A myriad of canals provides Amsterdam with such a quantity of mirrors that narcissism becomes inevitable. Reflected every moment by thousands of square metres of rippling silver amalgam, it’s as if the city is constantly being filmed by its water. Consequently each canalside building lends the impression of existing as an egotist solely preoccupied by its appearance. And each canal’s own vanity is to reflect the lights dangling under the bridge arches. They, in turn, appear as shimmering pearl necklaces.
Last winter, a heavy veil of snow hung over the city. Along Keizersgracht, one of the three original canals, cars morphed into white mounds and overhead wires dripped with crystals of ice. Snow on snow on snow. Assuming you’ve recycled your Moët & Chandon bottles at De Appel Arts Centre, tackled the Rijksmuseum, skipped the queue at the Stedelijk Extension and ruminated at the Van Gogh, something of altogether more domestic proportions yet distilling elements of all three is 672 Keizersgracht. Enter Museum van Loon.
Furniture fans will get a Louis the Hooey eyeful; antiques lovers can ogle at porcelain collections spanning three centuries; while integrated contemporary art featuring the likes of light boxes by Danielle van Ark and photographs of Juliette Lewis add an experimental twist to the mix.
“The van Loon family has frozen the house exactly as it was when it opened in 1973,” announces the surprisingly youthful Museum Director and Curator, Tonko Grever. Well that puts paid to any John Fowler type debate over which period should take prominence. “As a result priceless pieces sit next to modern miscellanea. It’s still considered unusual in Amsterdam to open your house to the public,” reveals Tonko. “Maurits van Loon was the last surviving male of the family.” He died in 2005 aged 83. The first van Loons to live here were Willem and his wife Thora. His ancestor, another Willem, was one of the founders of the Dutch East India Company.
“The former butler’s son called by the house a while back,” says Tonko. “He couldn’t believe Mr van Loon just lived in an apartment on the top two floors. I reminded him that a private pad in this part of town, away from the neon nightmare that is Damrak, is still quite a status symbol! Plus it’s pretty big by modern standards.” A handful of staff runs the house now in place of 10 to 15 servants.
Narrow dizzyingly steep vertigo inducing stairs are an all too common feature of Amsterdam houses. Not here. Dr Abraham van Hagen, newly married to the metaphorically monikered Catharina Trip, an American heiress, proved he’d a flair for fabulousness when he redecorated the house in 1752 with enviable élan. Under van Hagen’s watchful eye, the visual candy men of the day let rip on the interiors. V HAGEN is worked into the first flight of brass and iron balustrades in the spacious staircase hall and TRIP (no puns please) on the second flight. “Museum van Loon is essentially the bones of a 17th century house dressed up in 18th century gear,” Tonko comments.
The house was built in 1672 as one of a pair of symmetrical properties. Rows of windows mirror the canal through a glass darkly across a ‘flat style’ façade. The straight entablatures and cornices of this austere branch of neoclassicism replaced the jaunty twists and turns of Dutch gables from the late 18th century onwards. The architect was Adriaan Dortsman, the John O’Connell of his day; the client, a Flemish merchant named Jeremiah van Raey; the first tenant, Rembrant’s sidekick Ferdinand Bol. “The houses occupy four plots. But Dortsman struck a deal with the authorities and got four for the price of three,” relates Tonko.
A formal garden, entered via the French doors of the garden room, is an oasis of calm away from the busy bustle of the city. It was designed by Eugénie André in 1998 who was inspired by the geometric plan drawn by Jacobus Bosch on his 1679 map of Keizersgracht. When Lavender’s Blue were there, the garden was wrapped in a thick blanket of snow. Shrubs were transmogrified into white blobs and snow on snow lay heavy on the carriage house roof. Tonko notes, “It’s a different picture in summer. The garden is used as a venue for intimate opera concerts. Last June, it was one of 25 canal gardens open to the public as part of the City on the Water tourism drive.”
During renovations the foundations were underpinned with 64 new pilings. “This provided an ideal opportunity to drop the floor level of the kitchen by 20 centimetres because the basement levels were so low,” explains Tonko. Even so, they still are. “The room was then reconstructed using photos from an old servant’s album. One photo from around 1900 shows Leida the cook’s cat perched on a bench. It’s funny – the kitchen was placed at the opposite end of the house from the raised ground floor dining room. Impractical or what?”
On the first floor, surprisingly (the house is deeper than it’s wide), there are only four bedrooms. “Maurits van Loon recalled screens dividing up the bedrooms for privacy. The children had to share rooms with their siblings,” Tonko tells us. “My favourite room is the Sheep Room. You’d have no problem falling asleep there. Just count the sheep!” He’s referring to the strikingly patterned wallpaper which depicts sheep running amok amidst foliage and flowers. It was printed in Nîmes on 18th century woodblocks. Tiny square projections accommodating powder rooms flank the rear elevation.
An ostentatious Polonaise bed – the Regency type that left behind the clean lines of Georgian sobriety and tipsily headed down the helter skelter of Victorian floridity – dominates the Master Bedroom. “When the house is closed to the public, Maurits van Loon and his guests used to stay in the state rooms. Look!” points Tonko. “To the left of the bed is a modern phone. But the formality of the past is present too. A fake door next to the real bedroom door contains extra panels to align it with the fireplace.” Actually there are jib doors galore in the house concealing a rabbit warren of bookshelves, cupboards and even a staircase.
Lila Acheson Wallace, co founder of Reader’s Digest, once quipped, “A painting is like a man. If you can live without it, then there isn’t much point having it.” Since the van Loons bought this sybaritic stretch of Keizersgracht in 1884, they have managed to accumulate 150 portraits, mostly of themselves. Jan Miense Molenaer, the 17th century’s answer to Mario Testino, painted a symbolic van Loon family portrait called The Four Ages or The Five Senses which hangs in the Red Drawing Room. Who could blame them for being vaingloriously proud to have lived here for generations?