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George Washington statue, The National Gallery

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There are two files at The National Archives, which give us some background information on the statue of George Washington, outside The National Gallery, London. It was a replica of the original work by Jean-Antoine Houdon. These files are WORK 20/123 and WORK 20/285.

A photograph of the statue is shown to the right:-

George Washington

File WORK 20/123 covers the period 24th June 1914 to 3rd May 1933.

We learn that a replica of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s statue of George Washington was to be presented to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland by the Commonwealth of Virginia and that the King had approved of the statue being placed on the lawn in front of The National Gallery. This site appears to have been chosen by the Office of Works. The original statue stands in Richmond, Virginia. The replica was to be cast by the Gorham Company in New York.

The file follows progress. A pedestal was not included in the gift so a suitable one had to be made.

The war interrupted progress until 1920 when we learn from a letter from the National Gallery of 9th June, 1920 that they were unhappy with the choice of site and the file follows the arguments for and against the chosen site. The objections of the National Gallery were eventually overruled. The National Gallery also asked that an emphasis be given to the name Houdon rather than the subject or the donors but this request does not appear to have been granted.

The bronze replica arrived in England in April 1921 and was unveiled on 30th June 1921.

After unveiling a fissure was found in the statue and the file contains the correspondence which the repair of this fissure generated.

At the rear of the file are some drawings and tracings and a photograph of the original statue.

From the file WORK 20/285 we learn that it was decided to move the statue a few feet to the West in order to balance the effect of the statue of James II, which was being erected in the centre of the lawn on the West front.

We also learn that the statue was daubed with red paint on the night of 21st December 1944.

For the rest WORK 20/285 covers matters of “care and maintenance” but there is an extract from Hansard of 12th April 1960 when the question of moving the statue nearer to Westminster was discussed and rejected by Lord John Hope. Lord John Hope’s words were “I think that on the whole it is probably better to leave Washington were he is. He is only a little way down the road from George III, who has, in fact, turned his back on him.”

Jean-Antoine Houdon lived from 1741 to 1828. He was born in Versailles. He was awarded a traveling scholarship to Rome and stayed in Italy for 10 years.

Houdon became a member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts in 1771 and was made a professor in 1778. He fell from favour during the French Revolution being perceived as bourgeois but escaped any great harm. He returned to favour during the period of the French Consulate and Empire.