On April 24, 1796, Andreas Everardus Van Braam Houckgeest (1739–1801, known as van Braam) disembarked in Philadelphia from the Lady Louisa out of Canton (Guangzhou) via Cape Town. He had with him an outstanding personal collection of Chinese art and artifacts in 116 packages, a retinue of Chinese servants, and “A Box of China for Lady Washington.”1See Detweiler 1982, 153–58, for a discussion of this set. At least seven saucers like this one, four two-handled cups with covers, a sugar bowl, a fourteen-inch plate, and four nine-inch plates survive from what Mrs. Washington described as a tea set but what was more likely intended for cabinet display.
The complex iconography further suggests that display was van Braam’s original intention for the set. The circle created by the serpent grasping its own tail was an ancient symbol of eternity. It encloses the chain of fifteen states united in strength by the new republic, of which George Washington was the leader. The motto displayed below Mrs. Washington’s initials reiterates the golden aureola or sunburst that surrounds the monogram.
Van Braam himself is thought to be the designer of the set and could have obtained the motifs in various ways.2See ibid., where van Braam’s design sources are discussed. The chain enclosing a sunburst, for example, appeared on fractional dollars issued by the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia in 1776. The serpent symbol was used frequently in 16th-century and later European emblem books.
Dutch by birth, van Braam spent many years in China with the Dutch East India Company (1758–1773 and 1790–1795) and in America (1783–1788).3See Carpenter 1974, 338–47, for van Braam’s Chinese collection. In his enthusiasm for the American cause, van Braam left his life as a gentleman in the Netherlands to run a rice plantation and store in Charleston, South Carolina, where he declared his American citizenship. The deaths of four of his children in a diphtheria epidemic and a deteriorating financial situation altered his course once again. During his second tour of service in China, he became the first American at the Chinese court when he was second-in-command of the Dutch diplomatic mission, a group that journeyed to Beijing (Peking) in 1795 to congratulate Ch’ien Lung (Qianlong) on the sixtieth year of his reign as Emperor.
Today, the remainder of Mrs. Washington’s “States” set survives in several public and private collections.4See Lee 1984, 89, for a list of the institutions that own pieces from this set. Most of the pieces were dispersed as gifts from Mrs. Washington, and from her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, his wife, or daughter, Mary Custis Lee. A number of pieces must have been broken during the Civil War when china was moved from the Lee’s Arlington House to the United States Patent office by Union troops.
The symbolism of the decoration and history of ownership of the set has stirred the popular imagination on several occasions. Beginning with teacups bearing van Braam’s design that were sold at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, examples of “Martha Washington’s China” have been made by American, French, and English manufacturers through today.
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.