2020 is a historic year. Brexit was in the air for a long time, and has now become a reality: since 1 February, Great Britain is no longer part of the European Union. Although this will change economic relations, it will not hinder mutual influence, as history shows.

Because of Brexit, our focus this month is on Great Britain, the country with which we have had close ties for centuries. The Chessmen Museum is home to several British chess games. This classic-looking set, with silver horse heads, from the J.M. Glotzbach Collection (number 58 in the catalogue) is one of them. Mr Glotzbach bought it in 1982 from a bookstore in The Hague.

English king reaches out

Free movement of persons and migration between Great Britain and the Netherlands will be a thing of the past after 2020. How different it was in the second half of the 17th century! In June 1672, King Charles II announced by royal decree that all Dutch people were welcome to take up residence in his country. At that time in history, the Dutch Republic was struggling. This specific year would go down in the history books as the Disaster Year: The Netherlands were being assailed from all sides since March. The English came in from the sea, the French attacked from the south and the Germans from the east. Ultimately, the Republic would survive the Disaster Year by a hair, but economically it marked the beginning of the end of the Golden Age.

England then took over the predominant overseas trading position of the Netherlands, and with it, the Republic´s wealth. Not only the British elite became considerably more prosperous, all layers of society gained from the new status quo. The changing art market, among other things, was proof of this. English travellers used to be surprised by the fact that not only the Dutch elite had paintings in their homes, yet fifty years later the situation was the same in London. A less-known fact is that Dutch painters played an important role in this. After their own art market had deteriorated, they saw economic opportunities on the other side of the North Sea. After Charles II´s announcement, dozens of painters left for England.

Mass production

Deer hunt by Abraham Daniëlsz. Hondius 1650-1695

(Southern) Dutch painters already played an important role in English art. Famous artists such as Anthonie van Dyck had been invited to the court and painted the most beautiful portraits for the nobility. The painters who travelled to London later in the century were not all artists for the court. Far from it. Most of them produced inexpensive works, though they often did so in the style of well-known Dutch masters. A market for cheap paintings had arisen earlier in the Dutch Golden Age, bringing forth true mass production, and its English equivalent emerged after the arrival of the Dutch painters.

After completing their random journey to England, the Dutch painters didn´t have a job as soon as they got off the boat. Shrewd art dealers would hire the painters for a fixed salary, plus room and board, in exchange for several paintings a week. If the works caught on -which often happened since the Dutch painting style was all the rage- the traders would reap all the benefits. But by the time their contract expired, after a few years, the painter would have made a name for himself and could continue to work as a self-employed artist.

Art auction

Until 1680, the painters worked for studios, art dealers or rich clients. In the Netherlands, another line of business existed: painters had been able to sell their pictures through auctions. This mainly concerned auctions at annual fairs or other public places, where the masses paid a modest price to get their hands on the pictures.

This was an unknown phenomenon in England until 1674. In that year, the first art auction took place, copying the Dutch example. In the early years, only the elite attended these auctions, as only expensive works by famous masters were put up for sale. However, from the 1680s onwards, a handful of art dealers organised hundreds of auctions in coffee houses, bars and trade fair buildings. During these events the Dutch migrant painters could sell their work and they did so eagerly. Research shows that 10% of the auctioned works were made by a total of thirty Dutch painters. Some of these artists created hundreds of paintings, such as Abraham Hondius from Rotterdam, who was famous for his hunting scenes. He arrived in London around 1674 and in the years until his death in 1691, a total of 285 of his works can be found listed in the auction catalogues.

Dutch influence

London coffee house around 1690 (British Musuem CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Individuals that were less well-off could now also afford to buy paintings, which they started to do zealously. It was not only the middle classes that filled their homes to the brim with cheap mass-produced works of the Dutch migrant painters, these works were also popular with the wealthy. The auction catalogues praised the paintings as nice decoration material to put up in the stairwell or above the door. You could hang the expensive portraits in a prominent place and fill up the rest of the space with works by less famous painters. There was also a huge construction boom happening at the time. London attracted a lot of people who needed a place to live and had houses to decorate. Outside the city, the nouveau riche had manor houses built, the nobility renovated their country houses and they all needed paintings on the walls.

The presence of the Dutch in the country and the demand for their work changed the English art scene tremendously. The migrant painters turned their work into a mass product, introduced sales through auctions and greatly expanded the subjects of their paintings. Those who didn´t work at the court introduced the rest of the English people to a whole new repertoire of still lifes, landscapes, seascapes and genre paintings. These painters, now often forgotten about, made an undervalued contribution to the British art of painting. Without the invitation of Charles II and the subsequent migration, that art would have been a lot less varied. History teaches us great lessons, doesn’t it?

By Marjolein Overmeer