Netherlands – Rotterdam

THE disturbance caused by the war to the English-Dutch services is now over, and it is possible again to sail to Rotterdam from Gravesend by the Batavier tine and to glide in the early morning steadily up the Maas and gradually acquire a sense of Dutch quietude and greyness. Pleasant indeed is it to do this and watch the river, with the little villages on its banks, each with a tiny canal-harbour of its own ; the groups of trees in the early mist ; the gulls and herons ; and the increasing traffic as one draws nearer Schiedam and at last reaches that forest of masts which is known as Rotterdam.

The other route, by Harwich to the Hook, lands its passengers earlier, so that one can be in Amsterdam for breakfast, but there is no river scenery ; one travels by rail. Yet, short as the journey is, one may in its progress ground oneself very thoroughly in the characteristic scenery of Holland. No one who looks steadily out of the windows between the Hook and Amsterdam has much to learn thereafter. Only changing skies and atmospheric effects can provide him with novelty, for most of Holland is like that. He has the formula. Nor is it necessarily new to him if he knows England well, North Holland being merely the Norfolk Broads, the Essex marshlands about Burnham-on-Crouch, extended. Only in its peculiarity of light and in its towns has Holland anything that we have not at home.

England has even its canal life too, if one cared to investigate it the Broads are populous with wherries and barges; cheese is manufactured in England in a score of districts cows range our meadows as they range the meadows of the Dutch. We go to Holland to see the towns, the pictures and the people. We go also because so many of us are so constituted that we never use our eyes until we are on foreign soil. It is as though a Cook’s ticket performed an operation for cataract.

But because one can learn the character of Dutch scenery so quickly—on a single railway journey—I do not wish to suggest that henceforward it becomes monotonous and trite. One may learn the character of a friend very quickly, and yet wish to be in his company continually. Holland is one of the most delightful countries to move about in everything that happens in it is of interest. I have never quite lost the sense of excitement in crossing a canal in the train and getting a momentary glimpse of its receding straightness, perhaps broken by a brown sail. In a country where, between the towns, so little happens, even the slightest things make a heightened appeal to the observer; while one’s eyes are continually kept bright and one’s mind stimulated by the ever-present freshness and clearness of the land and its air.

Rotterdam, it should be said at once, is not a pleasant city. It must be approached as a centre of commerce and maritime industry, or not at all ; if you do not Iike sailor men and sailor ways, noisy streets and hurrying people, leave Rotterdam behind, and let the train carry you to The Hague. It is not even particularly Dutch : it is cosmopolitan. The Dutch are quieter than this, and cleaner. And yet Rotterdam is unique—its church of St. Lawrence has a grey and sombre tower which has no equal in the country ; there is a windmill on the Cool Singel which is essentially Holland; the Boymans Museum has a few admirable pictures ; there is a curiously fascinating stork in the Zoological Gardens ; and the river is a scene of romantic energy by day and night. I think you must go to Rotterdam, though it be only for a few hours.

At Rotterdam we see what the Londoner misses by having a river that is navigable in the larger sense only below his city. To see shipping at home we must make our tortuous way to the Pool ; Rotterdam has the Pool in her midst. Great ships pass up and down all day. The Thames, once its bustling mercantile life is cut short by London Bridge, dwindles to a stream of pleasure ; the Maas becomes the Rhine.

Walt Whitman is the only writer who has done justice to a great harbour, and he only by that sheer force of enumeration which in this connection rather stands for than is poetry. As a matter of fact it is the reader of such an inventory as we find in ” Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that is the poet : Whitman is only the machinery. Whitman gives the suggestion and the reader’s own memory or imagination does the rest. Many of the lines might as easily have been written of Rotterdam as of Brooklyn :___

The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,

The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,

The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses, The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,

The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sunset,

The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,

The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the grey walls of the granite storehouses by the docks,

On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each side by the barges, the hay-boat, the belated lighter,

On the neighbouring shore the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,

Casting their flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow light over the tops of the houses, and down into the clefts of streets.

There is of course nothing odd in the description of one harbour fitting another, for harbours have no one nationality but all. Whitman was not otherwise very strong upon Holland. He writes in “Salut au Monde” of “the sail and steamships of the world ” which in his mind’s eye he beholds as they:

Wait steam’d up ready to start in the ports of Australis, Wait at Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin, Marseilles, Lisbon, Naples, Hamburg, Bremen, Bordeaux, The Hague, Copenhagen.

It is not easy for one of the “sail or steamships of the world-” to wait steamed up at The Hague ; because The Hague has no harbour except for small craft and barges.

Shall we assume, with great charity, that Walt feared that the word Rotterdam might impair his rhythm?

Not only big shipping : I think one may see barges and canal boats in greater variety at Rotterdam than anywhere else. One curious thing to be noticed as they lie at rest in the canals is the absence of men. A woman is always there ; her husband only rarely. The only visible captain is the fussy, shrewish little dog which, suspicious of the whole world, patrols the boat from stem to stern, and warns you that it is against the law even to look at his property. I hope his bite is not equal to his bark.

Every barge has its name. English suburban villas have not a greater variety of fantastic names than the canal craft of Holland ; nor, with all our monopoly of the word “home,” does the English suburban villa suggest more compact cosiness than one catches gleams of through their cabin windows or down their companions.

Spring cleaning goes on here, as in the Dutch houses, all the year round, and the domiciliary part of the vessels is spotless. Every bulwark has a washing tray that can be fixed or detached in a moment. ” It’s a fine day, let us kill something,” says the Englishman ; ” Here’s an odd moment, let us wash something,” says the Dutch vrouw.

In some of the Rotterdam canals the barges are so packed that they lie touching each other, with their burgees flying all in the same direction, as the vanes of St. Sepulchre’s in Holborn cannot do. How they ever get disentangled again and proceed on their free way to their distant homes is a mystery. But in the shipping world incredible things can happen at night.

One does not, perhaps, in Rotterdam realise all at once that every drop of water in these city-bound canals is related to every other drop of water in the other canals of

Holland, however distant. From any one canal you can reach in time every other. The canal is really much more the high road of the country than the road itself. The barge is the Pickford van of Holland. Here we see some of the secret of the Dutch deliberateness. A country which must wait for its goods until a barge brings them has every opportunity of acquiring philosophic phlegm.

After a while one gets accustomed to the ever-present canal and the odd spectacle (to us) of masts in the streets and sails in the fields. All the Dutch towns are amphibious, but some are more watery than others.

The Dutch do not use their wealth of water as we should. They do not swim in it, they do not race on it, they do not row for pleasure at all. Water is their servant, never a light-hearted companion.

I can think of no more reposeful holiday than to step on board one of these barges wedged together in a Rotterdam canal, and, never lifting a finger to alter the natural course of events—to accelerate or divert—be carried by it to, say, Harlingen, in Friesland : between the meadows under the noses of the great black and white cows ; past herons fishing in the rushes ; through little villages with dazzling milk-cans being scoured on the banks, and the good-wives washing, and saturnine smokers in black velvet slippers passing the time of day ; through big towns, by rows of sombre houses seen through a delicate screen of leaves; under low bridges crowded with children ; through narrow locks ; ever moving, moving, slowly and surely, sometimes sailing, sometimes quanting, sometimes being towed, with the wide Dutch sky overhead, and the plovers crying in it, and the clean west wind driving the windmills, and every-thing just as it was in Rembrandt’s day and just as it will be five hundred years hence.

Holland when all is said is a country of canals. It may have cities and pictures, windmills and cows, quaint buildings, and quainter costumes, but it is a country of canals before all. The canals set the tune. The canals keep it deliberate and wise.

One can be in Rotterdam, or in whatever town one’s travels really begin, but a very short time without discovering that the Dutch unit—the florin—is a very unsatisfactory servant. The dearness of Holland strikes one continually, but it does so with peculiar force if one has crossed the frontier from Belgium, where the unit is a franc. It is too much to say that a sovereign in Holland is worth only twelve shillings: the case is not quite so extreme as that ; but a sovereign in Belgium is, for all practical purposes, worth twenty-five shillings, and the contrast after reaching Dutch soil is very striking. One has to recollect that the spidery letter ” f,” which in those friendly little restaurants in the Rue Hareng at Brussels had stood for a franc, now symbolises that far more serious item the florin and f. 1.50, which used to be a trifle, is now half a crown.

Even in our own country, where we know something about the cost of things, we are continually conscious of the fallacy embodied in the statement that a pound note is equal to twenty shillings. We know that in theory that is so but we know also that it is so only as long as the scrap of paper remains unchanged. Change it and it is worth next to nothing—a handful of vanishing coins. But in Holland the disparity is even more pathetic. To change a pound note there strikes one as the most ridiculous business transaction of one’s life.

Rotterdam must have changed for the worse under modern conditions ; for it is no longer as it was in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s day. From Rotterdam in 1716 she sent the Countess of Mar a pretty account of the city : “All the streets are paved with broad stones, and before the meanest artificers’ doors seats of various coloured marbles, and so neatly kept that, I will assure you, I walked all over the town yesterday, incognita, in my slippers, without receiving one spot of dirt ; and you may see the Dutch maids washing the pavement of the street with more application than ours do our bed-chambers. The town seems so full of people, with such busy faces, all in motion, that I can hardly fancy that it is not some celebrated fair ; but I see it is every day the same.

“The shops and warehouses are of a surprising neatness and magnificence, filled with an incredible quantity of fine merchandise, and so much cheaper than what we see in England, I have much ado to persuade myself I am still so near it. Here is neither dirt nor beggary to be seen. One is not shocked with those loathsome cripples, so common in London, nor teased with the importunities of idle fellows and wenches, that choose to be nasty and lazy. The common servants and the little shopwomen here are more nicely clean than most of our ladies and the great variety of neat dresses (every woman dressing her head after her own fashion) is an additional pleasure in seeing the town.”

The claims of business have now thrust aside many of the little refinements described by Lady Mary, her description of which, however, has but to be transferred to some of the smaller Dutch towns to be, in the main, still ac-curate. But what she says of the Dutch servant is true everywhere to this minute. There are none more fresh and capable ; none who carry their lot with more quiet dignity. Not the least part of the very warm hospitality which is offered in Dutch houses is played by the friendliness of the servants.

Every one in Holland seems to have enough ; no one too much. Great wealth there may be among the merchants, but it is not ostentatious. Holland still seems to have no poor in the extreme sense of the word, no rags. Doubtless the labourers that one. sees are working at a low rate, but they are probably living comfortably at a lower, and are not to be pitied except by those who still cherish the illusion that riches mean happiness. The dirt and poverty that exist in every English town and village are very uncommon. Nor does one see maimed,. infirm or very old people, except now and then—so rarely as at once to be reminded of their rarity.

One is struck, even in Rotterdam, which is a peculiarly strenuous town, by the ruddy health of the people in the streets. In England, as one walks about, one sees too often the shadow of Death on this face and that ; but in Holland it is difficult to believe in his power, the people have so prosperous, so permanent, an air.

That the Dutch die there is no doubt, for a funeral is an almost daily object, and the aanspreker is continually hurrying by ; but where are the dead ? The cemeteries are minute, and the churches have no churchyards. Of Death, however, when he comes, the nation is very proud. The mourning customs are severe and enduring. No expense is spared in spreading the interesting tidings. It is for this purpose that the aanspreker flourishes in his importance and pomp. Draped heavily in black, from house to house he moves, wherever the slightest ties of personal or business acquaintanceship exist, and announces his news. A lady of Hilversum tells me that she was once formally the recipient of the message, ” Please, ma’am, the baker’s compliments, and he’s dead,” the time and place of the interment following. I said draped in black, but the aanspreker is not so monotonous an official as that. He has his subtleties, his nuances. If the deceased is a child, he adds a white rosette ; if a bachelor or a maid, he intimates the fact by degrees of trimming.

The aanspreker was once occasionally assisted by the huilebalk, but I am afraid his day is over. The huilebalk accompanied the aansprekers from house to house and wept on the completion of their sad message. He wore a wide-awake hat with a very large brim and a long-tailed coat. If properly paid, says my informant, real tears coursed down his cheeks ; in any case his presence was a luxury possible only to the rich.

The aanspreker is called in also at the other end of life. Assuming a more jocund air, he trips from house to house announcing little strangers.

That the Dutch are a healthy people one might gather also from the character of their druggists. In this country, even in very remote towns, one may reveal one’s symptoms to a chemist or his assistant feeling certain that he will know more or less what to prescribe. But in Holland the chemists are often young women, who preside over shops in which one cannot repose any confidence. One likes a chemist’s shop at least to look as if it contained reasonable remedies. These do not. Either our shops contain too many drugs or these too few. The chemist’s sign, a large comic head with its mouth wide open (known as the gaper), is also subversive of confidence. A chemist’s shop is no place for jokes. In Holland one must, in short, do as the Dutch do, and remain well.

Rotterdam’s first claim to consideration, apart from its commercial importance, is that it gave birth to Erasmus, a bronze statue of whom stands in the Groote Markt, looking down on the stalls of fruit. Erasmus of Rotterdam—it sounds like a contradiction in terms. Gherardt Gherardts of Rotterdam is a not dishonourable cacophony and that was the reformer’s true name but the fashion of the time led scholars to adopt a Hellenised, or Latinised, style. Erasmus Desiderius, his new name, means Beloved and long desired. Grotius, Barlaeus, Vossius, Arminius, all sacrificed local colour to smooth syllables. We should be very grateful that the fashion did not spread also to the painters. What a loss it would be had the magnificent rugged name of Rembrandt van Rhyn been exchanged for a smooth emasculated Latinism.

Rotterdam had another illustrious son whose work as little suggests his birthplace—the agreeable painter Peter de Hooch. This artist, whose pictures are very scarce, worked chiefly at Delft and Haarlem, and it was at Haarlem that he died in 1681. If one were put to it to find a new standard of aristocracy superior to accidents of blood or rank one might do worse than demand as the ultimate test the possession of a Vermeer of Delft and, not far below, a Peter de Hooch.

One only of Peter de Hooch’s pictures is reproduced in this book—” The Store Cupboard “. This is partly because there are, I think, better paintings of his in London than at Amsterdam. At least it seems to me that his picture in our National Gallery of the waiting maid is finer than anything by De Hooch in Holland. But in no other work of his that I know is his simple charm so apparent as in “The Store Cupboard “. This is surely the Christmas supplement carried out to its highest power—and by its inventor. The thousands of domestic scenes which have proceeded from this one canvas make the memory reel ; and yet nothing has staled the prototype. It remains a sweet and genuine and radiant thing. De Hooch had two fetishes—a rich crimson dress or jacket and an open door, Rotterdam has some excellent pictures in its Boymans Museum ; but they are, I fancy, overlooked by many visitors. It seems no city in which to see pictures. It is a city for anything rather than art-a mercantile centre, a hive of bees, a shipping port of intense activity. And yet perhaps the quietest little Albert Cuyp in Holland is here, ” De Oude Oostpoort to Rotterdam,” a small evening scene, without cattle, suffused in a golden glow. But all the Cuyps are good—all inhabited by their own light. Best I like the city windmill against an evening sky. It is memorable in itself and also in recalling the “Mill ” attributed to Rembrandt which is now in America.

Among the other Boymans treasures which I find I have marked (not necessarily because they are good—for I am no judge—but because I liked them) are Ferdinand Bol’s fine free portrait of Dirck van der Waeij en, a boy in a yellow coat ; Erckhart’s ” Boaz and Ruth,” a small sombre canvas with a suggestion of Velasquez in it ; Hobbema’s “Boomrijk Landschap,” one of the few paintings of this artist that Holland possesses. The English, I, might remark, always sound judges of Dutch art, have been particularly assiduous in the pursuit of Hobbema, with the result that some of his best work is in our country. Holland has nothing of his to compare with the “Avenue at Middelharnis,” one of the gems of our Nat ional Gallery. And his feathery trees may be studied at the Wallace Collection in great comfort. But it is only right to say that America appreciates him too. In the Widener Gallery at Philadelphia, on the wall opposite the Rembrandt Mill,” is a marvellous example.

Other fine landscapes in the Boymans Museum are three by Johan van Kessel, who was a pupil of Hobbema, one by Jan van der Meer, or Vermeer, of Haarlem, one by Koninck and, by Jacob van Ruisdael, a cornfield in the sun and an Amsterdam canal with white sails upon it. The most not-able head is that by Karel Fabritius ; Hendrick Pot’s ” Het Lokstertje” is interesting for its large free manner and signs of the influence of Hals; and Emmanuel de Witte’s Amsterdam fishmarket is curiously modern. Another picture of a similar subject by the same painter awaits us at the Ryks, and our own National Gallery has just acquired a third. The figure picture which most attracted me was “Portret van een jongeling,” by Jan van Scorel, of whom we shall learn more at Utrecht. This little portrait, which I reproduce opposite page 14, is wholly charming and vivid.

There are many Rembrandt drawings and an oil sketch of the master. But I rather think that the chief honours of the gallery go to Fabritius. The only Sanredam I saw in Holland is here : a placid church exterior beautifully drawn and suffused with light. Among the drawings I noticed a crucifixion by Rubens and some sketches by Terburg and Paul Potter.

The Boymans Museum contains also modern Dutch paintings. Wherever modern Dutch paintings are to be seen, I look first for the delicate art of Matthew Maris. Here there is one example, a very slight one. The modern Dutch painter for the most part paints the same picture so often. But Matthew Maris is full of surprises. If a new picture by any of his contemporaries stood with its face to the wall one would know what to expect. From Israels, a fisherman’s wife ; from Mesdag, a grey sketch of sea ; from Bosboom, a superb church interior ; from Mauve, a peasant with sheep or a peasant with a cow ; from Weissenbruch, a stream and a willow ; from Breitner, an Amsterdam street ; from James Maris a masterly scene of boats and wet sky. Usually one would have guessed aright. But with Matthew Maris is no certainty. It may be a little dainty girl lying on her side and watching butterflies ; it may be a sombre hillside at Montmartre; it may be a girl cooking ; it may be scaffolding in Amsterdam, or a mere at evening, or a baby’s head, or a village street or, as at Rotterdam, a portrait sketch. He has many moods, and he is always distinguished and subtle. We shall find him at the Hague and again in the Stadelijks Museum at Amsterdam, where there are six or seven examples.

Among the other modern pictures I recall a very wet Dutch landscape by Roelofs, an avenue on a stormy evening by Van Gogh, a Venetian scene by Bonington which some one recently presented, some green Dutch meadow-land by Poggenbeck, a Jongkind and Weissenbruch or two.

Rotterdam has a zoological garden which, although inferior to ours, is far better than that at Amsterdam, while it converts The Hague’s Zoo into a travesty. The lions seemed to me to be in splendid condition. They are well housed, but fewer distractions are provided for them than in Regent’s Park. I found myself fascinated by the herons, who were continually soaring out over the neighbouring houses and returning like darkening clouds. In England, although the heron is a native, we rarely seem, to see him while to study him is extremely difficult. In Holland he is ubiquitous : both wild and tame.

More interesting still was the stork, whose nest is set high on a pinnacle. On a spring visit he was building in the leisurely style of the British working man. He would negligently descend from the heavens with a stick. This he would lay on the fabric and then carefully perform his toilet, looking round and down all the time to see that every one else was busy. Whenever his eye lighted upon a toddling child or a perambulator it visibly brightened. “My true work ! ” he seemed to say ; “this nest building is a mere by-path of industry.” After prinking and over-looking, and congratulating himself thus, for a few minutes, he would stroll off, over the housetops, for another stick. He was the unquestionable King of the Garden.

Why are there no heronries in the English public parks? And why is there no stork ? The Dutch have a proverb, ” Where the stork abides no mother dies in childbed Still more, why are there no storks in France? The author of Fécondité should have imported them.

No Zoo, however well managed, can keep an orangutang long, and therefore one should always study that uncomfortably human creature whenever the opportunity occurs. I had great fortune at Rotterdam, for I chanced to be in the orang-utang’s house when his keeper came in. Entering the enclosure, he romped with him in a score of diverting ways. They embraced each other, fed each other, teased each other. The humanness of the creature was frightful. Perhaps our likeness to orang-utangs (except for our ridiculously short arms, inadequate lower jaws and lack of hair) made him similarly uneasy.

Rotterdam, I have read somewhere, was famous at the end of the eighteenth century for a miser, the richest man in the city. He always did his own marketing, and once changed his butcher because he weighed the paper with the meat. He bought his milk in farthingsworths, half of which had to be delivered at his front door and half at the back, “to gain the little advantage of extra measure “. Different travellers note different things, and William Chambers, the publisher, in his Tour in Holland in 1889, selected for special notice another type of Rotterdam resident: “One of the most remarkable men of this [the merchant] class is Mr. Van Hoboken of Rhoon and Pendrecht, who lives on one of the havens. This individual began life as a merchant’s porter, and has in process of time attained the highest rank among the Dutch mercantile aristocracy. He is at present the principal owner of twenty large ships in the East India trade, each, I was informed, worth about fourteen thousand pounds, besides a large landed estate, and much floating wealth of different descriptions. His establishment is of vast extent, and contains departments for the building of ships and manu-facture of all their necessary equipments. This gentleman, until lately, was in the habit of giving a splendid fête once a year to his family and friends, at which was exhibited with modest pride the porter’s truck which he drew at the outset of his career. One seldom hears of British merchants thus keeping alive the remembrance of early meanness of circumstances.”

With headquarters at Rotterdam one may make certain small journeys into the neighbourhood—to Dordrecht by river, to Delft by canal, to Gouda by canal ; or one may take longer voyages, even to Cologne if one wishes. But I do not recommend it as a city to linger in. Better than Rotterdam’s large hotels are, I think, the smaller, humbler and more Dutch inns of the less commercial towns. This indeed is the case all over Holland : the plain Dutch inn of the neighbouring small town is pleasanter than the large hotels of the city ; and, as I have remarked in the chapter on Amsterdam, the distances are so short, and the trains so numerous, that one suffers no inconvenience from staying in the smaller places.

Gouda (pronounced Howda) it is well to visit from Rotterdam, for it has not enough to repay a sojourn in its midst. It has a Groote Kerb and a pretty isolated white stadhuis. But Gouda’s fame rests on its stained glass—gigantic re. presentations of myth, history and scripture, chiefly by the brothers Crabeth. The windows are interesting rather than beautiful. They lack the richness and mystery which one likes to find in old stained glass, and the church itself is bare and cold and unfriendly. Hemmed in by all this coloured glass, so able and so direct, one sighs for a momentary glimpse of the rose window at Chartres, or even of the too heavily kaleidoscopic patterns of Brussels Cathedral. No matter, the Gouda windows in their way are very fine, and in the sixth, depicting the story of Judith and Holofernes, there is a very fascinating little Düreresque tower on a rock under siege.

If one is taking Gouda on the way from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, the surrounding country should not be neglected from the carriage windows. Holland is rarely so luxuriant as here, and so peacefully beautiful.

All Dutch cheese is good, but the cheese of Gouda I prefer t all others. But I have not yet learned to care for slices of it for breakfast, however thin it is cut. Stewed prunes and peaches with roast game, another Dutch eating habit, I should, however, like to see introduced into England.