Reliving the Dutch Golden Age

With the imminent opening of the Prized Possessions, Dutch Masterpieces from National Trust Houses exhibition at the Holburne Museum in Bath Peter Morrell goes to Holland to see where the Golden Age began

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The Dutch Golden Age

A series of events occurred in Holland during the late 16th and early 17th century. The country fought for and won its independence from Spain and religious oppression caused the migration of skilled Protestant workers from Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp north to Holland. The Dutch army and navy were strengthened and trade routes were opened with the Far East.

The Dutch Golden Age dawned and wealth generated from the import of exotic goods created a rich merchant class with money to spend. And spend it they did, to display their status and wealth to the rest of the world. One of the groups who benefited most from this flood of money was the art community.

Prized Possessions, Dutch Masterpieces from National Trust Houses exhibition

As the reputation of Dutch artists grew the demand for their work extended overseas and in the UK they had a lot of patronage from the British aristocracy. Many of the works were destined for stately homes now owned by the National Trust. In May this year the Holburne Museum in Bath is staging an exhibition, Prized Possessions Dutch Masterpieces from National Trust Houses, which will show the cream of these Golden Age paintings.

Curated by Rupert Goulding and David Taylor of the National Trust, Prized Possessions will explore what made Dutch art so sought after among country house owners. Works by celebrated artists such as Rembrandt, Peter Lely, Gabriel Metsu, Aelbert Cuyp and Cornelis de Heem will appear in the exhibition alongside less well-known names such as Simon Pietersz Verelst and Adriaen van Diest.

When the exhibition ends in September it will move to The Mauritshuis in The Hague which has one of the finest collections of Golden Age paintings in the world. So with all this in mind I recently went first to Leiden, birthplace of possibly the most skilled Golden Age artist, Rembrandt, before visiting The Mauritshuis to see first-hand what life was like in the Golden Age.

Leiden and Rembrandt

Arriving in Leiden I discover that it has an intriguing sense of history. On a walking tour, just after passing one of the old town gates, a plaque on the wall of a modern building marks the site of the house where Rembrandt was born in 1606. In front of the building is a small square with a statue of a young Rembrandt looking at a self portrait. Adjacent to the square is a small bridge over Galgewater (Gallows Water) which is part of the old Rhine river. On the other side of the bridge is a replica of the windmill owned by Rembrandt’s father and on the quay about 200 metres away is the location of the artist’s first studio.

It’s still easy 400 years later to imagine Rembrandt, with his shock of dark, curly hair, walking across the bridge, perhaps saying hello to his father Harmen at the mill before settling down to a day of creating naturalistic, believable paintings of people and their surroundings.


I left the world of Rembrandt, following the course of the Rhine to the area where the market was and still is held. In the 17th century the cobbled quays next to the river were stacked with fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, cereals and cheese. In this evocative setting one can almost hear the cries of the traders, smell of the produce and sight of food piled high. Arriving goods would be taken to the Waag, the weight house, an architecturally attractive building dating back to 1659.

The building is still there, now housing a restaurant aptly named Waag where I would eat later in the day. Waag is also a focal point for a very special annual festival which celebrates the end of the Spanish siege of Leiden on 3rd October 1574. The relieving rebel army routed the Spanish and brought with them pickled herring and white bread. The same dish is now given away free at Waag during the festival to anyone with a Leiden connection.

The Leiden Municipal Museum, the Lakenhal is currently undergoing a bold renovation with a scheduled re-opening of Spring 2019. It will tell the story of the city and display a curated selection of its 23,000 piece inventory, including Golden Age works.

Hortus Botanicus

The university at Leiden is the oldest in Holland and attached to it is the Hortus Botanicus, the oldest botanical garden in the country. I spent time looking around both outside and in the large greenhouses which house many plant species brought from the Far East by the Dutch East India company. It’s a fascinating collection and was another positive spin off of international trade.

Wandering back from the Hortus Botanicus I happened upon Rembrandt’s old school. His father was rich enough to afford his son a classical education and he was sent to the Latin School, unfortunately it was wasted as all the young artist wanted to do was paint.

Food, Drink and Accommodation

As a university town Leiden has a very vibrant bar, cafe and restaurant scene. I dined in Waag, the cavernous dining space was packed giving it a very upbeat buzz. As you would expect herrings were on the menu and another dish related to the siege. Liberation stew. Folklore suggests that a young boy scavenging for food found a pot of beef, onions and carrots abandoned by the hastily retreating Spanish. It’s now eaten as another reminder of the siege being broken. After dinner drinks were at the Belgian Beer Cafe Oliver, the beers were all delicious but check their strength before ordering if you want to stay upright.

Home for the night was the very comfortably appointed City Resort Hotel which has spa facilities and a panoramic 12th floor bar and restaurant and is conveniently located just steps away from the railway station.

Canal Boat Ride

Before moving on to The Hague the next morning I took a canal boat ride which gave me the opportunity to see the city from a totally different perspective. Walking to the boat I spotted a reference to the Mayflower and found out that many of the Pilgrim Fathers who went to America lived in Leiden.

The boat ride was great fun, it passed under the covered corn trading bridge in the market area and showed a completely different aspect of the botanical gardens., The fun came when the glass roof of the boat had to be lowered to go under many of the bridges, at times I was literally horizontal on the seat.

The Hague

The Hague, the location of the Mauritshuis is a short 15-20 minute train or taxi ride from Leiden, I arrived around lunch time and happened upon Frites Atelier that specialised in – chips! This humble food had been elevated to an art form. Apart from an ultra crisp exterior with pillowy interior the chips were served with a selection of sauces, examples are truffle, bearnaise, tomato, I added a Zeeland shrimp croquette on the side to add authenticity.

The Mauritshuis

It was time to marvel at the art works of the Mauritshuis. Passing through the Binnenhof, the complex of building which is the seat of the Dutch government, the Mauritshuis suddenly appears in all its splendour. A large square building painted in light mellow colours and enhanced with architectural mouldings. It’s a beautiful sight and will be a fitting location for the Prized Possesions exhibition.

Inside is a stunning collection with many Golden Age artists on display. Painting stretch right to the ceiling and this makes the galleries very atmospheric. I started by viewing a temporary exhibition featuring the works of prominent Golden Age artist Jan Steen. His style was to take themes from history or the Bible and populate the scene with wanton women and licentious, drunken men sometimes with the main subject relegated to the background, his work, Worship of the Golden Calf is a good example. In fact so well known was this genre that in Holland a dissolute family was referred to as a Jan Steen household.

Back in the permanent collection there are many highlights, possibly the best know being Vermeer’s enigmatic Girl with a Pearl Earring. The are many, many others, for example The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Fabritius tragically died aged 32 in October 1694 when the Gunpowder Arsenal in Delft exploded. It flattened a quarter of the town including the artist’s studio and destroyed the bulk of his work. The Goldfinch is one of only a dozen works that survived.

The almost life size Young Bull by Paulus Potter is a wonder and Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp a triumph. One of the most poignant is a Rembrandt self-portrait painted during the year of his death 1669. The craftsmanship was still there but etched in his face is the story of his life, his wife and four children had all died and he had been bankrupted. The most skilled and famous painter of the Golden Age was buried as a poor man in an unmarked grave.

This trip had given me a unique inside into life in the Golden Age, Leiden had been a gem, conjuring up ghosts from the past in a largely unchanged historic setting. A visit to the Mauritshuis is a must both for culture vultures and people who will appreciate the skill of these artists, brought to prominence by a happy combination of financial, social and political change.

After this visit I am eagerly awaiting the opening of the Prized Possessions exhibition at the Holburne Museum in Bath on 25th May

Useful Information
  • Getting there: Amsterdam Schiphol airport is served by many carriers from the UK.
  • Regular direct trains run from the station under the terminal concourse to Leiden and The Hague
Leiden Tourism
The Lakenhal
Hortus Botanicus
Waag Restaurant
Belgian Beer Cafe Oliver
City Resort Hotel
Hague Tourism
Frites Atelier
The Mauritshuis
Dutch Tourism
The Holburne Museum