CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Schatten in Delft: burgers verzamelen 1600-1750

Treasures in Delft: burghers' collections, 1600-1750 Exhibition: 11 April - 14 June 2002


Michiel Jonker* and Ellinoor Bergvelt.

Part of a larger, 3-museum program in Delft commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Dutch East India Company. See press release on complete program.

Press release from the Delft Municipal Museums, March 2002, concerning three linked exhibitions

Four hundred years ago the Dutch city of Delft was a bustling, lively centre. It was renowned for its painters, its pottery and its scientific research. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was founded and one of its ‘chambers’ was established in Delft. This brought the city in direct contact with the shipping travelling to and from distant lands. The sailing ships, known as Eastindiamen, brought back many objects from the Far East – not only goods to be traded but also so-called curiosities such as rare shells or exotic plants. Circumstances were ideal for the wealthy citizens of Delft, who were soon eagerly assembling collections of curious objects. They would gather antiquities, rare stones and unusual plants, curiosities of all kinds that told them stories about unknown lands and made distant worlds more tangible.

Three exhibitions have been mounted in three Delft museums, all within a stone’s throw of each other. They each explore in a different way the link between the Dutch East India Company and the Delft collectors. The exhibitions run from 11 April until 14 July 2002. Their joint title is:

Treasures in Delft. Burghers’ collections, 1600 – 1750

Het Prinsenhof Museum: the collectors Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, Hendrick d’Acquet, and others

‘I am constantly in search of rarities; indeed, what gives me the greatest pleasure is to discover something new’ Hendrick d’Acquet in a letter to the London apothecary James Petiver, 22 June 1703

One of Holland’s major collectors was Hendrick d’Acquet (1632 – 1706), a medical doctor, city physician of Delft and sheriff and burgomaster there. He made a vast collection of naturalia, that is, objects of interest to the natural historian such as wild plants, strange creatures, and suchlike. His aim was to codify natural life, by collecting plants and animals or by employing people to make drawings of them in their natural habitat. He also commissioned artists to depict this transient life, thereby preserving it for posterity. D’Acquet’s collection is contained in three volumes of beautiful detailed illustrations. Over a thousand pictures of trees and butterflies, herbs and exotic plants, beetles and other creatures have been preserved in these books. The Prinsenhof Museum is displaying a considerable number of these original, extremely fragile, drawings.

Another well-known Delft collector from this period is the inventor, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek. At that time, doctors and apothecaries would collect objects in the naturalia category as well as scientific instruments such as microscopes, to assist their studies. Van Leeuwenhoek took a keen interest in new ideas from scientists both in his own country and abroad, and gladly exchanged objects and information with other collectors.

In the Prinsenhof Museum visitors will be able to gauge the state-of-the-art in medical knowledge in seventeenth-century Delft, by seeing the type of instruments that Van Leeuwenhoek had in his collection.

These two weren’t the only Delft collectors. There was also, for instance, Johan de la Faille, who gathered the most exquisite seashells and arranged them in the shallow drawers of his cabinets. You can see this as well as some of the most masterly drawings and paintings from the collection of Valerius Röver, not to mention examples from the earliest-known collection made in the Netherlands, the ancient coins and gemstones assembled by Abraham Gorlaeus (1549 – 1609). Also on show will be still-life paintings showing the type of objects commonly to be found in collections of curiosities. Altogether, this exhibition will amply illustrate that seventeenth-century Delft was a flourishing centre for Dutch collectors.

Museum Nusantara: the senses of touch and smell

Who was Rumphius? A man full of curiosity, and a researcher with a difference. From 1653 until his death, Georg Everhard Rumphius (1627 – 1702) lived on the Indonesian island of Ambon. He was an employee of by the Dutch East India Company. Rumphius was fascinated by natural history – by shells and stones, crustaceans and reptiles, and plants of all kinds. He also extended his researches to gathering information from the indigenous Ambonese. Sadly, he was never to see most of his remarkable collection, for he lost his sight at the age or 43. He is fittingly known as ‘the blind seer of Ambon.’

Rumphius had his impressive collection recorded in beautifully detailed drawings and prints. After his death these were collected in a book titled (in translation) The Ambonese Cabinet of Curiosities. Furthermore, a six-volume publication was produced titled (in translation) The Ambon Book of Herbs and Wild Plants. His book on cabinets of curiosity is dedicated to the famous Delft collector Hendrick d’Acquet, for whom he regularly provided objects that would be sent home to Holland on the ships of the East India Company.

The exhibition on Rumphius has been specially mounted so that visitors can in a small measure share this blind collector’s experience: enjoying the scents and savours of Ambon and touching the exotic forms of objects from the tropical seas. But there is also much to be seen: large illustrations of trees such as the sirih (leaf), the waringin or the banana, of bamboo cane, papayas, orchids, species of sharks, walrus tusks or whalebone, and much else. There are domestic and artistic objects made by the indigenous people. And you can see the man himself in portrait, with prints showing exactly where he lived and lies buried on the island of Ambon.

Museum Lambert van Meerten: porcelain from the Far East and pottery from Delft

Trade with the Far East introduced the Dutch to Chinese and Japanese porcelain. This delicate china was brought back in the holds of the Dutch East India Company’s ships. It was exotic and expensive and appealed hugely to the well-to-do burghers of Delft. Very soon Delft potters were busy imitating this type of china. Indeed, some were so successful that it was almost impossible to distinguish between porcelain from the Far East and the china made in Delft, which became known as delftware. Interestingly, the more wealthy maintained a preference for the imported porcelain.

In the course of the seventeenth century, decorative china gained a particular place in the Dutch interior. Elegant, specially-designed cabinets were made to hold the plates and cups and saucers. The ceramic pieces were displayed on shelves against the walls, on etagières, in corner cupboards, and arranged symmetrically on the mantelpiece. Specially for the exhibition, the museum has reconstructed some displays of porcelain as they might have looked in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. One section of the exhibition will consider the influence of Eastern porcelain on Deflt pottery. After all, without the assistance of the Dutch East India Company, there would never have been the famous ‘Delft blue china’.


Schatten in Delft: burgers verzamelen 1600-1750
Ellinoor Bergvelt, Michiel Jonker and Agnes Wiechmann, with contributions by Marion van Aken-Fehmers
Catalogue of an exhibition held in 2002 in Delft (Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof)
Zwolle (Waanders) and Delft (Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof) 2002
ISBN 90-400-9660-0