Wednesday, July 22, 2020

469. An Early Dutch Collector: Emilie van Kerckhoff (1)

Recently a copy of Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx was auctioned at Burgersdijk & Niermans in Leiden. It was an ordinary copy, in reasonable condition, with the parchment cover and illustrations designed by Charles Ricketts. Special was that it had been owned by a female Dutch book collector who probably bought it in the 1890s. Her small blue bookplate (41x35 mm), designed by the collector herself, probably around the same time, shows seed balls and flowers of the poppy. (For other books, she used a second bookplate that measures 61x60 mm.)

Bookplate of Emilie v[an] Kerckhoff (c.1890s)

The name of the collector is Emilie van Kerckhoff. She was born in 1867 in Zwolle - almost a contemporary of Ricketts. She came from a settled family, her father Henri van Kerckhoff, born in Rotterdam, became a lawyer, and later a judge at the district court in Zwolle. In 1876, he was appointed counsel at the Court of Appeal in Arnhem. Her mother, Emelia van Dooren, came from Tilburg and died in Arnhem in 1890. Her father died nine years later.


From 1885 to around 1891, Emilie studied at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, and followed a painting course. She became a decorative artist, designing embroidery (for cushions and book bindings, among other things), publishers’ bindings, and her own bookplate. These were exhibited at the important National Exhibition for Women's Labour (Nationale Tentoonstelling voor Vrouwenarbeid) in 1898.


Later, she gained fame through drawings and watercolours made during travels, especially in Indonesia. She wrote extensive articles about her journeys for various magazines. Her first trip to Java was the subject of a book, Java, Beelden van Volksleven en Bedrijf (Images of Folk Life and Commerce), published in November 1912 by Scheltema & Holkema's Boekhandel in Amsterdam. The book contained her own text that accompanied 48 colour lithographs. The binding was decorated with a title ornament designed by Van Kerckhoff.

Design for spine and binding of Java (1912)
by Emilie van Kerckhoff
[from: Catalogus van de Werken
Uitgegeven door Scheltema & Holkema's
Boekhandel te Amsterdam en
Verzorgd door K. Groesbeek,
1882-januari-1922 (1922-1923)]

In the meantime, two remarkable events had taken place. In 1898 she had moved in with her (openly lesbian) friend, the painter Sara de Swart. Until 1914 they lived together in Laren, in the centre of the Netherlands. There they received many guests from home and abroad. De Swart had lived in Paris for several years and knew many artists and authors, such as Rodin and Eleonore Duse. In 1914, however, her money ran out and the two of them split up. That is to say, from now on they lived separately, at a short distance from each other.


The next step brought her to Rome where Van Kerckhoff wrote about Pompei and the temple of Vesta. At the end of the First World War she moved to Capri where a house could be built for her at Anacapri: Casa Surya. Assisted by friends, De Swart settled in a studio apartment nearby. At that time they got acquainted with English, Irish and Americans who resided on the island: Axel Munthe, Alan and Eleanor Gregg, Paul Dudley White, James Cousins and Rose O'Neill. More trips and articles followed, as well as a book about Italian villas and gardens. During the Second World War they were forced to live in Rome; in 1951 her friend De Swart died, in 1954 she returned to the Netherlands, where she died in 1960.

Jan Veth, Portrait of Emilie van Kerckhoff
[Drawing. Collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The second extraordinary feature was her collection. Although nothing was left of the collection at the time of her death, as much was given away, or sold, Van Kerckhoff must have owned an interesting collection of modern books quite early on. This is evident from three books containing her bookplate and from her involvement in an exhibition of modern book art.

[To be continued.]

Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx (1894)
Copy from the collection of
Emilie van Kerckhoff