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Home | Articles | Punch Bowls & Patriotism: The Rediscovery of the Varick Punch Bowl

by Michael D. Henderson

Described as “the most important surviving example of American historical porcelain,”1 the Varick punch bowl is a superb example of Chinese artistry with impeccable historical connections—George Washington, Richard Varick, and the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati (Fig. 1). This bowl, rediscovered in a storage area last spring by Washington Association Trustee Nancy Johnston, places a spotlight on the significance of the collections housed at the nation’s first national historical park, Morristown National Historical Park.2

The bowl commemorates Colonel Richard Varick’s admission to the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization formed in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army who fought in the American Revolution. Named after Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer of the fifth century B.C., who went to battle and returned victorious to his humble beginnings, the society’s motto is, “He gave up everything to serve the republic.”

Varick served in the military from the beginning of the Revolution, holding a number of prominent posts and becoming the recording secretary to General Washington. Like many of his fellow members of the society, Varick custom-ordered porcelain from China in recognition of his involvement with this prestigious group. While of important stature, his place in history does not quite equal that of some of his colleagues in the society. Yet, Varick’s punch bowl is considered “far more magnificent in character and finer in execution than anything devised for…General Knox, or even for George Washington….”3

The circa-1785 punch bowl displays great technical virtuosity. Western allegorical figures in overglazed enamels adorn one side of the exterior. Represented are the American Cincinnatus as a plumed knight righteously driving a terrified Britannia and her lion into the sea, whilst Fame triumphantly trumpets the message of victorious liberty from the clouds. Eagles, amid thunderbolts and shafts of light, bear the emblem of the society on high. Although theatrical, the composition appears grandly mythic—even sacred—as it bears witness to the epic struggle and sacrifice made to preserve the country’s liberty.

Fig. 1: Punch Bowl, overall and details, circa 1785. Decorated with a copy of certificate of membership issued to Colonel Richard Varick by the Society of the Cincinnati and signed by George Washington. Porcelain. H. 15.9, W. 40.6 cm. Morristown National Historical Park, MORR 3757.

Displayed on the opposite side of the bowl is a facsimile of the certificate of membership issued to Varick by the society of the Cincinnati, with copied signatures of Generals Henry Knox, the society’s secretary, and George Washington, its president. This is a finely rendered copy of the original document, which was engraved by Robert Scot of Philadelphia, later the engraver at the United States Mint.4 The bowl’s interior is simply embellished with a small cobalt blue medallion of flowers and leaf sprigs enameled with gold details.

In 1888, Richard Varick’s grandnephew donated the bowl to the Washington Association of New Jersey. It was displayed for many years at the Ford Mansion in Morristown, which had served as Washington’s headquarters for a period during the Revolution and is now a central feature of the Morristown National Historical Park. Over the years, with exhibition space at a premium and an ongoing interpretive focus on the Revolutionary War, most of the collections had been moved into storage.

The rediscovery of the Varick bowl highlights the importance of reexamining the park’s nearly 40,000 objects and its highly significant archive and manuscript collection. Since the announcement in 2002 of plans for a much-needed expansion of the 1938 museum building, support for the project has been steadily growing. Future discoveries and interpretation possibilities will ensure a dynamic future and a renewed relevance for this historic site.

Michael D. Henderson is the Superintendent of Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, New Jersey.

1 Homer Eaton Keyes, “Lowestoft: Exclusively American,” The Magazine Antiques (April 1932): 171–75.

2 The bowl was owned by the Washington Association, which acts as advisors and guardians to the Morristown National Historical Park. When the MNHP was created in 1933, the Association turned over lands, buildings, and its vast collections to park stewardship. Nancy N. Johnston was formerly the Director of Operations at Israel Sack, Inc., New York, and is now a consultant.

3 Keyes, 171–75. The bowl is also referenced in Alice Morse Earle, China Collecting in America (1892, reprint, 1982), 223–24; and in Frank Grizzard George, “Quality in Oriental Lowestoft,” The Magazine Antiques (December 1937): 290–94.

4 Keyes, 171–75.

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