Thursday, October 17, 2019

William Tisdale and the Palace

or, Tryon Palace as it may have appeared in 1775. 

Tryon Palace, detail from a North Carolina five dollar bill of credit, 1775. Courtesy Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC

by John B. Green III

In our previous post we discussed the finding of the original 18th century architect's drawings for Tryon Palace in New Bern and why the two-story version of the main building was selected for reconstruction.  It would be nice, though, to have a contemporary image of the Palace, that is, one made when the building was still standing, to confirm the decisions made during the 1950's reconstruction.  The main building of the Palace survived for thirty years before it was destroyed by fire in 1798.  Surely someone must have taken notice of this remarkable structure and recorded its details in pencil or ink or paint.  Well, someone did take notice, and he recorded the Palace in the most unlikeliest of places.  The resulting image barely measures an inch by an inch and a half!

North Carolina five dollar bill of credit, 1775. Courtesy Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC

The Provincial Congress of the newly formed revolutionary government of North Carolina meeting in Hillsborough on September 7, 1775 passed the following resolution: "Resolved, That a Sum not exceeding one hundred and twenty five thousand Dollars, be emitted by this Congress in Bills of Credit, for the defence of this Colony."  They further resolved that ". . . Mr. Samuel Johnston, Mr. Richard Caswell, Mr. Richard Cogdell and Mr. Andrew Knox or the survivors of them, be a Committee to get proper plates engraved, and to provide paper and to agree with an Engraver to stamp or print the said Bills and to Frame Devices for the same[.]"  The committee reported back to the Provincial Congress on October 20, 1775 that they had employed "Mr. William Tisdale at New Bern" to engrave the printing plates and had agreed to pay him one hundred pounds for his services.

William Tisdale (1735-c.1797), New Bern silversmith and watchmaker, was born in Connecticut and briefly educated at Harvard.  He had settled in New Bern by 1770 where he practiced his trade and soon became involved in revolutionary politics.  By 1775 he was both a member of the Provincial Congress and the New Bern Committee of Safety.  After successfully engraving the plates for the 1775 bills of credit he was hired in 1779 to engrave the first Great Seal for the State of North Carolina.

The 1775 resolution called for printing bills of credit in a variety of denominations - quarter dollar, half dollar, and one, two, three, four, five, eight, and ten dollars.  Tisdale engraved each plate with scroll-work floral decoration and a vignette in the lower left corner depicting various allegorical or symbolic objects.  He chose a tiny rendering of Tryon Palace for the five dollar bill.

(top) Elevation of Tryon Palace by John Hawks, c.1766-1767, Public Record Office, London

(bottom) Detail from North Carolina five dollar bill of credit, 1775. Courtesy Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC

The image of the Palace is remarkable.  It is our only known contemporary view.  But is it an accurate rendering?  If we assume that William Tisdale, New Bern resident and member of the Provincial Congress, was well acquainted with the appearance of the Palace, then it is possible that his rendering of the building is as accurate as the very small space available on the surface of the plate allowed.  Assuming this level of accuracy, several differences between the 1775 rendering, the 1767 Palace plans, and the reconstructed building stand out.  The 1767 plans call for parapets atop the walls of the main building as well as the two flanking wings.  Tisdale shows a parapet or perhaps a railing or balustrade on the main building only.  He also includes ornamental urns atop the parapet, the central pediment, and along the roofs of the colonnades between the Palace and the wings, details not on the 1767 plans. 

Is this an accurate view of the Palace as it was actually built or just William Tisdale's artistic license at work?  We may never know.  What is known is that this five dollar bill is a rare survival.  Only this copy in the collection of Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens and a scattered few in other collections are all that survive of the four thousand which the 1775 Provincial Congress ordered to be printed.