The Hague

Delighted To Go Dutch

31st July 2015

While Amsterdam with its historic houses and galleries remains undoubtedly the most popular tourist destination in the Netherlands, this beautiful country –crisscrossed with canals – has plenty of art to offer outside its capital.
Deborah Mulhearn turns her attention to The Hague, Leiden and Gouda...

Think of The Hague and you probably picture modern office blocks and diplomatic buildings flying the flags of many countries. You’d be right: The Hague is home to no less than 160 international organisations, including the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the International Centre for Counter-terrorism, Europol, the World Forum… the list goes on.

But The Hague has a historic heart, where its role as an international city of peace and justice was formed back in the 17th century, when what became known as the Dutch Golden Age produced no end of successful traders, merchants, diplomats, lawyers, seafarers, artists, writers and thinkers. Modern international law is based on the writings of the 17th century Dutch philosophers Grotius and Spinoza, and the first Peace Conference, where the original Hague Conventions were negotiated, took place at the end of the 19th century.

This produced the neo-Renaissance Peace Palace of 1913, home to the International Court of Justice, which stands like a fairytale castle in beautiful grounds designed by the British landscape artist Thomas Mawson.

The Hague also has the oldest continuously occupied parliament building in the world. The Binnenhof, or Inner Court, dates back to the 13th century and still houses the Dutch parliament and prime minister’s office. This historic complex of buildings sits on the Hofvijver, or ‘Court Pond’, in the city centre. It’s not easy to get inside these magisterial buildings. Many are workplaces during the week, and although there are tours, security is tight. Anyway, I am here for another type of Dutch interior.

The Netherlands is famous for its paintings of interiors, particularly from the explosion of art in the 1600s, and, having just read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, one of 2014’s best-selling novels, I was fascinated by the way she wove a fictional mystery around a real 17th century Dutch woman and her dolls’ house. Dolls’ houses were status symbols at the time, and offer as revealing a glimpse into their owners’ lives as a Vermeer painting.

The real dolls’ house can be seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but I wanted to see inside the smaller and less crowded Mauritshuis in The Hague, which reopened last year after a two-year renovation programme. Visitor numbers have soared, and it’s not surprising: nearly every painting in there is a masterpiece.

This former Royal Palace, which dates from the mid-17th century, sits at one corner of the central ‘plein’ or square, adjacent to the Binnenhof and also bordered by the Hofvijver.

The interior is serene and symmetrical, with a grand carpeted staircase, stately rooms, huge vases of fresh flowers and glittering chandeliers that add to the calming ambience. Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is the star attraction – over two million people worldwide queued to see this beguiling painting, known as the Mona Lisa of the North, on tour before it returned to its home city last year.

There are portraits, landscapes and meticulous still lifes by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jacob van Ruisdael, Rubens and more. So ordinary and yet so enigmatic, it’s not difficult to see why these luminous paintings, with their everyday scenes and characters, have inspired so many novelists. You are drawn into these scenes and their stories.

Novels like Burton’s The Miniaturist, along with Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier and Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, all concern the passions and secrets at the heart of Dutch domestic life in the 17th century. Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch was inspired by the exquisite 1654 painting, also in the Mauritshuis, of a chained goldfinch, one of the few known works by Carel Fabritius. This relationship between art and literature is not a modern phenomenon, though: a character in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past dies in front of his favourite painting, Vermeer’s View of Delft, another Mauritshuis treasure.

From here it’s a five minute walk to the Escher Museum, also housed in a former Royal palace, and dedicated to the life and work of the 20th century graphic artist whose name is a byword for the art of optical illusion. As for his interiors, these are not only mysterious but mindboggling – you could be in this museum for a while. It also has the most amazing, wackiest chandeliers you are ever likely to see.

Just outside the city centre – a half hour cycle or rattly tram ride towards the seaside resort of Scheveningen – is the superb Gemeentemuseum, or Museum of Modern Art. This also has a tantalising Dutch interior, though not a 17th century one. It’s an Art Deco masterpiece by architect H P Berlage, worth seeing as much for the bold and beautiful tiled interior as for the art. It’s like stepping into a Mondrian painting.

The flat landscape of south Holland makes for easy travel. The lovely city of Leiden is a mere ten-minute train ride from The Hague, and home to the oldest university in the Netherlands. It was founded in 1575 by the first William of Orange, and consequently has a cosmopolitan feel with students from all over the world, and a lot of bicycles.

Rembrandt was born here in 1606, and while there may not be many of his paintings left in his home town, strolling around this delightful city, along the peaceful canals and twisty cobbled lanes that somehow all find their way to one or other of the city’s two great churches – the Hooglandse Kerk and Pieterskerk – you are transported right back to the 1600s.

Then there are the ubiquitous benches. As a tourist you rarely see inside local houses, but in places like Leiden it’s traditional in the summer months to throw open your doors and bring the interior outside. You will often see people sitting in front of their canalside houses, and while you can’t stand and stare as you would in front of a painting – unless you are very rude or want to be on the receiving end of that particularly direct Dutch gaze – you can get a glimpse into these sparkling modern Dutch interiors as you stroll by.

The tall, brick houses with their irregular gables and crowded frontages – the houses are narrow because there was once a tax applied according t
o their width – reveal the vertiginous stairs and tiled floors. Each house may be different, but this apparent lack of uniformity hides an obsession with order. Dutch homes are noted for their cleanliness. They’re spick and span, just like their historic counterparts hanging on the gallery walls.

Gouda may be most famous for its cheese but that’s not the only reason to go. This picturesque Dutch town forms the inland apex of a triangle with Leiden and The Hague, and is just a fifteen-minute train ride from either. It has a quiet, provincial air, with its pretty 15th century Stadhuis or town hall and triangular market square, where the famous cheeses are still traded. The Stadhuis, however, is dwarfed by the huge cathedral church, Sint Janskerk, renowned for its colorful stained glass windows, and for being the longest church in the Netherlands.

In the cathedral gardens I meet Margaret, mother of the freethinking Renaissance philosopher Desiderius Erasmus. Or more precisely, I meet the storyteller and enactor Carolyt Koop, who explains that the spirit of Erasmus – openness, tolerance and humanitarianism – is alive and well in Gouda, where he spent part of his childhood. Unfortunately, although the name that Margaret chose for her son means ‘beloved’, as an illegitimate child and soon-to-be-orphan, Erasmus lived a peripatetic life, driven by his desire for acceptance and human warmth.

Carolyt tells me about The BankjesCollectief, or benches collective (, a social initiative that has spread from Amsterdam to smaller towns and cities like Gouda. People put a bench in front of their house (if they don’t already have one) and welcome friends, neighbours (and sometimes passing tourists) to join them – usually for a coffee and a chat, but anything from a haircut to a knitting session can be tracked down from their website, and participants can decide what price they want to pay.

It’s a typically Dutch extension of the interior into the street – but it’s also a continuation of the Erasmian humanist tradition – with a modern urban twist: to slow down people’s fast-paced lives and encourage them to connect. Erasmus’s mother would be proud.

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