Margrieta van Varick's East Indian goods

Given the large volume of silver made for the VOC in the East, specifically in Batavia, it is certainly possible that the couple acquired their pieces there.9 It is even more likely that Margrieta or Rudolphus commissioned items from artisans working in the long-settled Tamil Muslim community on the west bank of the river bisecting Malacca, for each of them lived in Malacca longer than anywhere else in the East.10 It is also documented that Van Varick's first husband was involved in the important Bengal trade with Malacca and that he wrote to the directors of the VOC factories in Persia and the western India port of Surat, to which goods were funneled from the Middle East and the Levant. Furthermore, her uncle in Malacca was in charge of VOC shipments to and from Japan.11 Both men had access to the private trade in luxury objects, as was customary for high ranking employees in the VOC's eastern operations, and either could have obtained desirable Eastern goods.

In sum, Van Varick's silver could have been Malaysian, Indonesian, Mughal Indian, Persian, Turkish, Ceylonese, or Chinese, among other possibilities. Most New Yorkers, and certainly those who took her inventory, would probably have called her silver objects by the then common term "East Indian" because few in this period would have had experience differentiating between places of production. They would have known only that the silver was not made locally or in Europe.

The executors' confusion would also have been understandable because the fusion of design influences from China, Turkey, Persia, India, and other Islamic lands was largely complete by the late seventeenth century, and the results would have been recognized as simply "Eastern." By the time the Van Varicks arrived in Southeast Asia, Islam had spread throughout the area, leaving Islamic motifs interlaced throughout the art of native cultures.12 For example, porcelain in China often took the forms of Islamic metalwork, such as ewers (see Fig. 1), while motifs found in Islamic architecture were applied to silver made in Indonesia (see Figs. 6, 10).

This fusion of Eastern design elements began to influence American silver during the colonial era. There are many examples. One of the most pervasive and interesting is the stamped and applied leaf banding often found on New York tankards of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, often referred to as cut-card banding (see Fig. 5). Traditionally thought to have been introduced to New York by Huguenot silversmiths, this type of decoration is more likely to have originated from objects produced in an Islamic land and later brought to New York or the Dutch Republic, or ones made by an artisan who trained with an Islamic craftsman. As evidence, the m otif appears in double-band form around the rim of an early fifteenth-century Chinese porcelain ewer with seventeenth-century Ottoman silver-gilt mounts in the Topkapi Palace Museum (see Fig. 1); as roof ornamentation on sixteenth-century Islamic architecture (see Fig. 10); on seventeenth-century Mughal silver (see Fig. 7); on a salver of about 1730 (see Fig. 4); and on a pre-1730 tobacco box made in Batavia (see Fig. 6). Indeed, many pieces of VOC silver made in Indonesia exhibit motifs characteristic of pieces made by New York gold- and silversmiths: in addition to stamped and applied leaf banding, gadrooning and meander wires are also prevalent on both VOC and New York silver.13

In an article in the May 1937 issue of The Magazine Antiques exploring the work of the colonial master silversmith Peter van Dyck, the silver scholar Mrs. Russel Hastings circled around the idea of foreign design influences on colonial silversmiths:

The subject of silver imports from abroad is still obscure. Some energetic collector would perform an eminent service by assembling pedigreed foreign pieces known to have been used in the colonies from earliest years. What, exactly, did our smiths copy? How much of their output represents their own design, and how much a literal transcript from models at hand?...Whence their cast ornaments? The silent testimony of such a group...would go far to answer these and other questions.14

Hastings's comments are particularly relevant to our discussion, for in 1715 Van Dyck married Van Varick's youngest daughter, Cornelia (c. 1692-1734), who was one of her two heirs.15 Thus we can postulate that he was familiar with her collection of East Indian silver pieces, as well as her other exotic goods, and that they may have had an effect on his output, as Hastings suggests.

And indeed some of Van Dyck's iconic pieces do display characteristics strikingly similar to those found on objects known to have been produced in the East. One of the most beautiful of all colonial American silver works is the exquisitely pierced caster engraved with the Schuyler family arms and stamped with Van Dyck's hallmark (Fig. 11). It has the same delicate, symmetrical, floral design with splayed blossoms and tendrils seen on the enameled plate and the painted textile in Figures 8 and 9, respectively, both of which were made in Mughal India. The caster's dome-shaped cover and finial are also ubiquitous forms in Islamic architecture (see Fig. 10). Based on its Mughal design characteristics and exquisite execution, the caster tempts us to wonder if its design could have been influenced specifically by some of Van Varick's, or another New York resident's, East Indian goods.

A later, more angular caster, marked by Van Dyck and once owned by the Rutgers family (Fig. 12) is similarly elegant, but its comma-shaped piercings do not carry the same association with Islamic motifs, and they appear more irregularly formed and less well defined when viewed side by side with the precisely shaped piercings of the Schuyler caster.

What accounts for the difference? It is known that Van Dyck, like many other silversmiths, ran a large workshop that stamped day laborers' work with the master's mark, or even jobbed work out to other established smiths.16 Could it simply be that the two casters were made by different hands? Another possibility is that the Schuyler caster may be an unidentified "East Indian" work such as those listed in Margrieta's inventory; one not made by Van Dyck, but resold by him.17 This could probably only be proven through technical analysis of the composition of the caster's alloy, or through the discovery of an identical Eastern silver object. Supporting the supposition, however, are two documented Van Dyck works that carry another silversmith's mark in addition to Van Dyck's, indicating that either two artisans worked on them or one of the smiths at some point resold or repaired them.18

Another Van Dyck object showing possible Mughal influence is a covered porringer (Fig. 16). Its handle is an example of what is typically called a New York handle, a form for which many examples exist but no precedent has yet been found. Considerably more elaborate and organic than the more prevalent Boston style handle, Van Dyck's handle is strikingly similar to the triangular area of arabesque-infused openwork connecting the thumb ring and the body of the mid-seventeenth-century Mughal astrolabe in Figure 15. The Van Dyck handle has a heart-shaped finial above a cross, and less defined and mostly petal-shaped voids rather than the fluid arabesque tracery of the Islamic design, but the overall conception of the American work seems quite similar to that of the astrolabe, an iconic Mughal object. Astronomical discoveries were plentiful in this period, and the Mughals were at the forefront of scientific advances. It is possible that the seafarers of New York possessed astrolabes of similar design that could have inspired local silversmiths, including Van Dyck. The Peabody Essex Museum has a Mughal astrolabe of about 1640-1650 that was given to the museum by a descendant of a China trade merchant.19

Perhaps the most apparently Eastern inspired work by Van Dyck is the mustard pot in Figure 14, which has no colonial precedents and clearly evokes the exotic silver-mounted ostrich eggs and coconut cups that were frequently found in European Wunder­kammern and used as elaborate vessels (see Fig. 13). The "silver wrought East India cupps" listed in Van Varick's inventory can possibly be interpreted as silver-mounted exotica like these ostrich eggs and coconut cups.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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