Amsterdam in the Golden Age

Our February AGM was followed by a fascinating illustrated talk on Amsterdam in the seventeenth century by Anna Hallett. Little did we realise that the historic core of the city is designated as a World Heritage Site. So what promoted the growth of Amstedam from a small fishing village on the virtually land locked Zuider Zee? The answer lies in the merchantile aptitude of its residents, seafaring skills and an upsurge in trade between countries following a great age of exploration. Clearly, the Netherlanders were skilled traders, bringing in goods from far countries to Amsterdam, from where they would be redistributed both within the Netherlands and further afield. Such trade inevitably brought with it a growth in individual (as well as state) wealth, which, by the seventeenth century, was reflected in the construction of sophisticated town houses by the merchants.

Thus were constructed the buildings we see today as we walk around the historic core of Amsterdam. A series of concentric canals framed by merchants' houses, typically narrow-fronted but deep, often opening onto secluded rear gardens. These houses were constructed principally of brick, for which there was a plentiful supply of clay in the country. Grander civic properties, such as the town hall, stock exchange and banks were built of stone, expensively imported from abroad. Trading brought with it the need for concomitant skills. Banking thrived, whilst Amsterdam hosted one of the world's earliest stock exchanges. As lifestyles became more sophisticated, so culture thrived. Merchants wanted the best furnishings for their properties. The Dutch School of painting developed a distinctive a style. Many will be familiar with the paintings of flowers and everyday domestic scenes of this period. This culture of sophistication extended to carpets, pottery, silverware, glassware and tiles, often produced by local craftsmen.

Dutch tiles are, of course well known, particularly Blue Delft ones. Anna reminded us, though, that this familiar style came towards the end of this period. Previously, multi-coloured tiles were the fashion of the day. They are now comparatively rare and, predictably, highly collectable. One surprise came with the revelation that the ladies of wealthy households owned their own sophisticated dolls houses. They were carefully designed and furnished to display the latest fashions. Perhaps they helped the lady of the house redesign her rooms? Finally, Anna had to mention tulips. We all know that they were the fashionable "must have" of their day, with huge sums of money changing hands for hoped-for rare varieties.

Anna has visited us previously and this talk, packed with illustrations, did not disappoint. Anna has that rare skill of bringing the past to life in a most understandable way. We look forward to another visit in the not too distant future and another part of the world to explore with her.

Roger Hockney
February 2017