West Hampstead Trip to UCL Art Museum 4th July 2012

On the 4th July Sophie and I – Stefanie van Gemert – welcomed the West Hampstead Women’s Group to the UCL Art Museum, where we had a workshop session on the history of the Dutch East India Company. I hope that the West Hampstead group feels even more inspired now, when working on their beautiful exhibition artworks!

It was a stimulating and fun event with lots of discussion about spices, different languages, beautiful textiles, funny-looking animals and ‘times when people needed compasses to travel’. Thank you, West Hampstead Women, for your enthusiasm and insightful thoughts!

We saw Rembrandt etchings (very different from Rembrandt’s oil paintings at the Wallace Collection) and prints of Jesuit missionaries in China, from the UCL Art Museum collections. Once again, Tabitha Tuckett and Gill Furlong from UCL Special Collections brought in some beautiful objects (rare books and a manuscript from 1674) to look at, hold and touch.

There was one beautiful object the group particularly enjoyed looking at: it was – as one of the ladies said – like ‘touching a holy book’. This was a Pentateuch*: the first section of the Hebrew Bible or the Torah. It was printed in 1666, which according to the Jewish calendar is the year 426!

The Pentateuch‘s binding was made out of Moroccan red leather and green silk, and came in an accompanying black box with gold paint and marbling on it. The title pages were hand painted, and there was gold on the book cover – gilded leather – in a flowery pattern that reminded one of the participants of Kashmir flower decorations. The different materials must have come from far: with the silk perhaps as far away as India or China. This connected the book to the trading and treasures of the Dutch East India Company.

The Pentateuch book was printed in Amsterdam by a printer from the Portuguese-Jewish community in 17th century Amsterdam: David de Castro Tartaz. We learned that Amsterdam at the time was a real migrants’ town, welcoming people who were prosecuted for their religion elsewhere. The new Dutch Republic found itself in an odd position (modern at the time): they had revolted against Spanish rule and Catholicism, and were now officially a Protestant country. However, as they had rebelled against a suppressor themselves in the near past (the Dutch declared independence from Spain in 1581), they did not want to dictate religious practice in the Netherlands. The Dutch allowed other religions, as long as people weren’t publicly practicing (i.e. showing other religions than Protestantism in the open). The printer of this book – David de Castro – whose parents fled from Portugal and had to convert to Catholicism, was allowed to practice his family’s original religion again in Amsterdam. Here are some photos from the day;

* A big thank you to Vanessa Freedman, who is the Subject Librarian Hebrew & Jewish Studies and Dutch at the UCL Library, for her helpful input when I was researching this book.

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