Report -by Tina Wilson, John Boldero and Ann McMellan- on the four day trip to Amsterdam
Report on the first day, Tuesday 2 September, by Tina Wilson
Marianne Denney made an inspired choice when she selected the Park Hotel on the Stadhouderskade as our base, strategically sited just on the edge of the Grachtengordel, the triple circle of ancient canals, so within walking distance of the historic heart of Amsterdam, as well as being alongside the Vondelpark, near the Leidse plein, and just a stone’s throw from the Rijksmuseum, the first destination of our trip.
Corrie Griffioen, our guide for the trip, met us in the hotel lobby – no need to worry that we might miss her in a heaving crowd as she wore a vibrantly coloured dress that precluded the need to wave a trademark umbrella. Marianne’s husband, Alan, took up his role as sheepdog (or Bezemwagen, as the Dutch put it), counting heads and rounding up stragglers. At the rear entrance to the Rijksmuseum we encountered “Rembrandt” himself, a convincing gilded “living statue”, palette and paintbrushes at the ready. Alan with his penchant for the quirky and off-beat promptly took a group photo of us all with the great man in our midst.
Inside the museum we were divided into two groups. Our party was led by Birgitte, a Junoesque freelance art historian, who injected plenty of drama into a necessarily lightning tour of this vast museum. At long last questions which had intrigued me were answered – Q: Why did it look as if the Centraal Station had come down to the Stadhouderskade and pupped? A: Because both buildings were designed by the same architect.Q: Why on earth was the Rijksmuseum closed for TEN whole years – the duration of the Trojan War?! A: Because there was indeed a war, a major planning battle, lasting around six years, fought between the city authorities and the powerful cycling lobby, who insisted on retaining their right to cycle through the central archway of the building – this being Holland, they won – and kept the lawyers in funds.
The building, completed in 1885, was designed by Pierre Cuypers, a Roman Catholic architect from Roermond, who used a blend of French Renaissance, Gothic and Mediaeval styles to create what some called a cathedral of Dutch Art. It attracted criticism from the start; indeed its flamboyant style and ornate brickwork so offended the Protestant sensibilities of King William III that he not only declined to attend its opening, but refused ever to set foot inside it! (His great-granddaughter, Beatrix, had no such scruples in attending the re-opening in 2013 after a £318 million renovation.) However, only twenty years after its completion, Cuyper’s brick walls were whitewashed, the ornate terrazzo floor in the great hall was taken out and replaced by floorboards over a concrete screed and the impact of the original scheme was lost. The Spanish architects, Cruz y Ortiz, who oversaw the modern refurbishment, transformed the entrance hall by creating an airy atrium with a shop and café in the basement and stairs leading up to the collections.
Up these we went, pausing for a glimpse into the reference library of 30,000 volumes, reserved for scholars, and on to the second floor to rooms showing life in the 17th century.
The first concentrated on Dutch naval supremacy, with pride of place reserved for a large contemporary model of a ship and a portrait of Michiel de Ruyter, the admiral who sailed up the Medway in 1667, capturing the English flagship, the Royal Charles: its coat of arms was displayed over the doorway. The next room contained magnificent dolls’ houses, then seen as ultimate status symbols on which vast sums of thousands of guilders were lavished and which now provide a wealth of detail for social historians of life behind those calm interiors portrayed by the Dutch masters. Next came the William and Mary room, containing a splendid collection of porcelain, much of it collected by Queen Mary herself, who filled her palaces in Holland and England with Delft blue ware.
As the culmination of our tour, Birgitte had wisely reserved to the end Cuyper’s Great Hall and Gallery of Honour (the latter built over the notorious cycle way), restored to its former glory. In the Great Hall the whitewash has been stripped back to the original brickwork; monumental canvasses, showing scenes from Dutch history, taken down in 1905, were retrieved from storage and placed again on the walls and the ornate terrazzo floor was relaid. The hall now serves as a kind of narthex to the Gallery of Honour, visible through a glass door like the nave of a great cathedral, the alcoves on either side, like side chapels, containing some of the choicest works of 17th century Dutch artists, such as Frans Hals, Vermeer, de Hooch and of course, Rembrandt himself; with the focal point, the Night Watch, in the far distance as the High Altar of Dutch Art in the Golden Age – no wonder William III was outraged! There’s no space here to dwell at length on the paintings on display in the gallery, and everyone has their own particular favourite. Birgitte pointed out to us some of the remarkable qualities of Rembrandt’s depiction of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’s militia company of musketeers (cloveniers) – such as the shadow of the captain’s hand falling across the golden coat of his lieutenant; the little girl in the pool of light in the centre with the face of Rembrandt’s beloved wife, Saskia, and how the painting had originally been much larger, before being cut down in 1715 to fit in a room of the former town hall, now the Royal Palace on the Dam. Alongside the Night Watch was a copy of the painting, on loan from the National Gallery in London, showing how the painting had looked before it was so drastically truncated.
By this time it was nearly closing time and we had only scratched the surface of the 8,000 plus treasures on display. As we reluctantly left the building, there was “Rembrandt” on his mobile, packing up at the end of his day and no doubt whistling up his lift to take him home.
After a short rest at the hotel, we sallied forth a few blocks for an Indonesian meal at Sama Sebo, which apparently means “together with Sebo”, the name of the original owner. They are certainly continuing his tradition for here we were in for a treat. Somehow in a limited space, an army of waiters produced a bewildering array of small oval dishes containing an amazing variety of meats in piquant sauces, rice, cooling vegetables and fruits to offset the spiciness. By common consent, on our table at least, this was voted the best rijsttafel ever and so formed the perfect conclusion to our first day in Amsterdam.
Report on the second day, Wednesday 3 September, by John Boldero
Our second day began when our guide, Corrie Griffioen, met with us at the hotel and we set off on our walk through the old canal district. We started through various of the more narrow streets, past the memorial at the old Gestapo headquarters to the members of the Resistance and on to our first visit, in the Herengracht, to the house of Abraham and Louisa Willet-Holthuysen, preserved exactly as it was in 1895 when it was first lived in by them.
Passing through the basement floor, the usual domestic equipment was visible together with a water filter, to cope with the perennial problem of drinking water quality in Amsterdam and a birdcage, put there so that its occupant could warn of poor air quality. In some houses, an open door to the cage meant that the kitchen staff might be receptive to other approaches…. Other particular features of the house included the Ladies’ Salon, well-stocked with pictures of flowers and animals and the Club room, a men’s room for Abraham, with the art displays suitable to that role. Despite its small size, perhaps the most impressive room was the Garden room, where Louisa took tea, with its vista over the very extensive garden. Although not original to this house, it typifies the grand urban gardens found in Amsterdam in the early 18th century.
Turning to something completely different, the Museum of Bags and Purses boasted a collection of bags, satchels, reticules, coin purses and shoulder bags, with exhibits ranging from the 16th century to Hillary Clinton’s ‘Socks’, a bag in the shape of the White House First Cat. Copies of an exhibit of a leather clutch bag having a relief of a full-sized automatic pistol on the side are apparently much favoured by Russian visitors… These, together with some 4000 other items, are housed in an elegant house nearby on the Herengracht.
Moving on to the Keizersgracht, particular features of our next Museum, Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis, were its splendidly ornate wall coverings and carpets and its collection of pianofortes. In addition, its garden or keurtuin forms one of the collection of 27 urban gardens in the two streets which, with the canals, go to make up a UNESCO World heritage site. The impact of this designation is quite widespread in some cases, necessitating the removal of such anachronisms as escalators from some historic building. Moving on to our next location, we saw on various bridges and buildings, the oft-repeated initials, SPQA, Amsterdam`s take on the Roman phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus and an indication of their self-image.
Our 4th and final visit was to the van Loon Museum, again on the Keizersgracht, whose building started an illustrious career by being the home of Rembrandt’s famous pupil, Ferdinand Bol. Again, a fine array of fashionable furnishings, an elegant staircase, a substantial garden and a host of portraits of various luminaries (such as of van Loon himself, a co-founder of the VOC) and their ‘power vrouw’ partners, together with a Wedgwood–style coach house marked the house as being in the forefront of its type.
Taking to the water just opposite, we lunched as we sped through Amsterdam past, present and future, past canal-side palaces preserved in their glory, past tumbledown wharves and jetties and great 50-metre barges powering along towards the North Sea canal to Den Helder and past buildings like the Museum for Sciences, rather unkindly known as the ‘Titanic’. We saw and heard about the ‘Amsterdam’ a VOC replica merchantman built by unemployed labour, Peter the Great learning shipbuilding in the area, the 375 year old Hortus Botanicus and the canal boat ‘Port of Amsterdam’, used by the King and Queen during their recent accession tours of celebration. Turning toward the centre again, we saw the iconic ‘magere brug’, the ‘skinny bridge’, the view of seven bridges, possible only from the water and the low iron railings set up along the edges of the canals by the insurance companies, to try and reduce the number of cars ending up in the canals!
Later in the evening, arriving in the ‘Albert Cuyp’, we found the famous market, held there for hundreds of years just closing and the herons waiting patiently on the roofs of the stalls to address themselves to any unsold morsels of fish.
Fish also awaited us, in Saskia’s Huiskamer restaurant, making up two of the four courses specially prepared for us and for our guests that evening, the British Ambassador and Lady Adams, whose presence was much appreciated and who we hope enjoyed the evening, the menu and the atmosphere as much as we did.
Report on the third day, Thursday 4 September, by Ann McMellan
The sun shone again on Thursday, 4th September, as members of the ANS headed for the Old Town and ‘Our Lord in the Attic’, one of Amsterdam’s oldest museums. In 1661 Jan Hartman, a German merchant who had prospered in Amsterdam, bought three canal houses and then turned the upper storeys into a Catholic church to celebrate mass illegally in the heart of the staunchly Protestant city. Although current renovation at the site meant that various items had been removed to protective custody, there was much of interest as we climbed up the original oak staircase. Evidence of affluence and success lay in the parlour furniture and works of art and we recognised the classical symmetry created by painting a false door to balance an operational one. We also noted the coat of arms created by Hartman himself as well as the niche sleeping arrangements for his family of 3 sons and 3 daughters. Ons Lieve Heer op Solder seated 150 and dignitaries were later accommodated in specific pews at right angles to the rest of the congregation. Since being opened to the public in 1888, the chapel had undergone redecoration but the present purplish shade was reflected in the marbling, a striking contrast to the white sculpture of God which rose above the altar and almost touched the ceiling.
From this small, hidden church on Oudezijds Voorburgwal we quickly made our way past the Brewerij de Prael which gives work to vulnerable citizens to the gothic Oude Kerk which was founded in 1250. The absence of chairs enabled us to appreciate the grandeur of the Oude Kerk and to view the painting of the consecration of St Martin and the 1470 images of Saints Crispin and Crispianus which survive on the wooden roof. “Authenticity, acoustics, light and silence” are significant features of the building, whose present shape and size dates from 1500. Though the 39 richly decorated altars endowed by various guilds and private donors have vanished, we did enjoy looking at the misericord featuring the krentenkakker and another depicting a fight between anger and self-control. Though aware of the 2,500 graves within the church, our attention was paid to a relatively small number and in particular to those of Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife, and the mausoleum of Admiral Van Heemskerck who defeated a Spanish fleet at Gibraltar in 1607. We learnt that feral dogs were despatched by dogchasers who also drove out the prostitutes. By contrast outside the Oude Kerk now stands Belle, a modern bronze statue honouring sex workers. A number of these workers paid us friendly attention as we wended our way through the Red Light district to Casablanca, 1 of 2 restaurants created to support needy circus performers in hard times. Since neither burlesque cabaret nor vaudeville entertainment awaited us in the theatre on the Casablanca’s premises, we settled for nourishing tomato soup and a buffet lunch before walking past Sint Nicolaaskerk and the Buddhist temple.
Our next focus was the majestic Koninklijk Paleis, originally built in the seventeenth century as the City Hall but home to King Louis Napoleon from 1808. The whole-hearted admiration of Napoleon’s brother for the Empire style was evident in clocks, chandeliers and furniture and his is the best preserved and most complete collection of this style in the world. Visitors whether touring or staying in the Royal Palace would also appreciate the splendour of Jacob van Campen’s classically influenced architecture and the distinguished art and sculptural works of Bol, Flinck, Quellinus, Rembrandt and Vondel. A viewing break in ‘t Nieuwe Kafé in Dam Square enabled us to gather strength to wander via a book market in the university quarter to a convivial and nourishing dinner at Tomaz.
Friday 5th September
Report on the morning of the final day of our visit, by Ann McMellan.
Friday morning’s treat was the Six Collection at 218 Amstel where our guide was the tenth generation of the Six Family, Jan Six van Hillegom. In relating the family history, he revealed how marriages, for instance with Margaretha Tulp (1655) and that with Lucretia van Winter in the nineteenth century, contributed significantly to the original seventeenth century Rembrandts collected by the first Jan Six. Whilst family portraits, including C. Ketel’s of Chrétienne Six (1615) and Rembrandt’s of Jan Six I (1654), form the core of the collection there are many other gems such as Saenredam’s Utrecht ‘Buurtkerk’ and Berckheyde’s ‘Bocht in de Herengracht’ for example. Details and anecdotes enhanced our pleasure on viewing items depicted in the portraits, sixteenth century Limoges enamels, Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware and garden features that time simply sped by. We would have liked longer to view the array of treasures but were appreciative of the opportunity we had been given.
Report on the afternoon of the final day of our visit, by John Boldero
Our visit to the Concertgebouw began with our tour guide Robert Jan introducing himself. He is a musicology student working with the organisation: more can be seen of him in a YouTube video removing a gate crasher to a royal concert a few years back.
The Concertgebouw, now Royal, opened its doors in 1888 and has developed its site progressively over the years including developments in its former garden in an effort to muffle the sounds of the Amsterdam tram bells, who ignored all requests over the years to slide past the Concert Hall quietly during performance times. The immediate area has interesting neighbours in Chung Hee, arguably the second best Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands, Cafe Welling, a hotspot for composers and performers of all types and Brasserie Keyzer.
The complex contains several venues, one, the Kleine Zaal (Small Hall), being primarily intended for chamber orchestra sized performances and perhaps resembling the Wigmore Hall most closely. The room is characterised by tight acoustics, so as to emulate those of concert rooms in salons and places for which most early concert works were composed. Its elliptical shape makes for excellent ‘reverb’, helped, fortuitously, by the unexpected sound-returning qualities of the rather blingy plaster ceiling decorations acquired off the shelf from Germany during its construction. Other features of the room include the ability to move or remove complete arcs of seats, on wheels, so as to facilitate use of the hall for less traditional purposes such as occasional funerals!
As the Grote Zaal (Main Hall) was in use by Haitink himself for a recording session at the time of our arrival, we visited various of the facilities in the floors above the various chambers, including the radio broadcasting room where we encountered, for the first time for many of us, ‘acoustic dust’, a sort of super dust which collects and lies in such a way to ensure that the acoustic properties of the chambers are not upset by cleaning activities.
The Main Hall does not have the facilities to ‘fly in’ visual props to enhance the impact of performances, the organisation seeing itself as primarily an orchestral venue, so the attic area over the Hall is relatively sparsely equipped but it affords excellent views of the golden Mermaid playing her vuvuzela on the adjacent chamber roof and beyond, over the hectares of the heart of Amsterdam, reminding the viewer that the Hall occupies many square metres of prime real estate which, in private hands, would command prices of upward of €30,000 a square metre.
Descending in a lift whose dimensions were considered large enough to accommodate not only the greatest of conductors but also their egos, we found in the Main Hall itself, now being cleared after the recording session, several indicators of differences in the zeitgeist of the Hall. Among the names of famous composers that circled the walls and were considered to have particularly close ties to the Concertgebouw were the usual ones like Mahler and Grieg but also others now lost to us. Concertgoers can fill the seats of the mighty, in this case Row 1, seat 64, that of King Willem Alexander, as easily as any other, should he not be needing it.
Perhaps the most telling development in the life of a centre famous for being the home of world-class orchestras is the fact that they must share this home with gigs held by purveyors of post-modern drinks who may pay up to €100,000 for this privilege. The size of those sums is the key; housing and operating orchestras in a climate of economic downturn presents huge challenges.
Diversity is a key to survival and the Koorzaal (Choir Hall), the last of the centre’s venues, which houses jazz concerts and children’s activities as well as wide ranging choral activities, helps to ensure that this famous organisation will continue to delight the world with its skill and virtuosity.
And so our tour of Amsterdam finished, as it were, on the highest of high notes. We must give our warmest thanks to Marianne Denney for her tremendous hard work in organising and conducting our visit, which took us to a marvellous variety of exhibits, buildings, vistas and restaurants. In addition, we must thank Alan Denney and our guide, Corrie, who also did so much to ensure that we had such an enjoyable time.