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30 Prinsessegracht
Den Haag, ZH, 2514 AP

Museum Meermanno | Huis van het boek (vroeger Meermanno-Westreenianum) is het oudste boekenmuseum ter wereld. Het is gevestigd in het voormalige woonhuis van de stichter van het museum Willem Hendrik Jacob baron van Westreenen van Tiellandt (1783-1848) aan de Prinsessegracht in Den Haag en richt zich op het geschreven en gedrukte boek in al zijn vormen, in heden en verleden. De ontwikkeling van de vormgeving van zowel oude als moderne boeken staat daarbij centraal.

About the collector


J.R. Post Brants,  Portrait of Baron van Westreenen , around 1839 [ 25/9]

J.R. Post Brants, Portrait of Baron van Westreenen, around 1839 [ 25/9]

At an early age Willem Hendrik Jacob van Westreenen van Tiellandt (1783–1848) already knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he was fourteen years old he wrote in shaky French in a letter to his second cousin Johan Meerman: ‘Ce sera pour moi toute une fortune que de devenir boek-wurm, et pour lors je solicite votre pratique pour les livres classiques’ (‘It is my dream to become a “bookworm”, and therefore I appeal to your experience of classical books’).

A fourteen-year-old boy who wants to become a bookworm – even in those days, at the end of the 18th century, this must have been rather unusual.

The young Willem lived close to his cousin. Johan Meerman resided in the ‘Huis aan den Boschkant’, a small ‘city palace’ on the corner of the Korte Voorhout and the Prinsessegracht. Willem liked to visit his cousin, who was thirty years his senior and had a magnificent library at his disposal. Meerman’s library, with its splendid collection of manuscripts and early printed works, was to remain a shining example for Van Westreenen.

Willem van Westreenen’s career provides us with various reasons for assuming that he was an eccentric, maladjusted man. One day before his sixteenth birthday he voluntarily joined the Batavian (Dutch) army. He began training to be an officer with the military engineers but never completed the course. In 1805 he enrolled as a student of law at Leiden University, but there is no evidence that he actually studied there.

Despite his noble ancestry and his relatives, Van Westreenen never managed to acquire a political position of any significance. ‘Until his death his occupations remained restricted to honorary posts’, curator Jos van Heel concludes in the booklet Drie verzamelaars en een museum (1998).

The statements of contemporaries and later anecdotes inform us that Van Westreenen – who after 1821 was entitled to call himself a baron – had an air of eccentricity.

He was very agile and attracted attention on account of what were described as his ‘somewhat odd clothing and behaviour’. His love for his dogs was extravagant (see item 29 in this catalogue) and he was also very proud indeed of his decorations (see item 9).

In 1848, shortly after the death of Baron van Westreenen, F. de Reiffenberg wrote an obituary in the Bulletin du bibliophile belge: ’It is rumoured that Mr Van Westreenen owned an invaluable collection of the highlights of printing. But because he was inordinately devoted to this treasure, fearing that another person might do research on those bindings which he intended to carry out himself – without ever venturing to do so – and fearful of the consequences of the evil eyes, desecrating hands and even the harmful breath of visitors, he stored his library under lock and key and did not show it to anyone during the forty years he was compiling it, not even to his close friend Holtrop.’

However, J.W. Holtrop, then ’director-general’ of the National Library of the Netherlands, nearly succeeded in viewing Van Westreenen’s books once, according to a report in an article on the Museum Meermanno in the Arnhemsche Courant on 22 July 1878. This article was probably written by, or based on information from, M.F.A.G. Campbell, Holtrop’s brother-in-law, deputy librarian at the National Library and – at the time – keeper of the Meermanno.

’After having insisted for many years, the former librarian Holtrop – just as great an expert and book lover as Van Westreenen himself – succeeded in extracting permission to be allowed to view the treasures in an upstairs front parlour at the Woodside home. However, the jealous owner felt such remorse at his generosity that he attached preposterous conditions to the visit, and Holtrop became angry and declined the extraordinary honour with thanks. Both he and the other bibliophile who was to take part in the visit would have had to wear brand-new dressing gowns over their clothing and brand-new slippers over their footwear: only then would the door to the sanctuary have been opened to them!’

One cannot rule out the possibility that envy played a role in these accounts, which have an element of gossip, and yet it is a fact that Van Westreenen never showed his collection of books and manuscripts to scholars or researchers. 

On the other hand, it is untrue that Van Westreenen published nothing concerning his books. For example, 1809 saw the publication of his Verhandeling over de uitvinding der boekdrukkunst; in Holland oorspronkelijk uitgedacht, te Straatsburg verbeterd en te Mentz voltooid [Treatise on the invention of the art of printing; originally conceived in Holland, improved in Strasburg and completed in Mainz]. However, this was a rather top-heavy book: Van Westreenen added 124 pages citing source material to a treatise comprising only 58 pages. Besides, the book was riddled with printing errors, for which he was severely criticised at the time.

The Verhandeling was followed by occasional articles. In 1815, for instance, Van Westreenen published an extensive survey of objects stolen by the French from scholarly collections and art collections. In other articles he reported in detail on auctions abroad, invariably pointing out certain books or antiquities which he had bought himself or those which were already in his possession.

Did Willem van Westreenen succeed in realising the ambition he cherished as a fourteen-year-old boy? Did he indeed become the bookworm he intended to be?

Not if the designation bookworm is understood to mean a thorough scholar who writes reliable books. Van Westreenen was neither a good bibliographer nor a scholarly researcher. He never made a substantial contribution to the historiography of printing. All his life he remained, in the words of curator Jos van Heel, ’a dilettante’.

Yet Van Westreenen knew a lot about the objects he collected; in addition to books and manuscripts these included coins, medals and works of art, and even Egyptian, Greek, Roman and German antiquities.

Van Westreenen’s greatest strength was his collector’s mania. At the age of twelve he had already started collecting and he continued to do so until his death – restlessly and with great determination. In this respect the times were on his side. The late 18th century and the early 19th century were a golden era for collectors. Pope Clement had suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773; the German Emperor Joseph II suppressed the so-called contemplative monastic orders in 1782, followed by a wave of closures of all religious institutions during the French Revolution (1789–1801).

Moreover, during the French Revolution the property of the nobility was confiscated on a large scale. As a result an unprecedented quantity of books came on the market, enabling collectors such as Van Westreenen to buy the finest items at relatively low prices. Thanks to his steel-trap memory – praised by several of his contemporaries – and his stubborn perseverance the baron succeeded in forming a very beautiful and interrelated collection of early printed works.

While Van Westreenen was very conservative in the social realm, in collecting he was certainly up to date. Although he did not indiscriminately follow every trend, he kept his eyes open and experimented with new possibilities. When Egyptian objects came onto the market he acted fast – being the first in the Netherlands to do so; likewise when Greek vases and Italian panel paintings were offered for sale. Van Westreenen regularly bought from catalogues sent to him by dealers at home and abroad; at auctions he asked an agent to bid for him. The numerous sale catalogues he left behind are now a valuable research resource for bibliographers and book historians.

At a later age Van Westreenen travelled for himself. Between 1827 and 1846 he made fifteen trips abroad – to Germany, Italy, Hungary and Ireland among other places – in part to assemble books and manuscripts. Thanks to his careful book-keeping the provenance of many books, manuscripts and works of art can be established precisely.

’Of all the collections in Van Westreenen’s estate’, W.A. Laseur concluded in an important study on the Museum Meermanno in 1998, ’the incunables and the coins have been built up in the most balanced and systematic way. Yet the other collections are also interesting, partly because of the rare or unique items they include. Van Westreenen’s greatest achievement as a collector is without a doubt the collections of medieval manuscripts and incunables he managed to bring together – in our country his collection of incunables remains the greatest, second only to that of the National Library.’

Not surprisingly, when Holtrop and Campbell eventually saw the collection after the baron’s death, they were amazed: the richness and variety were beyond their wildest expectations. And there was so much of it too! Holtrop wrote in a report to the Minister of the Interior that the books lay ’in writing desks, bureaus, cabinets, drawers and corners and for the greater part in parcels, scattered throughout the house.’

In 1849 Holtrop and Campbell worked late every evening for months on end in order to draw up an initial inventory. It was not until 1960 – more than a century later – that all of the (approximately) twenty thousand printed works and manuscripts were eventually made accessible in a satisfactory way!

Baron van Westreenen was reluctant to show his treasures even after his death. In his will he stipulated that the museum could be visited only twice a month, by people who had obtained an introduction from the librarian of the National Library. He insisted that ’under no pretext whatsoever’ might his collection be changed or have anything added to it. Nor was it allowed to lend anything: ’let everything remain in the state in which I have left it; while on the façade of the building my family coat-of-arms shall be placed.’

Fortunately, later generations have not resigned themselves to all these restrictions. A museum in which one is never allowed to change anything is a dead museum, and of course a museum with such restricted opening hours will never attract many visitors (in the 19th century the number of visitors remained limited to a few dozen a year). In 1925 it was decreed in the ’Museumwetje’ [Museum Act] that such over-restrictive terms in bequests left to public institutions could be changed, and in 1935 the Supreme Court of the Netherlands adjusted the first four articles in the baron’s will. The opening hours were extended, books and manuscripts were allowed to be lent to the National Library, and new purchases were permitted on condition that they were kept strictly apart from the original collection. Later, the museum’s potential functions were further extended through Royal Decrees.

The most important development followed in 1960. In that year the Museum of the Book became part of the Museum Meermanno.

Accordingly, anyone visiting this home of the book on the Prinsessegracht nowadays will see two museums in one. On the first floor one is surprised by two large halls which are remarkable, not only because of the books, manuscripts and works of art displayed there, but also on account of the interior. The visitor walks straight into the 19th century. This is one of the few museums in the Netherlands where the 19th century arrangement and interior decoration have been preserved and one would need to be made of stone not to be impressed.

Elsewhere in the building the visitor may become acquainted with the art of printing as it developed after the death of Baron van Westreenen, in part through a programme of changing exhibitions. For some decades the museum has been collecting modern Western book art from 1850 to the present day. The Museum of the Book is the only museum in the Netherlands that is entirely devoted to the art of the book. The book’s external aspects, not its literary contents, are the deciding factor of the collecting policy. This means that the typography, illustration and binding form the selection criteria – in other words, the books are collected as objects of applied art.

The museum is indebted to the master printer Jean François van Royen (see item 35 of this catalogue) and to the Utrecht bibliophile and patron M.R. Radermacher Schorer for this part of the collection. During his lifetime Schorer (1888-1956) brought together thousands of modern fine editions from the Netherlands and abroad (see item 42 of this catalogue). The museum owns a total of well over 4,000 books from his collection, and thus offers a broad and representative overview of the highlights of Western European book art from circa 1890 onwards. Nearly all the important private presses from England, Germany and the Netherlands are represented in different editions. The collection also provides an almost complete picture of Dutch book design from 1920 to 1950.

In this respect the collection was an ideal foundation for later acquisitions in the field of modern book art. Subsequent donations and bequests include an extensive collection of marginal printing (including Frans de Jong, the Regulierenpers and Sub Signo Libelli), the annually awarded Best Book Designs, calligraphy collections, Czech avant-garde books, Canadian private presses, miniature books, American paperbacks, archives of designers and typographers (Dick Dooijes, Helmut Salden, Alexander Verberne and Aldert Witte), advertising leaflets by Stefan Schlesinger, posters by K.F. Treebus, illustrations by Eppo Doeve and publishers’ archives (Brusse, Boucher, Van Goor, Stols and Stichting De Roos).

Acquisitions – for both the old and the modern collection – were often the occasion for museum exhibitions, such as ’Rondom de meesters van Catharina van Kleef’ [’Around the masters of Catharina of Cleves’] which followed the acquisition of a manuscript in 1965. The exhibition ’Vroege boekdrukkunst uit Italië’ [’Early printing from Italy’] (1987) focused on Italian incunables within the collection, while the restoration of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in 2006 provided the museum with the occasion for the exhibition ’Een droom van een boek. De betoverende kracht van de Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venetië 1499’ [’A dream of a book. The enchanting power of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venice 1499’].

The modern collection has been put on display in the exhibitions ’Jean François van Royen’ (1964), ’Het Nederlandse boek en de nieuwe kunst (1892–1906)’ (1965), ’Jan van Krimpen’ (1967), ’S.L. Hartz’ (1969), ’Dijsselhof, Nieuwenhuis en Lion Cachet’ (1977), ’Van William Morris tot Roswitha Quadflieg. Een eeuw private presses’ (1986) and ’Minnaar van het schoone boek. M.R. Radermacher Schorer’(1998).
Exhibitions have also been mounted on miscellaneous subjects, such as Dutch type designers, book design in The Hague, Paul Schuitema, Penguin books, the Insel Verlag and books in series (’Het uiterlijk behang’ [’The exterior wallpaper’], 1997).

Both the old and the modern collections have converged in joint exhibitions such as ’Beesten in de band: tien eeuwen dieren in boeken’ [’Beasts in the binding: ten centuries of animals in books’] (1996) and ’Robert Schwarz, Getijdenboeken’ [’Robert Schwarz, Books of hours’] (2002).
In addition to three or four large exhibitions the museum mounts seven or eight smaller exhibitions throughout the year that display the richness of its own collection and the world of the book in general.

In the present catalogue fifty highlights from the Meermanno collection are illustrated and described. They are selected both from the collection that was formed by Baron van Westreenen and from the modern collection. Some items – such as the portraits, the Bavelaar wooden sculpture and the eagle stone – have been included in order to better reveal the exceptional genesis of this museum. The others may be regarded as representative of the collection. For instance, the museum owns 372 objects from Ancient Egypt, but in the present catalogue only two are described: a papyrus and the mummy of a cat. The museum owns all kinds of type designs; here we pause only at the Romulus designs by Jan van Krimpen.

The highlights have been selected by the museum’s curators in consultation with members of staff. Jos van Heel took responsibility for the old collection; Paul van Capelleveen and librarian Rickey Tax were responsible for the modern collection. All three gave generous assistance, for which many thanks are due. For item 18 in this catalogue, a book that is partly executed in block print and partly in letterpress printing, I needed particular help from Van Heel, simply because the technical aspects of the work were beyond me. For Van Westreenen this book was of major importance – he thought that he held in his hands evidence that the art of printing was invented in the Netherlands.

Incidentally, in 1828 Van Westreenen himself started to compile a catalogue of highlights from his collection of printed works. But this catalogue, just like the baron’s other writings, was never published.

In conclusion, a personal note: I was only superficially familiar with the collection of the Museum Meermanno when I started to work on this catalogue. Looking back, I must say that I had really missed out on something. The fine works, the extensive and interesting archives, the gigantic collection of ex libris – and most of all the impressive expertise of the curators and staff – all make the Meermanno a museum to visit regularly and a place where enquiries will always be satisfied.

Ewoud Sanders

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