George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, encompassed more than eight thousand acres, divided into five working farms. These farms supported the enormous staff of the estate and afforded Washington a modest income. He considered himself first of all a farmer, the American Cincinnatus, and when in residence, he visited his farms daily and took a great interest in their progress. The mansion and the five hundred acres surrounding it were developed as a gentleman’s seat in the Old World manner, with the house placed within a park or garden.
Mount Vernon had been in the Washington family since 1674. It was named by Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, after Admiral Edward Vernon, under whom Lawrence had served in the Caribbean.1For more information on the history of Mount Vernon, see Mount Vernon: Antiques, 452–531; and Mount Vernon. After Washington inherited the property from Lawrence in 1754, the modest house overlooking the Potomac River was gradually changed. In 1759, the same year he married Martha Dandridge Custis, Washington enlarged the main house from one and one-half stories to two and one-half. In the 1770s, the mansion began to take on its familiar appearance, with the additions to the north and south ends and the two-story piazza facing the Potomac, built as an outdoor living area for hot summers.2For information on the architectural history of Mount Vernon, see Mosca, 462–73. Mosca speculates that the frequent illustrations of the piazza side of Mount Vernon may have influenced the development of the two-story Greek revival piazzas that are identified with Southern architecture. 3. Howard and Ayers, 1978, 2:496. Although the design of the piazza’s piers is Tuscan (based on Plate 51 of Batty Langley’s City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Design), the proportions are peculiarly American. The availability of large timbers allowed the soaring height and wide spacing of the piers. This device, apparently of Washington’s own invention, hid the irregular fenestration produced by the mansion’s second renovation and gave Mount Vernon its unique appearance from the Potomac side, instantly recognizable in paintings and prints.
It is this dramatic view of the piazza on the east facade, framed by the park from the northeast, that was used to decorate some China-Trade porcelains in the early years of the 19th century, following Washington’s death in 1799. Like those China-Trade porcelains decorated with images of Washington’s tomb or other symbols of this great leader, the Mount Vernon china, as the Collection’s set is called, memorializes the President. At the same time, however, this pattern fulfills the desires of its owners for china embellished with views of gentlemen’s seats in the manner of China-Trade porcelain of the same period made for the English market.
This view is found with at least five borders, the earliest dating about 1802.3Howard and Ayers, 1978, 2:496. The view itself may have been based on a small watercolor, now on display at Mount Vernon, that was taken from a painting of about 1792 attributed to Edward Savage (1761–1817), a work also now at Mount Vernon.4See ibid., 2:495, for an illustration of the Savage painting; or see Mount Vernon: Antiques, 452 (detail) and 529.
Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.