Seventeenth-century photo-shoots

The dolls house of Petronella Oortman, c.1686-c.1710, in the Rijks Museum, inv. no. BK-NM-1010. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

The dolls house of Petronella Oortman, c.1686-c.1710, in the Rijks Museum, inv. no. BK-NM-1010. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

Last week I visited the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, which I hadn’t seen yet since its reopening in 2013. I was impressed: by the new entrance courtyards, the layout, the helpful staff, the paint colours, the restored murals, the display cases and the text labels. And last but not least by the objects, which sing out in their greatly improved environment.

'Tapestry room' in the dolls house of Petronella Oortman. The 'flamestitch' textiles seen here have not survived as wall hangings in real houses. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

‘Tapestry room’ in the dolls house of Petronella Oortman. The ‘flamestitch’ textiles seen here have not survived as wall hangings in real houses. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

One of the things I had a good look at was the dolls house of Petronella Oortman, which was created between about 1686 and 1710. Like the big dolls houses at Nostell Priory and Uppark it provides a wonderful insight into the taste of its period. Objects or practices which have been lost in actual historic houses can still be encountered here. It is almost like a seventeenth-century photo-shoot.

Kitchen in the dolls house of Petronella Oortman, showing the painted silk screens set into the windows above the dresser. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

Kitchen in the dolls house of Petronella Oortman, showing the painted silk screens set into the windows above the dresser. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

Textiles, in particular, have often been lost from historic interiors through wear and tear and light damage, but in these dolls houses you can still see what kind of squab cushions they had and what the bed curtains looked like.

Chinese picture on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion garden, in a European rococo frame, at Shugborough Hall, inv. no. 1271100.4. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

Chinese picture on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion garden, in a European rococo frame, at Shugborough Hall, inv. no. 1271100.4. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

I was intrigued by the miniature representations of the pieces of silk stretched on wooden frameworks, called sassinetten, which were set into window embrasures of Dutch houses at that time. Presumably they were meant to increase privacy while still letting in the light. No full-size examples seem to have survived, as they would have deteriorated fairly quickly in the sunlight. But the painted decoration seen on some of the miniature screens in the Oortman dolls house is clearly in the Chinese style (and is similar to the scenes in the Chinese pictures at Shugborough Hall, for example). So did they use imported Chinese pictures on silk for these screens, I wonder?

Chinese picture on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion garden, in a European rococo frame, at Shugborough Hall, inv. no. 1271100.5. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

Chinese picture on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion garden, in a European rococo frame, at Shugborough Hall, inv. no. 1271100.5. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

And if the painted silk on some or all of these window screens was indeed Chinese, should they then be counted among the precursors of Chinese wallpaper? We tend to think that the development of panoramic Chinese wallpaper for the European market was preceded by the use of separate Chinese prints and pictures as wall decoration in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. These sassinetten may have been one expression of that taste.

9 Responses to “Seventeenth-century photo-shoots”

  1. Susan Walter Says:

    Very intriguing!

  2. Eagle-Eyed Editor Says:

    I adore that doll house. I could spend hours looking at it.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes when you look at it you feel like you’re ‘visiting’ 🙂

  4. Andrew Says:

    A form of net curtains?

    I thought the Dutch style was for the shutters to be left open and no curtains, so everyone could see what you were doing and that you have nothing to hide. Is that a modern thing?

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, that is certainly the case today – when I was there recently I was once again amazed at how visible many Dutch people’s interiors are from outside. It is actually rather fun comparing nice, pretentious, boring and hideous interiors as you walk down the streets 🙂

    But in response to your comment I checked my copy of Peter Thornton’s ‘Authentic Decor’ on late-seventeenth-century window treatments. He mentions that windows then tended to have curtains and interior shutters, but that the shutters were only for the lower set of windows, and that they were used to regulate the light, in the sense that you could close some or all of them if the sunlight was too bright or direct.

    Thornton also mentions the window frames I have discussed above, which apparently were called ‘sashes’ in England at that time, and which could be set into both the lower and the upper windows. They were made of either paper, linen or silk, and were impregnated with oil or turpentine to make them semi-transparent. They could be decorated with either a single colour wash or with decorative scenes or patterns.

    I also vaguely remember a quote about an English lady at some point in the eighteenth century cutting out motifs from sheets of Chinese wallpaper, giving them a wash of oil and then pasting them onto her window panes – I must check where I got that from.

  6. Staniforth, Sarah Says:

    Dear Emile

    Did you know that Petronella Oortman’s doll house is the subject of a new novel by Jessie Burton ‘The Miniaturist’? Jonathon has just finished reading it and says it is brilliant. It is next on my list.

    Sarah

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    No I didn’t, thank you for mentioning it. Here it is on the author’s website: http://www.jessieburton.co.uk/

  8. David Skinner Says:

    Dear Emile
    The English lady was the inescapable Mrs Delany, who spent an afternoon doing exactly what you say in 1749 at the home of her friend Mrs Vesey, who lived in Lucan House, outside Dublin. The framed ‘India pictures’ from Shugborough are wonderful, and the speculation about the ‘sassinets’ very interesting.
    There should be a book about 17th/18th century dolls houses – there is a beauty in the museum in Utrecht, if you are ever there.
    David.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    David, thank you very much for that reference. Mrs Delany was amazing.

    One of the as yet slightly puzzling aspects of Chinese wallpaper is how much of the installation was done by professional hangers and how much by lady amateurs. Mrs Delany is an obvious example of an accomplished amateur, but in professional paper hangers also seem to have executed the cutting and arranging of Chinese wallpaper, as for instance at Felbrigg Hall.

    This would seem to be a useful avenue for further research: to map where there is clear evidence of amateur involvement with the hanging of Chinese wallpaper, and where of professional involvement.

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