R. Scott Stephenson, president and chief executive of the Museum of the American Revolution, calls the Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier, a “psychological thriller of museum exhibits.”
Curator Matthew Skic, who put the ambitious show together for the museum, is a little less dramatic. He says, “It speaks to the trans-Atlantic impact of the American Revolution. What happens here, what happens here in Philadelphia, matters on a global scale."
The exhibition, which opens Saturday at the museum and runs through March 17, is actually a little of both — part Dickens with a spritz of Yankee Doodle, part Dostoevskian drama queen.
The story is told through the lens of one man, Richard St. George, a wealthy Anglo-Irish nobleman so outraged by the American rebels’ affront to social order and hierarchy that he left his vast Irish estates and joined the British army to put down the upstarts across the ocean.
“We were interested in telling the story of the British army here in America during the revolution,” said Skic.
With St. George, an amateur artist with a flair for the flamboyant, the museum found a foil for the plainspoken, muslin-garbed farmers of the Continental Army.
Needless to say, things didn’t work out as St. George planned and the brutality of war came as bone-chilling shock.
In a letter completed right after the Battle of Paoli in 1777, he wrote that “the battles were not like the theaters back home in London and Dublin,” Skic said.
“At Paoli he witnesses and participates in a battle unlike any battle he had fought in before," Skic continued. "It was a nighttime surprise attack by the British army on Anthony Wayne’s troops and they went into Wayne’s camp without loading their muskets. They just planned to use their bayonets, and it was an extremely bloody affair. He called it a ‘scene of havoc.’ That’s in the letter.”
A few days later, a shaken St. George was wounded in the head at the Battle of Germantown. He underwent a gruesome operation that opened up his skull, replacing a portion with a fitted silver plate. (The exhibition does not have the silver plate. But it does have an example of the type of 18th-century bone saw used to cut into St. George’s head, a nasty piece of toothed medical equipment borrowed from the Mütter Museum.)
St. George eventually returned to Ireland, where he covered his silver plate in public by swathing his head in a black silk scarf like a turban, and wearing a long, somber black robe, a reflection perhaps of his darkening mental state.
“People remarked how it looked like he was in mourning,” said Skic. “He caught attention with this because he wore it out and about in public. He’d sit in his men’s club in Dublin — the Kildare Street Club — and sketch. He was sketching ‘melancholy and horrific subjects’ as one observer noted, wearing this cap and robe.”
St. George was a talented amateur artist, sketching and drawing throughout his life — satiric cartoons during his Cambridge years, scenes of battle during the American years, and occasionally his own inner demons following his return to Ireland.
Many examples of his artwork, including his own renderings of battle and its aftermath during the Revolutionary War, are included in this exhibition. His cartoons and war sketches are on public view for the first time.
Once back in Ireland, St. George certainly seemed to experience strange fits of melancholia, which he medicated with dashes of laudanum, or tincture of opium. He married and had two sons. But his wife died in 1791, and St. George entered a deeper melancholic reverie.
By then, in the late 1790s, unrest was spreading across the Irish countryside, and to St. George’s alarm, peasants began chopping down trees across his huge land holdings to fashion pikes. (St. George’s estates covered an area larger than Manhattan.)
Rather than seek accommodation, St. George threatened his impoverished tenants with jail and eviction, and dared them to attack him.
They did, murdering him in a spasm of barbarity in February 1798.
The subsequent rebellion was put down by the English a few months later.
Cost of Revolution features artifacts and documents gathered from Britain, Ireland, Australia, and from across the United States, including some gorgeous art — a Thomas Gainsborough portrait of the youthful St. George, and a portrait of a grief-stricken St. George two decades later mourning at his wife’s stylized tomb, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, the Irish painter.
The exhibition also has a couple of portraits of St. George in his full black-turban outfit.
And there is a fine portrait of St. George’s wife, Anne Stepney, posed with one of their young sons, shortly before her death.
St. George referred to this painting as “the sacred portrait,” Skic said, and consulted with his friend, the English painter Henry Fuseli, in the hope of having a companion portrait done.
The two portraits, husband and wife, would then be locked away in a room in St. George’s Irish castle. St. George said his sons should only be allowed to see the grief in the portraits when old enough to understand it.
Fuseli never executed the painting.
But the story stands on its own, a kind of emblem of aristocracy seeking unsuccessfully to hide the human cost of its privilege.
“Richard St. George stood in opposition not only to the American Revolution, but to the Irish Revolution of 1798,” said Skic. “And he lost his life as a result of it."
Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier
Sept. 28–March 17 at the Museum of the American Revolution, 101 S. Third St.
Tickets: Adults, $21; students, teachers, seniors, and military, $18; ages 6-17, $13 (free for children under 6). Tickets good for two consecutive days.