Dutch Books in London Libraries
Dutch and Flemish paintings have fascinated the British for centuries, and London museums are justly famous for their collections of Low Countries art. Interestingly, much the same can be said for books from the Low Countries, and so we find, in more than 20 libraries across London, very important collections of Dutch and Flemish books. The presence in London of these collections, built up during centuries of cultural contact and exchange, casts a fascinating light on British intellectual and cultural history, and reflects the long-standing and abiding British interest in the culture and society of their neighbours across the North Sea.
Provision for the general public is basic, but adequate. In the Victoria Library in Westminster, for example, the on-line computer catalogue offers access to a modern collection of over 1,000 books, in Dutch as well as in English, covering a wide range of interests such as art, architecture, cinema, cities, the colonies, costume and design, gardening, history, language, literature, music, printing and publishing, the Second World War and tourism. Through the Interlibrary Loan system these books are available at any public library in the Greater London Area. Another general collection - but a far more extensive and comprehensive one - is that of the London Library, in its wonderful clublike building in St James's Square, off Pall Mall. Established in 1840, this library is especially strong in the fields of Dutch literature, art and history, including Dutch colonial history.
But London's true strength is in its specialist collections. In the field of history, first of all, the Institute of Historical Research of the University of London in Bloomsbury houses the 5,000 volumes of the Low Countries Collection, built up by Professor Pieter Geyl and his successors. It consists of two large rooms full of primary sources and scholarly publications concerning the history of the Netherlands and Belgium. In the same building, on the fifth floor of Senate House Library, the Goldsmiths' collection contains many Dutch materials in the history of trade and commerce. The Belgian Collection there holds another 5,000 volumes, both in French and in Dutch, on Belgian Art, History and Literature, on the Congo and South Africa, on the Monarchy and on Belgium during the Second World War. Around the corner, the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (soas) contains many more books, journals, maps and globes concerning the colonial exploits of the Belgians in the Congo and the Dutch in the Indonesian archipelago. The latter subject is also covered in the holdings of the Southeast Asia Department of the British Library, while the Dutch Seaborne Empire and Anglo-Dutch maritime rivalry are the subject of the Dutch books, manuscripts, prints and atlases held in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
A second major field of interest is that of natural history, botany and gardening. In the beautiful old library of the Royal Horticultural Society in Vincent Square, a ten minute walk from Victoria Station, one may consult modern Dutch works on, for example, the garden designs of Mien Ruys, but also the seventeenth-century handbook by the gardener to the Prince of Orange, published in Dutch, French and English. This library also holds the magnificent eighteenth-century folio editions, gloriously illustrated, of the botanical works by Rumphius on the Indonesian Spice Islands, by Van Rheede tot Drakesteyn on India's Malabar coast, and by Maria Sybilla Merian on Surinam.
In the field of religion, excellent collections of Dutch and Flemish books are available in Lambeth Palace Library, in the Dutch Church in Austin Friars and in the Leo Baeck College of Jewish Studies. These libraries contain early editions of Plantijn, Elzevier, Blaeu and other famous sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries printers and publishers from the Low Countries: Dutch Bible translations; multilingual Bible editions; early Dutch Judaica and Hebrew books printed in Amsterdam; the Protestant Church Fathers in Latin; the works of the Remonstrants and their Calvinist opponents; and fiery Reformation pamphlets such as Marnix van St Aldegonde's vitriolic Beehive of the Roman Catholic Church (De byencorf der H. Roomsche Kercke, 1569), published in English translation in London in 1636.
For publications on Low Countries art, a key resource is the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington, while specialist research libraries are available in the Courtauld Institute (especially for the Dutch Golden Age) and the Tate Gallery (modern avant-garde art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), all with significant Dutch holdings.
The biggest concentration of Dutch book collections is to be found in Bloomsbury. In University College London the Dutch Library, established in 1919 and today housed in the beautiful Moccatta Room, holds some 10,000 volumes in the field of Dutch language and literature, covering all periods and areas of Dutch and Flemish literary history, including some 200 early printed editions. The Library of the University of London in Senate House holds much more than the collections mentioned earlier. Its Elzevier Collection, for example, consists of 700 early Elzevier editions plus a further 400 books from other seventeenth-century Dutch publishers. In addition, there is the archive of Professor Emile Cammaerts, who was involved in the
public defence of the Belgian King Leopold iii after the Second World War. But the jewel in the crown is the unrivalled Dutch collection in the British Library, which contains hundreds of thousands of Dutch books in the Humanities and Social Sciences, from the earliest days of printing to the present. This includes some 50,000 books published before 1800, more than a quarter of which are unknown and unavailable in the Netherlands. These holdings make a unique and invaluable contribution to the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (stcn), while many other departments in the British Library also contain extensive Dutch materials such as newspapers, pamphlets, early editions, maps and atlases.
The Dutch and Flemish books in these London collections constitute a great resource, a cultural capital waiting to be discovered and explored. To celebrate these treasures from 500 years of printing and publishing in the Low Countries, an international and interdisciplinary exhibition-with-conference will be held in 1999 in the new British Library at St Pancras.
A Directory of Dutch and Flemish Book Collections in London Libraries is in preparation at the Dept of Dutch at University College London.