The Netherlands is known for its windmills, clogs and tulips – some even know a little about the country’s history thanks to films like The Girl with the Pearl Earring. For a true picture of what the current country was built on you have to go to the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, one of the most picturesque towns in the country, with its old customs house and splendid harbour full of old sailing ships and fishermen bringing in their crab catch. One can almost smell the past, with the unloading of cloves, pepper, coffee, tobacco and nutmeg, for a pound of which a man had to pay with seven cows or three of his best horses.
Slightly out of the area we normally cover (hence its Extracurricular designation) the Westfries Museum is one of those museums where the building itself is as interesting as its exhibits. In its panelled, oak-beamed rooms and via its steep winding staircases you can feel the concentrated power of the 17th century Dutch, a time of abundance of riches. At the time, though situated in a protected bay, ships had direct access from Hoorn harbour to the sea via the Ijsselmeer.
The sheer accumulation of wealth in the museum is staggering. Each room is filled to the ceilings, literally, with untold treasure and exotic items, vegetable, mineral and animal, brought back from the trade missions. The most impressive items on show are the paintings by Jan Albertsz Rotius, called the Rembrandt of Hoorn. As a portrait painter he often depicted families and the children of the wealthy. But filling a large room of the museum and dating from around the middle of the 17th century, there are his stunning, floor-to-ceiling paintings of the prestigious Civic Guards.
On 10th January 2005, during the celebrations of the museum’s 125th anniversary, seventy pieces of art and silver from the 17th and 18th century, worth millions of Euros and including 24 paintings, were stolen. Four of the paintings were retrieved during a secret operation by the Ukrainian Security Service, one of the most important, in the home of a collector who had bought it in good faith, with a certificate of authenticity. Not wishing to go down in history as the man who harboured stolen art, he nobly decided to return the painting to the museum in 2016.
From a country which a few centuries earlier was half under water, the Dutch created one of the wealthiest nations in Europe through trading with the world and Rotius’s paintings illustrate this. Today some protest that the wealth and power was built on exploitation of colonies and slavery, but the same criticism can be levelled at England and other colonising nations. Though the clothes have changed (today flaunting wealth is not done) and the religious zealots have largely disappeared, the spirit of adventure and enterprise has survived. Like their 17th century ancestors, the Dutch are ingenious engineers – problem solving is their second nature. Walking around the harbour of Hoorn, five minutes from the Museum, I was amazed that they seem undaunted by the threat of rising sea levels. 50% of the country is just one meter above sea level, 26% lies below it and over 21% of the population lives below sea level – so now they build whole neighbourhoods as floating houses.
Hoorn’s splendid Westfries Museum charts the amazing history of a people who, in order to become a nation, clawed a country from the sea.