[Birch's] decision to visit America hinged primarily on his wish to view the American scene at frist hand. His profession depended for support on a society possessed of a certain amount of wealth, leisure, and interest in the arts; and he had learned from American visitors to London that the young Republic offered these requisites. Acquaintance with various wealthy and clutivated Americans had assured him of finding sympathetic surroundins in an overseas home. MOre particularly, Judge Samuel Chase of Annapolis, a patron of the arts in the New World, had insisted upon his [Birch] trying his fortunes in a fresh territory. So at last, in October 1794, at the age of thirty-nine, Birch, with wife and four children, moved to Philadelphia.
In his [unpublishsed book] Recollections, Birch describes the art of enameling. "Enamel painting," he writes, "is the unique Art of heightening and preserving the beauty of tints to futurity, as given in the works of the most celebrated Masters of Painting, without a possibility of their changing; the colors are made of metallic substances, metals and minerals, soluted, calcined, and composed with glassy substances, commonly called Flux, and when laide on bodies of their own kind and placed in a strong heat, will melt in one with them and become permanent."
This statement affords an interesting general definition, but it gives small notion of the tedious steps involved in enamel painting and of the strict limitations placed upon the artist. In its simplest terms, true enameling consists in coating the surface of metal, porcelain, or any substance that may be safely raised to red heat, with a layer of melted glass. As practiced by Bone, Birch, and the eighteenth-century miniaturists in enamel who stem from the Limoges school, the process is briefly this: on the back of a snall plate of gold or copper, the artist fires a thin coat of enamel, or finely powdered and washed glass. Then on the front he lays a thin coat of enamel, usually white, which consitutes the backgroud for his miniature. During the firing the plate is carefully watched, for, unlike other fusing, the melting of enamel takes but a few minutes. When the plate glows brightly the deed is done. After each firing, the plate is gradually cooled on a bed of hot sand. When the background coat is ready, the design is applied to it by transfer, and the dark shadings of enamel are introduced and fired. Next the artist takes his lumps of colored enamel, which are nothing but glass melted with oxides of various metals, and grinds them very fine in a mortar.
The resultant powder is mixed with a little water until it spreads like butter. It is then applied with fine brushes or needles. On patches that require no color, a little clear flux is placed to keep the surface even. The whole is pressed down, dried in a slow oven, and then fired. Subsequently, if the artist so chooses, fecks of gold are added and other finishing details worked in. AII this demands the greatest patience and care, as well as considerable practical experience with the chemistry involved. It is not strange that many of those who have excelled in the enameler's art have been content to master the craft itself without at tempting to in ent their own designs.
Soon after beginning his enamel painting in Philadelphia, Birch found that commissions came in "fluently," and he devoted himseIf exclusively to filling them. More than half of these orders were for copies in enamel of large portraits by other painters, and were usually of miniature size; the remainder were for enamel portraits from life, Birch making the original studies.
It is interesting to observe that 1794, the year of Birch's migration to this country, is also marked by Gilbert Stuart's return to America with the avowed purpose of painting Washington. Birch tells us that Washington offered to sit to him also, but that he declined the honor, preferring to make an enamel miniature after the Stuart portrait. This he did, with such success that he was led to make, in all, sixty one enamel copies of the two Stuart versions of the General. The first is perhaps the most interesting. It is a copy of the so-called Mount Vernon head, Stuart's first likeness of Washington. Birch sold it diretly to Mr. McHenry of Baltimore, about 1796, and made no more copies from that particular original.
His other sixty Washington enamels are taken from Stuart's "Lansdowne " portrait. They usually measure about two and one half by three inches in size, and Birch states that he received from thirty to one hundred dollars each for them. The Mount Vernon Association owns one example, and several others are known in Philadelphia. Not more than nine have thus far been located.
–Jean Lambert Brockway The Magazine Antiques September 1933
William Birch: His American Enamel Portraits
by Jean Lambert Brockway
A rich history of the artist's exceedingly rare miniature enamel portraits.