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A highly important drawing related to the VOC Court Journey made between 22 November 1794

A highly important drawing related to the VOC Court Journey made between 22 November 1794 and 10 May 1795 by Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest (1739-1801) to the court of Emperor Qianlong for the occasion of his sixtieth year in power

‘View of Monsing-lou (?) and its celebrated Pagode’

With later Chinese text reading: Taiqing Lake (Lake of Ultimate Clarity), built in the 1990’s, situated in Shanting District, Zaozhuang City, Shandong Province, the lake covering 19 acres, and Wangxian Pavilion (Pavilion of Longing for Immorality). This Chinese text was added only in the 1990’s.

Ink wash on paper laid down on board, H. 43 x W. 60 cm

According to the Van Braam journal of the court journey the Dutch embassy would have passed fairly close to this site around January 9th, 1795, the same day the embassy arrived in Peking. The journal entry of January 9th describes passing a beautiful stone arched bridge as depicted in the present painting. However, although Van Braam did make many sketches during the journey and presumably some of the illustrations in his book are worked-out sketches by his hand, it is not likely the present painting is based on a sketch by Van Braam himself. As a preparation for his journey Van Braam had asked two Chinese draughtsmen to make drawings of landscapes and sights between Canton and Bejing where the embassy might pass. He talks about ‘my painter’ who had made the most complete collection of drawings of buildings, temples, and all kinds of sights, together with plans so one could imagine the actual situation and compare it with what he would see. The present painting might be one of the paintings Van Braam had requested of ‘his’ Chinese artist. This might explain why paintings by the Chinese artist and the titles by Van Braam, tend to be inaccurate and often are not situated on the route which the embassy actually travelled. Nevertheless, by comparing what he saw during the journey with the work of ‘his’ Chinese artist, Van Braam noted the truthfulness of the depictions by ‘his’ Chinese artist.

The journey’s party consisted of Isaac Titsingh and Van Braam both with their stewards, Rijnier Dozij, Van Braam’s successor in Canton, Bletterman the VOC physician, Petitpierre, a Swiss clockmaker (because of the clocks to be presented to the Emperor), two interpreters, and Van Braams, nephew Jacob Adriaan. There is no mention of any Chinese artist joining the party.

After serving in the navy A.E. van Braam Houckgeest in 1758 joined the VOC and was sent to China, Canton, where he worked for 8 years. In 1790, after staying in Holland and the United States where he obtained American citizenship, he was back in China as chief of the Dutch factory in Canton. Having learned about the British Embassy to the Qing Court in 1793, Van Braam advised the Governor-General in Batavia to send a VOC embassy to the court of Emperor Qianlong for the celebration of his sixtieth year on the throne. His suggestion was accepted but instead of himself Titsingh, Opperhoofd in Japan, was appointed the chief of the Dutch mission. In November 1794 the embassy left Canton to arrive in Peking in January 1795 after a journey full of hardships during the Chinese winter, and just in time for the celebrations of the Chinese New Year.

During the journey, Van Braam kept a detailed diary and made many sketches of what he saw. Upon the embassy’s return to Canton in March 1795, Van Braam was unable to find a ship bound for the Netherlands, so he boarded
a ship to Philadelphia. There, with the help of the printer-editor Moreau de Saint-Méry, a refugee from France, he published his Voyage de l’ambassade de la Compagnie des Indes Orientales Hollandaise, vers l’empereur de la Chine, dans les années 1794-1795. This edition contains prints of many drawings, but not of the present one.

Van Braam’s large China collection consisted of very diverse objects. However, drawings, maps and watercolours related to the journey, in total circa 2000, formed the main part of the important collection. He took his whole collection to Philadelphia, where he housed it all in his house ‘China’s Retreat’ along the Delaware River. However, the collection remained together for a short time only, between 1795 and 1799. In 1799 what by then remained of the collection was sold by Christie’s in London; pieces ended up in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Scheepvaartmuseum Amsterdam, the British Museum London, the Metropolitan Museum New York, the Peabody Essex Museum Salem, the Charles Wilson Peale Museum in Philadelphia, and in archives in Amsterdam, The Hague, Leiden, London, Paris, and Florence.

Three hand-written manuscripts by Van Braam still exist, all three originally kept by his grandson and donated by his grandson to the Rijksarchief in Den Haag, Sinologisch Instituut Leiden and the University Library in Leiden. The handwriting by Van Braam in these manuscripts and the inscription in French under the present watercolour seem to be by the same hand.

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