PROPERTY OF A DESCENDANT OF JOHN AUGUSTINE WASHINGTON III, THE LAST OF THE WASHINGTON FAMILY TO LIVE AT MOUNT VERNON
Signed and dated along the bottom, Benjamin Henry Latrobe nat. del. July 16, 1796. (delineated from nature)
watercolor, pen and ink on paper
George Washington (1732-1799)
Bushrod Washington (1762-1829), George Washington’s nephew; son of John Augustine Washington I (1736-1797), George Washington’s younger brother;
John Augustine Washington II (1789-1832); Bushrod Washington’s brother;
John Augustine Washington III (1821-1861);
To the present owner, a descendant of John Augustine Washington III, and the last member of the Washington family to live at Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon, 2004 to 2012
Herbert Hoover Library, Taking Tea at the White House, April 2002
Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution of American History, The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden, 2000
Mount Vernon, a traveling exhibition, Treasures from Mount Vernon, George Washington Revealed, 1799-1999 (Bi-Centennial of Washington’s death), 1998
New York, The New-York Historical Society, 1999
Washington, D.C., George Washington, Architect, January 1, 1999 to July 15, 1999
Mary Thompson, Dennis Pogue, Carol Borchert Cadou, J. Dean Norton, Dining with the Washingtons, North Carolina University Press, November 17, 2011
Mount Vernon Bi-Annual Newsletter: Hoe Cakes and Hospitality: Dining with Martha, 2002
Frank Shivers, Professor Garrett Power, Jay Merwin, Steven Davidson, Chesapeake Waters, November, 1997
Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) was an English-born architect and civil engineer, largely educated at Moravian schools in Germany. In 1796, after an extended bout of depression and unproductivity following the death of his wife, Latrobe immigrated to the United States. Almost immediately after landing at Norfolk, he received several public and private commissions and made the acquaintance of many influential Virginians.
On 16 July 1796, scarcely four months after reaching America, Latrobe noted in his journal that he “set off on horseback for Mount Vernon, having a letter to the President from his Nephew my particular friend Bushrod Washington.” As a result of this visit, Latrobe left us not only this remarkable, candid portrait of the Washington family, but a revealing word picture of the domestic arrangements at Mount Vernon.
The Mount Vernon house did not impress Latrobe, but its occupants did. While admitting that it was “superior to every other house I have seen here,” Latrobe thought Mount Vernon had “no very striking appearance,” with portions of it “in a very indifferent taste.” The whole effect, he admitted, was “extremely good and neat, but by no means above what would be expected in a plain English Country Gentleman’s house of £500 or £600 a Year.”
But the Washingtons themselves struck Latrobe as anything but indifferent. He described the President as having “a reserve but no hauteur in his manner,” looking younger than his 64 years, and with “something uncommonly majestic and commanding in his walk, his address, his figure and his countenance.” Mrs. Washington, Latrobe wrote, conversed “in a good humored free manner that was extremely pleasant and flattering; retained “strong remains of considerable beauty; and exhibited “no affectation of superiority in the slightest degree.” Latrobe also remarked on the beauty and sensitivity of Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter, Eleanor “Nelly” Custis, and on the easy manners and wit of George Washington Lafayette, the 17-year-old son of Washington’s Revolutionary War comrade, then resident at Mount Vernon.
The warm hospitality extended to Latrobe, then, is not surprising. He noted that despite the press of government correspondence awaiting him, President Washington spent two hours in a wide-ranging morning conversation with his visitor. “Dinner,” Latrobe records in his journal, “was served up about ½ after three. … The President came into the portico about ½ an hour before 3 and talked freely upon common topics with the family. At dinner he placed me at the left hand of Mrs. Washington; Miss Custis sat at her right and himself next to her about the middle of the table. There was very little conversation at dinner. A few jokes passed between the President and young Lafayette, whom he treats more as his Child than as a Guest. … As I drink no wine and the President drank only 3 glasses the party soon returned to the Portico. Mr. Lear, Mr. Dandridge and Mr. Lear’s 3 boys soon after arrived and helped out the conversation. The President retired in about ¾ of an hour.”
Although wishing to remain longer, Latrobe “thought it a point of delicacy to take up as little of the time of the president as possible,” and he ordered his horses prepared for his departure. But first Mrs. Washington and then the President requested that he stay the evening, the latter dismissing his concerns about intruding on more significant engagements by remarking, “Sir, you see I take my own way. If you can be content to take yours at my house, I shall be glad to see you here longer.”
Latrobe was still at Mount Vernon, therefore, when tea was brought to the east-facing terrace about six o’clock. It is this scene that he has captured in the present charming watercolor. In addition to President and Mrs. Washington and Nelly Custis, it is likely that the two other figures are Tobias Lear and one of Mr. Lear’s young sons, most likely Benjamin Lincoln Lear, age five. After tea, Washington engaged Latrobe in another hour’s conversation, largely on matters agricultural.
The next morning, “Breakfast was served up in the usual Virginian style. Tea, Coffee, and cold and broiled Meat.” Washington excused himself about 10:00 and Latrobe took his departure. He noted that as they took leave of each other, Washington “treated me as if I had lived for years in his house; with ease and attention.” But Latrobe was even more impressed that when his servant brought his horses around, Washington immediately approached him to ask if he had had breakfast. This simple but characteristic act of kindness undoubtedly confirmed to Latrobe that he had indeed met “a man raised by merit or reputation above the common level of his fellow creatures.”
Note: all quotations from The Virginia Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1795-1798 (ed. Carter, Polites, et al). New Haven, 1977.
Note on the Silver Tea Service in the painting:
The main item on the table is a large tea urn (shown with exaggerated handles), almost certainly that supplied to Washington in 1784:
London, April 28, 1784
Invoice of Merchandise shipped by Joy & Hopkins on the Henry, Capt. Ranson, to Daniel Parker, Esq. New York.
1 large plain beaded plated Gallon Tea Urn £7- 7-0
The order had been placed with Parker by Washington when he was in New York in 1783; while invoiced in the spring, it apparently did not arrive until the latter part of the summer, much to the General’s displeasure. It reappears in the inventory after Washington’s death, “1 Tea do [urn] $20.”
The pieces to the right of the urn may be the documented straight-sided oval teapot and pedestal –foot waste bowl by Joseph Richardson, Jr. of Philadelphia, engraved with the Washington crest. The two pieces are preserved in a private collection and illustrated by Kathryn C. Buhler in Mount Vernon Silver (1957), fig. 32; she associates them with a silver tea pot and slop bowl recorded in a 1796 list of Washington’s household furniture, presumably drawn up in Philadelphia as the President prepared to return to private life. The teapot and bowl, “purchased by G W” rather than “purchased by the U. States,” are designated “Virginia” on the list, making it highly likely they could appear on the portico at Mount Vernon that same year.
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