Thursday, 26 September 2013

Art Detective: a European souvenir

Sometimes you come across a find at an auction which no body else sees merit in. One such treasure, for me, was a collection of five old pictures in a group lot in the junk goods end of an antique sale. Most of the works in this lot were not worth bothering about, but one image stood out and deserved closer inspection. The image was a print of an old bridge with water running between three arches. The work was untitled and came in an unspectacular, yet sound, wooden frame. The image was clearly an original wood cut, and although unsigned the print included a monogram in the image.

Brug te Mechelen
author's collection

Lucky for me the work was included in a mixed lot and the other bidders lacked any conviction to buy. After paying for the lot for a bargain price I went home with my new purchases. Under good light I could see that the woodcut was indeed the pick of the bunch. It was in good condition although the paper had slightly faded. There were no tears and remarkably there was no sign of foxing.

The image depicted an old stone bridge with fast moving currents passing under its spans. In the background old buildings could be seen. My first thought was this must be a German or Dutch town. The plate had clearly been done by a professional artist, and the depiction of the water showed the expressionist influence of Van Gogh.

detail of the work showing the quality of the artist's carving

My only clue to the creator was the monogram WO/JN located on the lower left of the image. Referring to my trusted friend 'Professor Google' I soon discovered the picture was a famous woodcut by the Dutch printmaker Wijnand Otto Jan van Nieuwenkamp (1874-1950). The work was created in c.1901 and was originally titled Brug te Mechelen, and depicted a famous old stone bridge over the river Dijle in the city of Mechelen in northern Belgium.

Further research soon discovered that this work was one of the artists best known images and the print was included in many public collections including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. Apparently, Nieuwenkamp was one of the greatest Dutch printmakers of the early 20th century, and from 1901 to 1910 he toured the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium in this boat De Zwerver (The Wanderer), which he had built himself. At the suggestion of a friend he organised selling exhibitions of his prints aboard his boat, which attracted international attention. Possibly, this print was purchased as a European souvenir by an Australian tourist or soldier.

This seems to be the Mechelen bridge depicted in Nieuwenkamp's woodcut
Image courtesy of Flickr
If there is any moral of this short tale it is to inspect every work you see at auction. While dirty glass and broken frames can put you off they can sometimes hide hidden treasure. Regular inspections of antique sales and a curious mind aided by the internet will, I'm sure, bring beneficial results to you. Happy collecting!


1 comment:

  1. You've found a very nice print by a renowned Dutch artist-printmaker. Great hunting reward.


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