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A drawing of a Chinese bird’s nest   Signed and dated A: E: Van Braam Houckgeest ad viv: del., ATR Pinx: 1782  ​  Brown ink and watercolour on paper. H. 16 x W. 20.2 cm  ​

A drawing of a Chinese bird’s nest

Signed and dated A: E: Van Braam Houckgeest ad viv: del., ATR Pinx: 1782

Brown ink and watercolour on paper. H. 16 x W. 20.2 cm

Text at the top: “Aardig nestje gemaakt door een vogeltje te Canton in China, de groote hebbende van een quickstaart, ‘t welk met een eigen gesponnen draad van verschillend gecouleurde wol drie bladeren van een pompelmoesboom t’ zamen naaid & onder aan t’ einde van ijder naad met een knoop verzekert opdat het werk niet los gaat & dan het zelve daar in toestelt. Zie Martinet 2d. Fol 194.”


Text below, left, and right of the tip of the nest:

A: E: Van Braam Houckgeest ad viv: del. ATR Pinx: 1782

Unfortunately, it is not known who the initials ATR stand for.

Text at the bottom (a free translation of the Dutch text): “Nid d’un oiseau de Canton en Chine qui, avec un fil de sa façon de different couleurs suivant qu’il a trouvé le coton, ajoute ensemble trois feuilles de pompelmoes attachées a une même queu, l’emplit de coton & y couse ses œufs.”

The bird’s nest depicted here is made by a kind of wagtail, a small bird living in the Chinese province of Guangzhou (Canton). According to the handwritten text the bird uses self-spun wool threads to sew together leaves of the grapefruit tree and then fills the nest with cotton and lays its eggs in it.

The original drawing by Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest was printed by his friend J.F. Martinet in his “Katechismus der Natuur.” The present drawing by ATR (?) in 1782, seems to be a copy after the original drawing by van Braam Houckgeest or perhaps after the print in Martinet’s book.

The Dutch-American merchant A.E. van Braam Houckgeest (1739-1801) is mostly known for his stimulation of, and participation in, the last Dutch VOC embassy to China under the tributary system. In 1758 Van Braam arrived in China where he was engaged in trade for the VOC in Canton/Guangzhou and Macao. In 1773 he returned to the Netherlands and settled as a county gentleman with his wife near Zutphen. Here he met Johannes Florentius Martinet who was a historian of physics, theologian, and minister in Zutphen, and between 1777 and 1779 published his “Katechismus der Natuur,” in 4 volumes, with five 18th century reprints and translations in French, German, English and even Japanese. The book was used in Dutch schools well into the 20th century. Together van Braam and Martinet founded an economical branch for the “Hollandse Maatschappij voor Wetenschappen.”

Inspired by the American Revolution Van Braam decided to immigrate to the United States and in 1783 settled with his wife and five children in Charleston to work as a merchant and rice planter. A year later he became an American citizen. That same year, 1784, because of a family tragedy, four of his five children died in a diphtheria epidemic, and because of financial difficulties, Van Braam decided to leave the United States and take up a position as chief of the Dutch factory in Guangzhou/Canton, where he arrived in 1790. Having learned about the British Macartney Embassy to the Qing court in 1793, Van Braam requested the Governor-General in Batavia (Jakarta) to send a VOC embassy to the court of the Qianlong Emperor for the celebration of his sixtieth year on the throne. In November 1794 the embassy, including Van Braam but headed by Isaac Titsingh (1745-1812) departed for Beijing where it arrived in January 1795. Van Braam kept an everyday journal of the voyage and the stay in Beijing where they were lavishly entertained. Upon the embassy’s return to Guangzhou in March 1795, Van Braam was unable

to find a ship bound for the Netherlands because Holland by then was at war with England. He chose to board a ship to Philadelphia. His arrival in the city attracted a lot of attention. In Philadelphia, 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 hollandaises, vers l’empereur de la Chine, dans les années 1794 et 1795.” Moreau de Saint-Méry soared no effort to produce a work that stands out as a real landmark of the history of printing and bookmaking in the United States. The book was dedicated to George Washington, who gave his consent. Unfortunately, the first volume of the Philadelphia edition is almost completely lost. Because of his American citizenship, Van Braam also was the first American to visit the court of the Chinese emperor. In 1798 he returned to the Netherlands and bought a property in Amsterdam where he died in 1801.

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