My one excursion outside the UK in this plague year was a five-week trip with a bike in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, which was bookended by commemorations of two great geniuses – Rembrandt and Beethoven. I started with the ferry from Harwich to Hoek van Holland and an easy ride through the edges of Den Haag to Leiden, where Rembrandt was born and grew up. Last year Leiden’s Lakenhal Museum, with the Ashmolean in Oxford, put on a Young Rembrandt exhibition, which finished in February and moved to Oxford, where it was promptly closed down by Covid-19. I thought I’d missed it but it did reopen, hurrah! Because I was actually booked to visit the Lakenhal at the end of the week it seemed totally auspicious that I should go to Oxford to see the show first – it was excellent, very well presented, and a great prelude to my visit to Leiden. Young Rembrandt covered his first twenty-five years in Leiden, before he moved to Amsterdam (where I was to see far more of his wonderful paintings a few days later). In Leiden he shared a studio with his friend Jan Lievens – I wasn’t particularly aware of him before this trip, but I saw quite a few really very striking paintings by him on this trip, including in Bremen and Braunschweig.
The Fitzwilliam Museum here in Cambridge has a fantastic collection of Rembrandt prints, so I’m used to seeing them in rotating displays (often comparing different states of the same image, depending on how the artist altered it and how worn the plate was), but very few featured in this show.
Lakenhal is usually translated as Cloth Hall, but Laken is specifically worsted, one of the seven main kinds of cloth brought to be inspected here. A fine building dating from 1640, it now houses the town’s main museum, which was closed for remodelling and extension from 2016 to 2019 and now combines its art and history collections to good effect. Isaac Claesz Swanenburg’s paintings of the cloth-making process are hardly great art, but they are informative. In recent posts about England I mentioned the wealth brought by the wool trade, which funded the building of big churches with great expanses of late-Gothic windows; much the same happened here, and the cloth trade was also key to the wealth of the Hanseatic ports, as you’ll see when I get to my post on Lübeck in a month or two.
The Lakenhal’s art collection per se is excellent, starting with an unusual Last Judgment by Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), who was the town’s most famous artist (more an engraver than a painter) until Rembrandt’s rise, and continuing with well-known names such as Jan van Goyen (who specialised in local landscapes), Willem van de Velde (the leading marine painter of the late seventeenth century), Gabriel Metsu and the genre painter Jan Steen. The Leidse Fijnschilders or Leiden Fine Painters were led by Rembrandt’s pupil Gerrit Dou but harked back to a pre-Rembrandt era with their small, finely detailed paintings, which are less attractive to modern eyes. There’s also modern art, thanks to Theo van Doesburg, who moved to Leiden in 1916 and established the magazine De Stijl (with Piet Mondrian and others) in 1917.
Anyway, Leiden is a lovely town with a renowned university, a huge church, and other museums, notably the Volkenkunde Museum, opened in 1937 in the former university hospital. As the National Museum of Ethnology, this has since 2014 been part of the the National Museum of World Cultures (NMVW), grouped together with the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal and Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum (a colonial-era museum that was until then run by the Royal Tropical Institute); since 2017 the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam has also been a partner of the NMVW. It’s full of treasures from around the world, but especially Asia, notably pieces collected at the trading station at Nagasaki (when Japan was otherwise closed to the outside world), and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia); however a newly adopted policy of unconditional return of cultural objects that were seized without due process may see the collection shrinking somewhat. The museum is in the Singelpark or Belt Park, created in 2019 by stringing together existing green spaces (with six new footbridges) the whole way around the canal ring that surrounds the city centre. This was the city’s main line of defence (you’ll learn about the 1574 siege in the Lakenhal) and if you walk the whole 6km loop you’ll pass the two remaining city gates and the Molen de Valk, the high windmill that is a symbol of the city.
Leiden is also marking the four-hundredth anniversary of the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers to America – it’s often forgotten that having left England they spent twelve years in Leiden, before deciding to move on – in 1620 they sailed from Delft to Southampton, and then only stopped in Dartmouth and Plymouth because Mayflower was leaking. It’s an odd coincidence that I had a look around the town of Harwich before catching my ferry to the Netherlands, and discovered that Mayflower is believed to have been built there, and her master, Christopher Jones, lived there; there’s also an information panel about Christopher Newport of Harwich, who commanded the ships that carried the first settlers in 1607 to Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America.
The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum is in a fourteenth-century house with furnishings from the Pilgrim period and maps and engravings illustrating the events of that time. The Pilgrims were associated with the huge Pieterskerk, founded in 1121, and their leader John Robinson is buried there (as is the painter Jan Steen); a plaque facing the church marks Robinson’s home.
Haarlem, just a couple of hours north of Leiden by bike (all on off-road cycleways, of course), is also associated with one major painter – what Rembrandt was to Leiden, Frans Hals was to Haarlem. (And of course there was also Vermeer in Delft, but I didn’t go there on this trip, as I’ve spent time in the Rotterdam/Delft/Den Haag area relatively recently.) Twice the size of Leiden, it’s close enough to Amsterdam to almost be a suburb, and has even more museums than Leiden (15 by my count), as well as fascinating early twentieth-century architecture. However the Frans Hals Museum merged in 2018 with De Hallen Haarlem – officially still the Frans Hals Museum, its two locations are known as Hof and Hal (buying a ticket for one gives free entry to the other, but you currently have to book time slots online due to the pandemic). Hal, right on the Grote Markt, is a good contemporary art gallery (the collection includes Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Andrea Fraser), but the one not to miss is Hof, a ten-minute walk south.
You have to build up to Hals himself by passing through several rooms of paintings by other Haarlem portraitists, such as Maarten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), Pieter Pietersz (1540-1603), Karel van Mander (1548-1606), Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem (1562–1638) and Frans Pietersz de Grebber (c1573-1649). Some were born in Antwerp and moved to the free Netherlands to escape the stifling regime in Spanish Flanders (now Belgium), others moved from Haarlem to Amsterdam, matching the general trend of the time as Amsterdam became a major centre of global trade. Hals himself was born in Antwerp in about 1582 but was brought to Haarlem as an infant and refused to leave, obliging his clients in Amsterdam to come to him towards the end of his life (he didn’t die until 1666). All six of his group portraits of civic guards, with which Hals made his name, are here, along with portraits of assorted worthies, in a freer style than his contemporaries, becoming positively slapdash in his 80s (as with Rembrandt, this creates a fine effect at a distance, but looks messy close up). His younger brother Dirck Hals (1593-1656) was not nearly as good an artist and largely confined to himself to painting ‘merry company’ scenes for wealthy young clients. Of his successors and students, I was most interested by Judith Leyster (1609-60) whose works used to be confused with those of Hals himself – I was not aware of her before, but she was the leading female painter of her time, and well worth further study.
Later Haarlem artists who are still widely known include Pieter Claesz Borchem (c1597-1660), Salomon van Ruysdael (c1601-70), his nephew Jacob van Ruisdael (c1628-82), Adriaen van Ostade (1610-85), his brother Isaac van Ostade (1621-49), Philips Wouwerman (1619-68) and Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1680), who I wasn’t aware of but who is esteemed as a master of the still life paintings that were so popular with the Dutch middle class (and specifically of the ‘late breakfast’ genre, which I wasn’t aware of either…).
Across the road from Hof is the Haarlem Museum, which covers the city’s history with an interesting sideline in architecture. Immediately east of the centre, Teylers Museum is the first and oldest museum in the Netherlands, founded in 1778 and covering art, natural history and science. The Oval Room, opened in 1784, is a neoclassical jewel, and it’s continued to expand with painting galleries added in 1838 and 1892 and a new wing in 1996, finally expanding into the property next door in 2002. The paintings are mainly landscapes by the nineteenth-century Den Haag School which are not too exciting, but they also have prints and drawings by Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Raphael.
If you’re familiar with Dutch Golden Age landscape paintings, you’ll know that all these relatively small cities are dominated by a huge Gothic church, which of course were originally Roman Catholic; in Haarlem it’s St Bavo’s church (also known as the Grote Kerk), which should not be confused with the present Roman Catholic cathedral of Saint Bavo (1895-1930), an even huger edifice that appears unexpectedly as you arrive from the south. Built between 1370 and 1538, the Grote Kerk is known for the grave of Frans Hals, the models of ships hanging in the south transept, its floor composed almost entirely of gravestones (around 1,500 of them) and the massive organ (the world’s biggest when it was installed in 1738) that was played by Handel, Mozart (aged 10) and Mendelssohn. Not quite as dominant but still a very striking edifice is the former De Koepel prison, just east of the centre on Papentorenvest – a huge circular panopticon block (built so that a guard in the centre could have a view of every cell), it housed criminals from 1901 to 2016 and then briefly migrants from the Middle East; it is now being converted to house a university college.
I’ll write about beer in my next post, from Amsterdam, but it’s worth mentioning the Jopenkerk Brewery, which is known for its conversion of a former church into a popular café-bar, where they usually have twenty of their own beers on tap as well as guest beers; however brewery tours take place not here but at another brewery in the industrial area east of the centre.