ALCS Grant Reports

Clara Davarpanah

University College London (England)

Clara Davarpanah, UCL Department of History of Art, received a grant from the ALCS in January 2024 to conduct vital object-based research at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum and meet other researchers within the field of ebony furniture.

Firstly, I would like to thank the ALCS for their kind generosity, as their financial support allowed me to travel to Amsterdam to conduct vital object-based research at the Rijksmuseum and meet other researchers within the field of ebony furniture, a tremendous step forward at the start of my PhD journey.

On the invitation of Dr Alexander Dencher, Curator of Furniture at the Rijksmuseum, I participated in Material Matters: Ebony, a small conference bringing together the research and findings of experts within the field of ebony furniture. Contributors included senior members of the Rijksmuseum's conservation team, as well as art historians and research students from the University of Amsterdam and University of Antwerp. 

Of a primarily scientific focus, the conference highlighted the need to identify the exact species of wood used to build and veneer so-called ‘ebony’ furniture within museum collections, as the term ‘ebony’ is notoriously vague and until the recent past had been used to refer to different species of wood, such as Dalbergia melanoxylon (African Blackwood), Dalbergia nigra (Brazilian Rosewood), and several members of the genus Diospyros family (which is now most closely associated with ebony). This concern for correct identification also extended to the examination of different varnishing and dying techniques, as their use in furniture construction and restoration makes precise identification difficult. Identifying the exact species would not only provide further clarity concerning the trade in exotic woods, but would also help bring to light long lost furniture-making techniques.

My presentation approached the issue from an art historical perspective, as by closely examining first handwritten descriptions of ebony and its qualities, I wished to discover the characteristics for which ebony was appreciated in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. Of particular interest to me was the work of Jan Dorscheid (Associate Conservator of Furniture, Rijksmuseum), whose understanding of ebony’s properties and the necessary tool modifications needed to work with such dense wood species was of primary importance to my own research. The archival research of art historian Dr Cynthia Kok, tracing the activities of ebony workers active in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, was also especially relevant.

My visit to the Rijksmuseum’s storage facilities at CollectieCentrum Nederland, and the Rijksmuseum’s displayed furniture collection in Amsterdam, gave me further opportunities to view various seventeenth-century furniture pieces up close, providing me with a deeper understanding of how they were constructed, and allowing me to capture detailed photographs necessary for my work.

Thanks to this grant I was able to make these first-hand observations, share my ideas, gather expertise, and begin laying the foundations for a long-term research project. This support has proven invaluable for continued development within the field of Early Modern Dutch Furniture, and opened up previously unattainable access to both relevant artefacts and researcher networks.

Dr Davide Martino

University of Bern (Switzerland)

Davide Martino received a first grant from the ALCS to carry out archival research in Amsterdam and a second grant to go and present a paper on early modern machine books and hydraulic technologies at the Scientiae Conference in Prague. 

First things first, I’d like to say a big thank you to the Association for Low Countries Studies (ALCS)! Your financial support has been instrumental to the History PhD I have now successfully completed, as I made sure to indicate in my acknowledgements. 

I received a first grant from the ALCS to carry out archival research in Amsterdam, and I was particularly grateful for the Association’s flexibility and understanding, as I had to reshuffle my travel plans multiple times due to COVID-19 restrictions. The ALCS generously supported me with a further grant last year, which made it possible for me to attend two key conferences.

In June 2023, I presented a paper on early modern machine books and hydraulic technologies at the Scientiae conference in Prague. Scientiae is one of the foremost conferences for historians of early modern science, philosophy, and knowledge. As part of the panel ‘Useful tools. The role of practical knowledge in the development of Early Modern hydraulic expertise’, I presented on a range of hydraulic tools, among which Dutch materials featured prominently. In particular, I discussed the importance of the water levelling instrument invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1679 and deployed in Amsterdam to measure the depth of the IJ shortly thereafter.

In August 2023, I co-organised and co-chaired a round-table discussion on ‘How do we become environmental historians?’ at the conference of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) in Bern (Switzerland). I first got to know my fellow co-organiser Mathijs Boom during one of my research visits to Amsterdam, where he completed his PhD at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA). This is the second project on which we collaborate, which highlights the value of ALCS funding not just for data collection but also for building ties between the British and Dutch academic worlds. The round-table was a success, as is evident from the attached picture: over fifty people came to listen to our six panellists debate the state of environmental history and the future of the field.

Zinnia Coates

University of York (England)

Zinnia Coates received an ALCS Grant to participate in the Summer Course for the Study of the Arts in Flanders: The Age of Rubens as oart of her research on the unusual female spectatorship and ownership of Rubens' Het Pelsken.

In June 2023 I was the recipient of an ALCS research grant which supported my participation on the Summer Course for the Study of the Arts in Flanders: The Age of Rubens. The course was open for MA and PhD students who are researching 17th century Flemish art and aligned with my Masters dissertation at the University of York: ‘Identity and Ownership in Peter Paul Rubens’ Het Pelsken.  My research focused on the unusual female spectatorship and ownership of Het Pelsken and on its symbols of Early Modern motherhood, fertility and domesticity.

The eleven-day summer course provided an insight into the Flemish art collections from the 17th century and provided a lively discussion into the latest research. We travelled to Antwerp, Mechelen, Leuven, Scherpenheuvel, Bruges, Ghent, Liège and Brussels, visiting sites such as the Rubenianum, KMSKA, the Antwerp Cathedral, St James’ Church Antwerp, Museum Plantin-Moretus, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage KIK/IRPA and the FelixArchief where we participated in workshops and lectures. 

The course combined access to a huge array of artworks and primary documents with active discussions, lectures and workshops, with not just the other students, but with international scholars such as Bert Watteeuw, Nico Van Hout and Nils Büttner. This gave us the opportunity to discuss our research and develop our ideas both during the day’s itinerary and over dinner in the evenings which was both invaluable to our research and exciting as we had shared areas of personal interest and could learn from one another.

The course directly supported my dissertation research through our palaeography session at the FelixArchief in which we got to hold and read original documents such as the Staetmasse, which included the settlement of Rubens’ estate in 1645. We translated extracts from the Staetmasse and from the will of Rubens’ second wife, Helena Fourment, which was an invaluable primary source for my research as Het Pelsken was one of the paintings discussed in Helena’s will. I was also immersed in Flemish culture and could look closely at Rubens’ painting in situ, allowing me to understand more about the artist and his life in Antwerp.

Since completing the summer course I have spoken on a panel at the National Gallery, London on the Rubenesque Nude as part of the Friday Lates Programme and have graduated from the University of York. I am now looking to pursue a career in curation based in London.

Dr Adam Sammut

University of York (England)

Dr Adam Sammut, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of History of Art, University of York, was one of the recepients of an ALCS grant of £300 to acquire the rights for eight high-resolution images, for his book Rubens and the Dominican Church in Antwerp: Art and Political Economy in an Age of Religious Conflict (Brill, 2023). 

Rubens and the Dominican Church in Antwerp is about what is known today as the Sint-Pauluskerk, the church of St Paul’s. It is structured around three works of art, made or procured by Peter Paul Rubens: the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary cycle (in situ), Caravaggio’s Rosary Madonna (Vienna) and the Wrath of Christ high altarpiece (Lyon). Within the artist’s lifetime, the church and monastery were completely rebuilt, producing one of the most spectacular sacred spaces in Northern Europe. Sammut reconceptualises churches as theatres of political economy, advancing an original approach to cultural production in a time of war. 

All but two of the artworks reproduced in my book are hundreds of years out of copyright. However, with notable exceptions like the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, public museums in Europe and the USA continue to exert a monopoly over images of their collection, in spite of a move towards open access. Art historians (whose metier is images) inevitably incur substantial costs. Vanishingly few grants are offered to support publication convention, forcing scholars to dip into their own funds, reproduce fewer or low-quality images, or resort to image piracy. It was, therefore, a relief to secure the support of ALCS to be able to acquire the remaining images. 

Dr Elise Watson

University of St Andrews (Scotland)

Elise Watson, Research Assistant at the University of St Andrews, received an ALCS grant to visit a number of archives and libraries in Antwerp.

In March 2020, I set out on a tour of Dutch archives in order to study a group of people whose activities outside of home and in public spaces were increasingly restricted, leading to the development of a wide variety of media to be consumed at home, made in order to take the place of public activities that were no longer possible. Sound familiar?

While this connection may be tenuous, COVID-19 has not stopped me from pursuing my doctoral thesis, researching printing for the Roman Catholic community in the 17th-century Dutch Republic. In this period, Catholics made up a substantial proportion of the population in the northern Netherlands, but were forced to subsist in the margins, as any form of public worship was banned and they were disallowed from holding public office or using public funds.

However, they maintained a robust print culture, either printing or importing everything the community needed, from single-sheet devotional prints to Vulgate Bibles. My project aims to document how the Catholic community obtained and used this print, and how it impacted their experience as a religious subculture.

As much of the Catholic print in the North was imported from the southern Netherlands, and many residents of the Dutch Republic still saw themselves as part of a unified Belgium, this is very much a project that involves the Low Countries as a whole.

My research has taken me both to archives and libraries. Last year, I received generous funding from the ALCS to visit several archives in Antwerp in order to investigate the trade in Catholic books between the northern and southern Netherlands.

Though COVID-19 forced me to cancel my trip halfway through, I have been able to continue this research thanks to the digitisation projects carried out at institutions like the Plantin-Moretus Museum and the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, and the advice of archivists and librarians who have been extremely generous with their time and resources.

These digital investigations have already yielded fascinating results. The personal and familial relationships between printers and booksellers in Antwerp and the Dutch Republic, especially Amsterdam, have long been known to be strong.

Members of the trade collaborated, corresponded, loaned each other money, and set up their children to marry to ensure the union of their dynasties. Records from the archives at the Plantin-Moretus Museum have shown that their professional relationships, too, were fruitful.

Receipts and ledgers inform us that thousands of Catholic books were imported from Antwerp to every province in the Dutch Republic, and Dutch books were even sent back to be resold in Antwerp. A remarkable number of female printers and booksellers, like Catharina Kiel (shown above), participated in this family trade as well.

While I very much look forward to seeing this material in person, it is remarkable what kinds of research ambitious digitisation has made possible. Researchers owe a great debt to the work of archivists and librarians, for their guidance and diligence in ensuring this kind of inquiry can still take place during a pandemic. I owe many thanks, too, to the ALCS for their generous support of my research at such a turbulent time, and look forward to sharing more of my findings in the future!