George Washington lounges in the red cushioned chair, his legs crossed, his right arm propped on the top of the chair, his left arm extended on the side table adjacent to him on the image painted onto the wooden sign that welcomed tavern patrons in Edgmont for decades.
This portrait of American’s first president, as well as another of him mounted with some Philadelphia First City Troop soldiers in the background on the reverse side of sign, was created by renowned artist John Archibald Woodside Sr. to hang outside the President Tavern and was restored by Fred Koszewnik for the Delaware County Historical Society eight years ago.
Living from 1781 to 1852, Woodside was a self-taught and Philadelphia area’s primary sign painter, along with Mathew Pratt and Thomas Sully, for nearly 50 years.
Woodside painted everything from signs to fireman’s hats, buckets and fire engines. He was paid between $15 and $40 for most of his work. His highest commission was $60 paid by the Hibemia Fire Company for a silk banner.
Most of the portraits he painted appeared in exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. A 9-by-6-feet Philadelphia coat of arms painted by Woodside in 1819 is part of the collection at Independence National Historic Park. The Library of Congress has a Woodside drawing of a circus scene in its Prints and Photographs Division and one of his oil paintings of peaches and grapes is on view in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Washington Sign in the Delaware County Historical Society collection measures 65 inches high and 42 inches wide. Woodside is believed to have copied the image from a popular engraving taken from a 1790 portrait of George Washington by Edward Savage.
The sign hung outside the President Tavern in Edgmont, where La Locanda Ristorante Italiano now stands, from 1849 to 1923.
The tavern itself is thought to have been established in 1806 when James Jefferies stated he “hath rented the house which Joseph Griffith hath erected at the intersection of the West Chester and Providence Road, in said township.” For a short while, Jesse Cheyney changed its name to “The George Washington” before it was renamed “The President” again in 1815.
Cedar walls inside the structure are believed to have been the foundation of Griffith log house from 1798. Some years ago, during alterations to the old kitchen, the proprietor found two large portraits painted directly onto the plaster walls.
When the President Tavern was sold at a public auction in 1923, Delaware County Historical Society member Edgar Howard Pierce purchased the sign. Ten months later, he donated it to the historical society.
In 2008, the society contracted painting conservator Fred Koszewnik, who restored portraits at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Swarthmore College’s Benjamin West paintings, to remove the airborne soot and grime and apply a protective matte surface to the piece. He also inapinted areas where some surface scrapes were.
Of the Washington sign, Koszewnik said, “A tavern sign in this exceptional condition, with Washington the subject matter and painted by John Archibald Woodside, would be a welcome addition to any major collection of American art.”
The piece is now on display in the Delaware County Historical Society’s Museum and Research Library at 408 Avenue of the States in Chester, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 1 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The museum’s telephone number is 610-872-0502. Parking is free on the museum lot behind the building or across the street in the municipal lot.