Thursday, August 19, 2021

Café Américain Amsterdam...

Historically, we immediately associate Amsterdam with tulip and cheese and tend to forget that in the 17th century - during the Dutch Golden Age - its port was key to the coffee and tea trade in Europe as the Dutch East India Company (VOC) brought back goods from afar . Over the centuries a café culture established itself and there are some beautiful establishments to visit. The beautiful Café Américain is within an imposing heritage-listed art nouveau hotel, built in 1900, situated in the Leidseplein quarter. Although it has to share space with a Hard Rock Café, none of its charm has been lost and the service was very efficient and friendly...

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Magical Interiors... Dutch Cabinet Dollhouses.

Reading about the social significance of elegant display pieces in 17th century Netherlands – namely the tulip and the cabinet dollhouse - made me dream of going back to the beautiful city of Amsterdam. And so a few weeks ago, as torrential rain pounded down outside here, repeatedly flooding parts of the city, I decided to take the plunge and organize a quick visit of the ‘Venice of the North’.
I was in no way disappointed, for even if tulip season was officially over by this stage of the year, I was able to go to the Tulip Museum in the heart of the city and did in fact see a few stray flowers in bloom by the lofty canal houses. Wandering alongside the waterways that crisscross the city, I spent hours looking up and into these stunning Golden Age buildings, with their multiple floors and extensive, tall windows, admiring their intricacies and peculiarities, just as I had been hoping to observe, up close, the magnificent dollhouses at the Rijksmuseum.
Finally finding myself in front of these cabinet dollhouses was quite humbling. So many centuries separate the lives of their original owners and ourselves, and yet, in theory, we apparently share a fascination and appreciation for these scaled-down domestic universes. Throughout the ages it would appear that any type of miniature has the ability to cast a spell of enchantment over us – but especially the oldest, with their individual histories that add to the intrigue. We are drawn to antique automatons imitating living beings, model railways, charm bracelets weighed down with tiny, perfect replicas of chattels, people and places. But the dollhouse always seems to occupy a unique position, and above all the Dutch cabinet poppenhuizen with their weight of social significance.
It should be noted that such dollhouses were not actually intended as an elaborate plaything for young children ; quite the contrary. Indeed, 17th century Dutch dollhouses were commissioned for and often by, the fully-grown wives of men of considerable power and wealth within the merchant class and their interest was anything but plain child’s play. In fact, the pronk poppenhuisen, or ‘dollhouses for show’ were works of art that served several adult social functions. Given that a fully-furnished cabinet specimen, complete with an extensive range of functional and decorative objects, could reach the price of a real Amsterdam canalhouse, it comes as no surprise that such possessions were the preserve of the most affluent classes in society.
In many ways, the cabinet houses could be viewed as equivalent to the gentleman’s wunderkammer – wonder cabinets – the room, space, or finally display cupboard given over to the collection and exhibition of naturalia and artificialia ; natural oddities, artworks and historical artifacts. These items had thus been gathered from the natural world, with wonders such as skeletons, stones, shells and fossils, or again from the cultures of newly-discovered lands, recently acquired colonies or archaeological finds. With the extensive trade routes opened up by the Dutch East India Company, a magnitude of specimens streamed into Dutch ports from the distant lands of the Indies, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Carefully selected and laid out, the collection of curiosities in these cabinets mapped out a microcosm of the ideal world for the man of means, social standing and learning, and one which would therefore reflect these qualities in the owner, for the benefit of a select, privileged audience.
Likewise, the cabinet dollhouses allowed privileged Dutch wives to set out their personal vision of domestic harmony, beauty and refinement – with spaces and objects miniaturised to perfection in the cabinet shelves that created an ideal world. Furthermore, as with the wonder cabinets, the cabinet houses could be placed in the reception areas of the family home, on display at eye-level to guests in order to highlight the taste, means and status of the female owner, but could also be closed up at her discretion too with curtains, so that when closed, the cabinet resembled a four-poster bed.
These sizeable pieces were truly works of art in their own right, and measuring an impressive two and a half metres in height and two metres in width, they were imposing too. Not only were the cabinet houses filled with expensive and often exotic items that reflected the interest in the new worlds opening up thanks to Dutch trading, they were also made from rare and precious materials too. One of the cabinet dollhouses in the Rijksmuseum – that of Petronella Oortman – bears tortoiseshell panels all exquisitely carved with pewter inlay and crafted by a French cabinetmaker. Unfortunately I can't label any photos on Blogger anymore, so the following images are an unspecified mix of the two houses on display...
It was then curated by its proud owner between 1686 and 1710, and then handed down to her daughter. The other house on display belonged to another Petronella – Petronella Dunois - and dates back to 1676, therefore some years before the Oortman work. Interestingly, as a wealthy individual in her own right, she owned her cabinet house prior to marriage and it comes complete with actual dolls which appear to have inspired the televised adaptation of Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist. These strange figures, with their perfect detail and rather disconcerting expressions certainly seem to create a very particular atmosphere!
Just as the domestic interiors of upper-class families were being filled with characteristic blue Delftware and Chinese porcelain and decorated with paintings from famous artists throughout the Golden Age so too were the cabinet houses, as miniatures were readily commissioned from the most skilled artists who often also created the life-size versions.
All the objects of life in the wealthy home are recreated with great craftsmanship so that we can feast our magpie eyes on perfectly rendered upholstery, furnishings, flooring, ceiling reliefs, decorative objects, tableware and practical utensiles and linen in the domestics’ quarters, all crafted from the original materials used in the full-size equivalent. Just as the actual townhouses, the interiors are decorated with Oriental carpets, tapestries, paintings and frescoes, exotic wood, lacquerwork, marble, mother-of-pearl, silver and gold!
Silver was indeed often used throughout for the dollhouse furniture and household objects and personal possessions as a further demonstration of wealth and taste. In fact the collection of such silver miniatures – referred to as ‘silver toys’– was commonplace in its own right, although again, not destined as children’s playthings. These precious objects were generally displayed on mantelpieces and shelves around the home and were perhaps intended for those who could not afford a complete cabinet house. There are many examples of these in the museum, with all manor of items crafted in the tiniest detail, leading us to wonder over their intricacies.
Even curiosity cabinets were featured within the dollhouses, each with their own collection of naturalia and artificalia ! Other rooms on display likewise reflect the values of the period for the wives of the elite menfolk. Each space is well-ordered and immaculately laid out, even those typically hidden from visitors’ eyes as we are offered a glimpse into the female domains of the home. There is the show kitchen (with its display of pewter and Delftware), the ‘lying-in’ chamber for nursing mothers, the linen room (with its array of costly ‘whites’) and the peat loft.
Although the cabinet houses may have mirrored aspects of actual homes, they were, perhaps strangely, rarely direct replicas of the owner’s personal universe. This may have been from modesty in a Protestant country, but the decoration of a dollhouse enabled young women to leave their own mark and inhabit a personal domain of fantasy and creative imagination. This represented one of the few areas in which wives could take some control of their lives and were even granted the freedom to visit craftsmen to commission articles for their miniature world. A young woman would often receive such a cabinet house as a wedding gift.
Collecting for a cabinet house was often viewed as an educational pursuit, and its organisation considered preparation for the appropriate running of a real household, just as the earlier ‘baby houses’ of Germany had been used as a learning tool for young girls. Petronella Oortman apparently owned hers following her second marriage to a silk merchant, prior to the arrival of their four children, whilst Petronella Dunois (in the painting below) obtained hers before marriage.
It is said that children were encouraged to observe the house lay-out in order to see how a decent home was set up, furnished and managed. Some owners kept accounts of the expenditure on their houses, and given the high prices each commissioned object could command, this was probably wise yet somewhat daunting. The beauty of Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse was captured in a painting by Jacob Appel, wherein we have a copy within a copy – an artist’s representation of a replicated, idealized whole created from all these incredibly detailed elements. Perfection!

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Finished Hexagon Multifiori Crochet!

When I finished my previous crochet project - a second multiple-hexagon 'multifiori' wallhanging - I felt a certain amount of pride and relief, after over a year's work. However those feelings were somewhat short-lived and soon gave way to the impression of being at a loss! The absence of crochet paraphernalia scattered around left me feeling rather empty and unanchored. Spare moments were no longer caught up in countless scraps of yarn that held me together, a spidery safety net of sanity that kept me grounded whatever the circumstances or surroundings.
All ties were now cut - severed, for better and for worse! Although suddenly freed of straying yarn and woolly fibres, cleared of countless balls of wool, all stashed away in strategic points, my home environment appeared rather sterile, albeit 'tidy'. It was also a little less welcoming to a certain someone who simply loves lounging on, in and around any kind of woollen project, whatever its stage of development...
After a few days at drift, I decided to embark on another project, vowing to merely finish off the spare wool, as a logical measure. Needless to say, I was hooked again. Yet two years down the line, I have finally finished this vast wallhanging. Being larger than a double-bed cover, it is of a considerable weight, even without sleeping cats! Of course, I do now have another collection of excess wool, so I'll see how long it takes before I start this whole process again, like some crazy spider!