Herengracht (Amsterdam)


In early modern Europe, prevention of large blazes engendered more municipal regulation than almost any other problem of urban habitation. Almost every major city has endured a ‘Great Fire’ at one time or another, starting with the Great Fire of Rome which took hold of the city on 19 July 64 AD for which Nero blamed and persecuted the Christians (it is not unusual to look for scapegoats after a disaster: Londoners blamed the Dutch or the French for their Great Fire of 1666).


Fires occurred for a variety of reasons, most commonly human error or carelessness. Records show that their social and economic impact was often devastating. Regular fire-fighting forces did not appear until the creation of voluntary societies in the nineteenth century. However, urban rebirth in the aftermath of great fires offered a chance to shape the future and rebuild the city. Residents and planners created sweeping changes in the methods of constructing buildings, planning city streets, engineering water distribution systems, underwriting fire insurance, and fire-fighting itself. A key development in the modernization of fire-fighting in Europe occurred in seventeenth-century Amsterdam: the invention of the fire engine and fire hose.


Multi-talented Dutch painter Jan van der Heyden executed a number of landscapes and still lifes, but was chiefly a painter of townscapes, which stand out for their exceptionally detailed handling. Imaginary views, anticipating the capricci of eighteenth-century Venetian painters, are common among his works (in 1668 Cosimo II de’ Medici had bought one of his Amsterdam town hall views). Van der Heyden was a native of Gorinchem, though his family had moved to Amsterdam by 1650. He was trained as a glass painter. Before 1661 he travelled extensively in the southern Netherlands and in Germany, making drawings later used in his paintings. When he married in 1661, he lived on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam, the Herengracht.

His splendid oil on canvas ‘Gezicht op de [view of the] Herengracht’ dates from circa 1670. This, ‘Patricians Canal’, is the first of the three major canals in the city centre which were dug in the seventeenth century and form concentric belts around the city. It is named after the ‘Heren’ who governed the city at the time. As a skilled architectural draughtsman, Van der Heyden seldom turned his hand to the delineation of anything but brick houses and churches in streets and squares. A well-travelled artist he has painted urban scenes in a variety of cities, Utrecht, Veere, Delft, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Brussels, and London.


However, Van der Heyden was the Amsterdam painter par excellence. His views of the city with its churches and canals are numerous, the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Martelaarsgracht, de Nieuwezijds and Oudezijds Voorburgwal, de Dam, de Westerkerk, the new town hall, etc. His reported inability to draw figures may have been tied to his lack of formal artistic schooling. He painted in partnership with Adriaen van de Velde, who populated his architectural scenes with figures and landscape effects. His most important works were painted in the years between 1660 and 1670, most notably views of the Amsterdam town hall, the Amsterdam exchange, the London exchange, and views of Cologne.


After Van de Velde’s death in 1672 he received assistance from Johannes Lingelbach and Eglon van der Neer. Van der Heyden was a contemporary of the landscape painters Hobbema and Jacob van Ruysdael. This was a time in which artists competed in a market where too many paintings were produced. Many artists starved or were forced to take on additional activities. Van der Heyden was a practical and versatile mind who combined painting with the study of mechanics. From the late 1660s onwards he was engaged in projects to improve street lighting and fire-fighting in Amsterdam.

As a youngster, Van der Heyden had witnessed the fire in the old city town-hall which made a deep impression on him. He later would describe or draw some eighty fires in almost any neighbourhood of Amsterdam. Together with his brother Nicolaes, a hydraulic engineer, he improved the fire-hose in 1672. He modified manual fire engines and re-organized the volunteer fire brigade. He wrote and illustrated the first fire-fighting manual, Brandspuiten-boek (The Fire Engine Book), published in 1690. His comprehensive scheme for street lighting which lasted from 1669 until 1840 was adopted as a model by many other towns. Van der Heyden’s impact was felt in London.

The psychological scars of the Great Fire were deep. Fire prevention was placed high on the political agenda. London desperately needed an organized and well-equipped fire brigade. Insurance companies were granted charters to provide fire assurances. It was in their interest to train professional fire fighters and make sure that the proper equipment was available to them. Assurance companies initially formed their own, often competing, fire brigades. It was not until 1833 that the London Fire Engine Establishment came into being. In 1689 a patent (no.263) was granted to a Dutch merchant and manufacturer of engines named John Lofting for the sole making and selling of an ‘engine for quenching fire, the like never seen before in this Kingdom’. Lofting’s fire engine was the first in England to use a wired suction hose to throw water as high as 400 feet and force the water ‘in a continued Stream into Alleys, Yards, Back houses, Stair-Cases; and other obscure places, where other Engines are useless’, according to a contemporary observer in 1694. The engines were employed at several palaces and their usefulness was praised by Christopher Wren himself. Lofting later recorded that he had lived for seven years in Amsterdam with one of the masters of the fire engines there. The master was Jan van der Heyden.