God created the Dutch out of mud and clay. The Netherlands, as that cheerful Cromwell admirer Andrew Marvell wrote in his 1653 poem on ‘The Character of Holland’, is composed of ‘indigested vomit from the sea’. Out of this vomit the Dutch created bricks, one of the oldest and most lasting building materials. Fabricated of sun dried mud, they were first found in southern Turkey and around Jericho. Fired bricks proved to be resistant to harsh weather conditions, which made them more reliable for use in permanent buildings. Introducing mobile kilns, the Romans spread bricks throughout the Empire.
That included the Netherlands where no natural stone is found suitable for construction purposes. However, as the Romans retreated, the technique of brick making disappeared with them and most medieval buildings were constructed using perishable materials such as timber, loam and thatch. For more substantial buildings stone was imported which was costly and laborious. As a consequence, around 1200 brick reappeared in the building process. The use of bricks at the time was associated with the clergy and nobility (it is assumed that monastic orders reintroduced the skill of brick making to the country). As bricks were fire-resistant, their use was stimulated by local authorities. In a 1450 statute issued at Leiden the use of brick or stone was made compulsory for façades.
Brick production around Leiden had started at an early date along the Oude Rijn, using clay from the old river bed. A brick kiln is known to have existed there as early as 1283. The colour of bricks depends on the raw materials and firing process. Clay rich in chalk produces yellow bricks, whereas the presence of iron will result in red bricks. The old river clay cut from the bed of the Oude Rijn must have been rich in iron, since old bricks in Leiden are mostly red of which paintings by Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch bear witness.
The yellow brick was a more common type. These ‘klinkers’ were produced in Gouda on the banks of the River IJssel since the fifteenth century and were known as Gouda bricks. Clay from the area is distinctive in the lack of iron oxide that accounts for the pale fired colour. Gouda bricks are typically dense, hard fired and were commonly used for paving and floors. The bricks were excellent for export and traded widely, from Scandinavia to the Channel Islands, they were imported through the eastern and southern ports of England, and they found their way to Ireland.
St Patrick’s Street in Cork is the main shopping street running in a curve from Saint Patrick’s Quay to Daunt Square, where it meets Grand Parade. The street obtains its curved shape due to its location over an arm of the River Lee. During the late 1700s Cork was well represented by a series of elaborate paintings and maps.
The most detailed of the paintings was John Butt’s ‘View of Cork’ (c.1750), a panorama of the city seen from an elevated position to the north of the River Lee. The artist depicted a myriad of quays and canals in the city on what is now St Patrick’s Street. On either side of the canal, merchants built warehouses to hold their goods on the ground floor and their staff on the first floor. The painting is a reminder of a time that Cork played an important role in trade with the Dutch in the North Atlantic. The architecture of the buildings in Butt’s painting reflects a strong Dutch influence in their brickwork, a characteristic unique to Cork City. In the early 1700s, the first bricks were applied in buildings and many were Dutch imports. These were unmarked, yellowish in colour, very chalky in texture and generally used as ballast for ships. These imports were not in use for long as local manufacture soon commenced at the Brickfield Slobs, north of the river.
The architectural character of Cork changed considerably during the course of the nineteenth century, and few eighteenth century buildings survive in their original condition. The Dutch character of its narrow streets and quays effectively disappeared being replaced by the more severe look of a ‘modern’ city. The earliest brick-built structures in Britain – apart from those like St Alban’s Abbey that used recycled Roman brick – are to be found in the eastern counties where many people from the Low Countries had settled and where trade links with the Continent were strong. Lack of local stone and an increasing shortage of good timber in the thirteenth century led to the importation of brick from Holland. Bricks were often used as ballast in returning ships. In 1278 a shipment of more than 200,000 Dutch brick arrived in London for use in the Tower. By the early fourteenth century brickmaking was happening in East Yorkshire and down England’s east coast, but the impetus, and some of the craftsmen, came from Holland. Not only the bricks, but the methods of laying them also show influence from the Low Countries. In the art of brick-laying (bonding), both the Flemish and Dutch bond proved popular with British builders. By the Tudor period the brick makers and brick layers had emerged as separate craftsmen well able to rival the masons.
London’s Brick Lane is a reminder of the importance of the industry. Winding through fields, the street was formerly called Whitechapel Lane but derives its current name from former brick and tile manufacture that began in the fifteenth century. Until the nineteenth century brick makers were held in high esteem. After that their reputation tumbled. The Black Boy was one of the most notorious taverns in the so-called ‘Potteries and Piggeries’, the area of Notting Dale (Notting Hill as it is now known) in West London. It was so named because the first people to move into the area were brick and pottery makers. Pottery Lane, then known as Cut-throat Lane, took its name from the brickfields at its northern end where high-quality clay was dug from about 1818. The resulting bricks and tiles were stored in sheds along the lane and fired in a kiln which is still standing in Walmer Road. The brick-makers were ‘notorious types’ known for ‘riotous living’.
Gouda bricks have been recovered in Maryland, Virginia, and other colonial parts. Washington Irving’s fictional narrator Dietrich Knickerbocker describes the houses of Rip Van Winkle’s pleasant village at the foot of New York’s Catskill Mountains dating from the time of Peter Stuyvesant (Governor of New Netherland) as ‘built of small yellow bricks brought from Holland’. L. Frank Baum’s Yellow Brick Road in his novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is another reminder of the American passion for Dutch bricks. In 1626 the Dutch had bought the island of ‘Manhattes’ from Native Americans. Though they only controlled New York for sixty years, their influence on the city’s architectural identity has been pervasive. New Amsterdam was built with an irregular street pattern, narrow winding streets, and a variety of houses with intricate brick façades and stepped gables. Re-creating the architectural patterns of their homeland, settlers applied late-medieval Dutch forms such as roofs with terra-cotta tiles, brick façades, wooden stoops, and leaded-glass casement windows. Colonists initially imported yellow bricks from Holland, which imparted a Netherlandish character to the architecture of the city. The abundance of local clays soon made it unnecessary to import bricks from across the Atlantic.
The word Haverstraw (originally pronounced ‘Haverstro’) is one of the oldest in the geography of North America. It is derived from the Dutch meaning ‘oat straw’, descriptive of the waving straw of grain and vegetable farmers who were the first to settle in Haverstraw. They shipped their products down the river to be sold in the New York City Markets. Having discovered that the Hudson River shore in this area contained large deposits of yellow and blue clay, Jacob van Dyke began to produce bricks in 1771. The industry grew quickly and many brickyards appeared along the Hudson River. Schooners and barges were used to transport the bricks to New York City. By the 1880s there were over forty brickyards in the Haverstraw area furnishing building material that transformed the island of Manhattan into the sprawling metropolis that it is today. After the British took control of the colony in 1664, Dutch architecture continued to persevere for some considerable time. After 1750, English elements started to creep in. Wealthy colonists turned away from the medieval architecture of the Netherlands and imitate the fashionable Georgian style.
In the nineteenth century, Dutch culture experienced a renaissance when Washington Irving revived awareness of America’s origins with his invented romantic folklore of the Hudson Valley. It led to a resurrection of Dutch-American architecture, a movement that sought to impose qualities of early building into a modern context. Remarkably, a similar development took place in England itself. In the 1870s and 1880s Sir Ernest George and his firm of architects in Kensington and Knightsbridge developed a style known as ‘Pont Street Dutch’ (Pont Street is located in Knightsbridge). The style is characterized by stepped and ornamented gables, rubbed and moulded red brickwork, and other elements derived from the Low Countries. For fifteen years such houses proliferated in the Chelsea, Kensington, and Earls Court districts of London.
If historians refer to the ‘Dutch character’ of a city (or part thereof) they point to architecture, streetscape, planning, etc. They rarely mention brick. The same applies to the tradition of city- and streetscape in Dutch painting. But it is brick that makes these paintings unique. As cities like Amsterdam, Delft, Haarlem or The Hague enjoyed a booming economy during the seventeenth century, they vied with one another for aesthetic as well as political pre-eminence. Jan van Goyen, Gerrit Berckheyde, Jan van der Heyden, Jacob van Ruisdael and other painters created vividly realistic, yet idyllic images that made their cities seem like parcels of heaven on earth.
The dark end of the street is missing. None of the evils of city life – crime, poverty, or injustice – are to be seen. Images of towns and cities had figured for centuries in European art, but mainly as background scenery in pictures devoted to religious, historical or mythological subjects. The painters of the golden age in Holland brought the city onto center stage and made the cityscape a genre unto itself. Two parallel developments stimulated the painter and enhanced the desire in putting his city on the artistic map, one of which is the emergence of a refined level of carthography that was developed in Flanders and Holland which led to the publication of a number of sophisticated city atlases, and the other the clever (commercial) cultivation of the Italian ‘vedute’ in which artists from the Low Countries were actively involved.
These included the towering figure of Lieven Cruyl who worked in Rome during the 1660s (his Prospectus locorum urbis Romae insignium – prospects of Rome’s significant places – was published in 1666 by Giovanni Battista de Rossi), and that of the attractive rogue Gaspar van Wittel – he joined the notorious bohemian group of Dutch/Flemish ‘Bentvueghels’ in the eternal city – who created his work in the 1680s. Often called called Vanvitelli, Van Wittel influenced Venetian artist Luca Carlevarijs who in many ways paved the way for the master of the Italian cityscape, Canaletto. In England, topographical prints became popular during the seventeenth century. Vast numbers of books were published containing views of country estates which their owners could have illustrated on the payment of a subscription fee. Numerous immigrant artists from the Low Countries were involved in the profitable business of architectural engraving. In 1686, Amsterdam-born topographical draughtsman and engraver Johannes Kip had arrived in England shortly after William of Orange’s usurpation of the English throne. A major part of his work consists of topographical prints and he is above all remembered for his engravings of country houses in the sumptuous Britannia illustrata (the first volume appeared in 1708).
Art historians tend to look at the 1660s as the decade in which the veduta came of age. It was a period in which the representation of city views and streetscapes became a more common theme, foremost in etching and engraving, but also in painting. The Dutch ‘Golden Age’ expressed intense pride in its flourishing city culture. In a time when the notion of nationhood was almost non-existent, Holland was effectively made up of cities. This city-culture created a society that did not nurture the leading role of an aristocracy. Socio-economic life was dominated by well-to-do burghers who lived and worked in cities. Equality of chance gave society a sharp competitive edge. It was an atmosphere in which the arts flourished, including the art of printing. There have been unsubstantiated suggestions that in the seventeenth century more books were printed in the Netherlands than in the rest of Europe put together. One kind of publication that became increasingly popular in the course of the age was the description (beschrijving) of cities like Amsterdam, Haarlem or Delft.
These books were accompanied by engravings of architectural splendours and/or social activities. Olfert Dapper’s Historische beschryving der stadt Amsterdam is a classic example of such (expensive) publishing undertakings. The art of engraving runs parallel to the painting of Pieter Saenredam in Haarlem or Jan van der Heyden in Amsterdam. All these reflections on priotities and influences have their merit if one tries to establish a chronological sequence of the emerging new genre of city- and streetscape. In this context, it is more illuminating to point at the specific conditions that made the genre both popular in appeal and sophisticated in execution. Always keen to identify a ‘starting point’, some critics have placed Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Gezicht op Delft’ (View of Delft – Marcel Proust considered this to be the most beautiful picture in the world) at the beginning of what turned out to be a rich tradition of urban images.
Vermeer’s meticulously composed townscape of Delft (seen from the south) dates from 1660/1 and is widely acknowledged as one of his masterpieces. At the famous auction of the collection of Jacob Dissius on 6 May 1696 in Amsterdam (which included twenty-one canvases by Vermeer), it was the most expensive picture, fetching 200 guilders. In 1822 the picture was bought by the Mauritshuis in The Hague for the considerable price of 2,900 guilders, a purchase said to have been instigated by King Willem I. Despite the impression of accuracy, Vermeer did not make a precise representation of the view in order to produce a more harmonious composition. In depicting the streets of Delft Vermeer had a competitor in the talented Pieter de Hooch.
The latter’s ‘Binnenplaats van een huis in Delft’ (Courtyard of a house in Delft) preceded Vermeer’s view by a couple of years. De Hooch and Vermeer have been instrumental in raising the street- and cityscape (the city of Delft) to a new level in painting. They have been praised for their detailed architectural images, for the intimacy of their subjects, depicting a world of domestic tranquillity where women, children and pets gather around in the neatness and safety of their homes. What makes their paintings unique however is this: De Hooch and Vermeer are the ‘Barons of Brick’. Their paintings reveal a catalogue of building materials. Due to a lack of building stone, Dutch houses were constructed of brick, which gave visual warmth to their exteriors. Delft moreover took enormous pride in its faience and tile fabrication which was central to the town’s prosperity.
Delft blue was valued not only within the Dutch Republic, but also in other countries such as England where they were imported to decorate home interiors. Both Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer used various tiles, bricks and flagstones which they arranged in tessellated patterns on the surface of household flooring and walls. They were proud representatives of their city. It was through their influence that the cityscape in Dutch painting became a celebration of bricks. The intriguing fact concerning Pieter de Hooch is that he was the son of a Rotterdam stonemason and brick layer. He knew the crafts through exposure to his father’s trade. Pieter de Hooch is Holland’s most notable brickie.