The national glossies are full of them and drama series – particularly English ones – use them as a decor: country houses with beautifully landscaped gardens and parks. ‘People like to lose themselves in historical drama series such as Downton Abbey that take place in the microcosm of a country house. What many people do not realize is that they will find similar stories if they delve into the history of the Dutch country estates,’ says Yme Kuiper, Professor by Special Appointment in Historical Country Houses and Estates at the University of Groningen. He held his inaugural lecture De hofstede –‘tot vermaeck en voordel aengeleyt’ on the development of the Dutch country house from the seventeenth century onwards on Tuesday 20 November.
2012 is the year of the historical country house, which is why the Stichting Van der Wyck-de Kempenaer has established a new chair at the Faculty of Arts (Art History programme, Centre for Landscape Studies). Among its aims is to bring the wonderful history of country houses to the attention of a wider public. Kuiper says, ‘There is much territory to be won here. Many country houses have wonderful stories linked to them – exciting stories too.’
Kuiper says, ‘What I find particularly special, for example, is that two great figures from Dutch history visited the Fraeylemaborg in the province of Groningen. Johan de Witt and his great opponent, the later Stadtholder-King William III were both visitors there. The aristocratic family that lived at this borg (Groningen dialect for a burcht or stronghold; the Fraeylemaborg would later become a country house) was influential in the Ommelanden surrounding the city of Groningen. The arrival of these two great men shows that their visit was not only extremely important for the Republic but also for the contrast between city and countryside in Groningen. The Fraeylemaborg was then still a real powerhouse. The borg consequently has a story to tell about the history of the Netherlands.’
‘According to its seventeenth-century meaning the country house is nothing more than a second home for the rich and powerful,’ says Kuiper. ‘A monumental house with a beautiful landscaped garden that was then still known as a hofstede (manor house).’ Nowadays a country house is viewed as a whole comprising garden, house and park. This view was developed by the art historian Henri van derWijck, who was awarded a PhD in 1974 for his pioneering study De Nederlandse buitenplaats (The Dutch Country House). Van der Wijck inspired the chair that bears his name and that Kuiper has held since September of this year.
In the period between 1600 and 1900 thousands of country houses and estates were constructed in the Netherlands. Merchants and regents from the centre of Amsterdam set the trend in the early seventeenth century. This explains why country houses are often in a beautiful, natural setting. Kuiper says, ‘The country houses had large, beautifully landscaped gardens that were intended for relaxation. The owners spent the summer there, where they received family and guests. And even today country houses are part of a cultural landscape that is seen by many people as a natural setting in which to spend their leisure time.’
Over the course of the seventeenth century country houses popped up around all the large and medium-sized cities in the Netherlands. They are remarkably often on the water. Kuiper says, ‘You can see a clear parallel with urbanization. With the emergence of canals country houses became much more accessible. You see the same thing happen in the nineteenth century with the arrival of the train. The train made people more mobile, and rich people from Western Holland built their country house further away, for example in Arnhem and its surroundings.’
The different motives of the owners at the time are also interesting. Kuiper says, ‘In the west of the country the country houses also had a commercial value. They were sold very often, for example. In the east of the country, country houses on country estates tended to stay in the family. The house and surrounding estate and woods was passed down the generations.’
Since the 1970s country houses have drawn increased attention. Almost 600 country houses are now listed as a rijksmonument (a national heritage site of the Netherlands), and are considered part of our cultural landscape. ‘What I think is lacking in the study of all these individual houses and gardens, however, is an overview and the broader perspective,’ says Kuiper, who wants to focus on the full scope of the country house culture: from the history of those who lived there to the material culture and how country houses and estates are connected to our landscape history. Kuiper says, ‘We will not just focus on the past but also on current issues such as the public debate on securing our heritage in spatial planning strategies.’
Prof. Yme B. Kuiper (1949) combines his new post with his current post of Professor by Special Appointment in Historical Anthropology and Anthropology of Religion (on behalf of the Groningen University Fund) at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. He has broad experience of research and teaching in the field of the interdisciplinary historiography of the Dutch and European aristocracy. Kuiper has also published in the field of his new chair, for example, his thesis Adel in Friesland 1780-1880 (The Nobility in Friesland 1780–1880) (1993) and Beelden van de buitenplaats (Images of the country house) (2005), which he published together with Rob van der Laarse.
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