in the President’s House, where it has hung prominently ever since. It is one of four depictions of Washington by Stuart in the full-length format known as the Lansdowne type because one was commissioned in 1796 for Lord Shelburne, first Marquess of Lansdowne, a British admirer of Washington.

Mary Latrobe, a friend of the Madisons', was the owner of this Chinese lacquer tea box containing a section of French wallpaper inside. This example is the only evidence that such papers were used in the White House before 1814.

White House Historical Association

The Madisons’ friendship with Benjamin Henry Latrobe and his wife, Mary, resulted in the preservation of one of the few surviving artifacts from the pre-1814 President’s House. It is a section of a French wallpa­per border that lines the inside of a Chinese lacquer tea box of 1811. The wallpaper pattern, with green leaves and white flo­ral decorations on a pink ground, was printed from wood blocks used by the Parisian firm of Jacquemart et Benard, which was active between 1791 and 1825.7 French papers were pop­ular in early nineteenth-century America, but this example is the only evidence that such papers were used in the White House before 1814.

Inscribed on the paper in the hand of Julia Latrobe, the Latrobes’ daughter, is the following: “Paper upon the Drawing Room of the President’s House in Mr. Madison’s time, given to my mother by Mrs. Madison.”8 Descriptions of the Madison White House do not reveal the room in which the wallpaper was hung; it may have been installed in the second floor oval room, in the private apart­ments where the Madisons received personal friends.

A portrait of First Lady Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart. Stuart also painted the famous portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison smuggled out of the White House before it was ransacked by British troops in 1814.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Ten years before the events of 1814 that earned Dolley Madison a prominent place in White House lore, James Madison, then secretary of state in President Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet, commissioned portraits of Mrs. Madison and himself from the celebrated artist Gilbert Stuart, who was living in Washington and at work painting national notables. “Stewart [sic] has taken an admirable picture of Mr. Madison—his and mine are finished,” Dolley Madison wrote in 1804 to her sister, Anna Payne Cutts, whose portrait by Stuart is also in the White House collection.9

Dolley Madison, the best-known first lady of the nineteenth century, was a gregarious person who received political and social Washington at weekly receptions, or “drawing rooms,” in the President’s House. She also assisted the wid­owed Jefferson as his hostess at the President’s House during the time she sat for her portrait. She is depicted at the age of thirty-six, dressed in the neoclassi­cal style popular in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France and America.

Her portrait escaped the fire of 1814, as it was not in the White House, but in Montpelier, the Madisons’ Virginia home, where it remained until Mrs. Madison moved permanently to her home on Lafayette Square in 1843. Her son sold it after her death, and by 1899 it had been acquired by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which lent it to the White House in 1970. Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted its donation to the White House collection. The portrait hangs in the room that had been Dolley Madison’s sitting room and the scene of her drawing rooms, the current Red Room.

This article was originally published in White House History Number 4 Fall 1998

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s drawings for the White House furniture are in the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore. See also Conover llunt-Jones, Dolley and the "Great Little Madison" (Washington. D. C.. American Institute of Architects Foundation, 1977.)
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt to Archibald Kains, April 26, 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.
  3. The National Army Museum and the King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum, London, have verified that Captain Shaw served with the King’s Own Royal Regiment, receiving his commission in 1804. He was one of 300 men held prisoner by the French from 1810 until released in 1813.
  4. See John H. McCormick, “The First Master of Ceremonies of the White House,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 7 (1904): 179-184.
  5. Marion Mecklenburg and Justine S. Wimsatt, “The White House Full Length Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart: Conservation Treatment Report and Commentary,” 1978. Unpublished, Office of the Curator, the White House.
  6. Mrs. William (Anna Maria Brodeau) Thornton, “Diary of Mrs. William Thornton: Capture of Washington by the British,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 19 (1916): 174-176 (entry for August 24, 1814).
  7. The design was registered by Jacquemart et Benard in 1798. Catherine Lynn Frangiamore to Clement E. Conger, November 8. 1973, Office of the Curator, the White House.
  8. A separate paper label in the same handwriting reads: “This pink paper was given to my Mother by her friend Mrs. Madison, It was that upon the walls of the President's House during Mr. Madison's reign.’’
  9. Dolley Madison to Anna Payne Cutts, May 20. n.d. f 1804], Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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