Fagel Fine Bindings (1): Natural History

Most books in the Fagel Collection are bound in simple vellum, the title neatly written on the spine, without any gold-tooling or other forms of decoration. These books were meant to be practical and sustainable, typically what you would find in an eighteenth century reference library in the Dutch Republic. There are, however, a number of exceptions to the rule. The great works of natural history, bound in red morocco with elaborate gold-tooling to the boards, are the work of some of the finest binderies in the Dutch Republic. Why did a family of administrators such as the Fagels have these bibliophile copies in their collection?

Fagel Group

The select group of fine bindings in the Fagel collection has a reputation. Several of them were brought together by Jan Storm van Leeuwen under the heading ‘Fagel group’ in Dutch decorated bookbinding in the eighteenth century. Here, the focus lies on a group of bindings from the period from 1719 to 1739. Most of the examples from this time are works of natural history, antiquity or fine arts in large folio volumes. Storm van Leeuwen demonstrates that there are two major problems when it comes to these books. First, it is not always clear which Fagel owned these books, or commissioned the bindings. Second, the bindings show a great resemblance in style, but a large variety of tools was used. These tools, in turn, were used by a number of binderies in the course of the 18th century.

Commelin and Breyne
Left: Illustration of the ‘Coral Tree’ in Johannes Commelin’s Horti medici Amstelodamensis rariorum […] plantarum […] descriptio et icones (1697). Shelf mark: Fag.GG.3.16-17. Right: Binding of Jakob Breyne’s Exoticarum aliarumque minus cognitarum plantarum centuria prima (1678). Shelf mark: Fag.GG.3.4.

Cornelis Gerrit Fagel

It would, in other words, be idle to think we can simply attribute all fine bindings from the Fagel collection to one family member, and say that he commissioned them at one specific bindery in The Hague. There is, however, one likely candidate as the former owner of a number of them: Cornelis Gerrit Fagel (1663-1746). He was the son of Hendrik Fagel (1617-1690), brother of François Fagel (1659-1746), father of Hendrik Fagel the elder (1706-1790) and great-grandfather of Hendrik Fagel the younger (1765-1838). All of them were greffier of the States General at some stage. Cornelis was a justice at the High Court of Brabant from 1686 and at the High Court of Holland, Zeeland en West-Friesland from 1705.

According to Storm van Leeuwen, there are three copies that definitely come from the legacy of Cornelis Gerrit Fagel. First, there is a copy of Doorlughtige weereld (1703) that has an additional vellum folium which bears the arms of himself and his wife Elisabeth Dierquens. The copy is beautifully coloured, heightened with gold and bound in a binding that Storm van Leeuwen links to the Pieterson Bindery. Furthermore, there is Fagel-Dierquens armorial book that was not part of the 1802 auction and is now in Museum Meermanno (017 A 003) in The Hague.

Doorlughtige Weereld (1703)
Title-page of Doorluchtighe Weereld (1703), coloured and heightened with gold, with the added parchment folium bearing the coat of arms of Fagel and Dierquens. Shelf mark: Fag.U.2.2-4.

Finally, Storm van Leeuwen mentions a dedication copy of Jacques Basnage’s Histoire de la religion des eglises reformées. This is where it starts to get complicated, because the copies from 1721 and 1725 in the Fagel collection are, as far as I can see, not in a fine binding. Moreover, there are at least a dozen other works by Basnage in the Fagel collection, most of them with written dedications to the greffier Fagel. At the time, this must have been François Fagel.

Jacques Basnage De Beauval (1653-1723) was a celebrated French Protestant divine, preacher, linguist and author. Among other things, he wrote a history of the Reformed Churches and a history of Jewish Antiquities. Following the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685, he left France and settled in Rotterdam. Later, grand pensionary Anthonie Heinsius (1641–1720) secured his election as one of the pastors of the Walloon church at The Hague, with the intention to employ him in civil affairs. The books by Basnage in the Fagel collection with written dedications should be understood in this context. Together with other largely unexplored Huguenot literature in the collection, it might provide some very interesting perspectives on political factions early 18th century. I will elaborate on this in a later blog about Fine Bindings and Dedications.

Natural History

For now, I will return to the works of natural history in the Fagel collection. The fine bindings include copies of Abraham Munting’s Naauwkeurige beschryving der aardgewassen (1696), Johannes Commelin’s description of Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus (1697), a description of exotic plants (1678) by the Polish merchant Jacob Breyne, a composite volume containing Maria Sibylla Merian’s books on Surinam (1719) and European insects (1730), and a stunning copy of Jacques Barrelier’s Plantae per Galliam, Hispaniam, et Italiam observatae, which was posthumously published by Antoine de Jussieu in 1714. All of these copies are nicely coloured, heightened with gold and bound in red morocco.

Even though no-one would argue against these books as some of the finest works in the field of natural history, it seems to be an arbitrary selection. They are mostly botanical works, but as a whole it lacks the depth to be used as a reference collection. Moreover, no botanist would use illustrations that are heightened with gold for taxonomic purposes. So what is the binding element in this collection? Bibliophile tendencies of Cornelis Gerrit Fagel? Possibly, but there are some rather curious cross connections that might give away more clues about the reason why precisely these botanical books are in the finest bindings.

The Fagels and Horticulture

In an annotation on the fly-leaf of Commelin’s description of the Hortus Botanicus (1697) is proudly stated that the colouring was done by ‘Miss Wolters’, it had costed 100 ‘ducats’ and that just two other copies with a similar colouration exist, one of which was owned by professor Schwenke. This professor is Martinus Wilhelmus Schwenke, a physician in The Hague. He was renowned for the botanical garden that he had on his estate. In 1774 he published a small treatise about a new genus of plants that he called Fagelia. In English, the genus is known as lady’s purse, slipper flower and pocketbook flower.

Unfortunately the name Fagelia is today only recognized as a synonym. Linnaeus had published the name Calceolaria for the same genus already in 1770 and according to the rules of nomenclature this earlier name gets priority over Fagelia. Nevertheless, it is illuminating that Schwenke describes that he dedicates the plant to Hendrik Fagel, who just like his father Cornelis Fagel, had been such a great practitioner of natural history, especially the herbal sciences. Schwenke praises the garden of Hendrik Fagel, and moreover, ‘the forest with rare trees and shrubs.’ Remarkably, Schwenke states that he has no clue where the genus Fagelia is found in nature, as if the botanical garden is his sole point of reference.

The interest for botanical gardens and exotic plants goes back a few generations in the Fagel family. Already in the 17th century the first greffier of the family, Gaspar Fagel, was known for his botanical garden. In Paul Hermann’s account of exotic plants in Dutch gardens, Paradisus batavus (1698), we find nine references to the ‘hortus of Fagel’. Hermann had traveled to Dutch East India as a medical officer, before he became director of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden. He knew the world of exotic plants and its collectors in the Dutch Republic. Among the other gardens that are mentioned in Paradisus batavus is the hortus on the estate of Hieronymus van Beverningk. Van Beverningk was the patron and mecenas of Jacob Breyne, the merchant from Danzig who published an account of exotic plants. Most of the species that he described came from Cape of Good Hope.

The Fagel copy of Jacob Breyne’s account is bound in dark red morocco and beautifully decorated. The copy is coloured and decorated in a style that is very similar to the Fagel copy of Commelin, with all titles, initials, captions and sub headings heightened with gold. The text of the dedication to Van Beverningk is gilded in its entirety, while an extensive list of other names in the dedication gives a splendid overview of the circle of botanists and horticulturalists in which these books functioned.

Circle of Botanists

The Hortus of Gaspar Fagel was well-known among botanists around Europe. Paul Hermann was a friend of Fagel and stopped by regularly. Jacob Breyne visited in 1688 and listed over one hundred plants from the garden in his book Prodromi fasciculi rariorum plantarum. Another notable visitor was the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. Both Paul Hermann and Antoine de Jussieu, the editor of Jacques Barrelier’s Plantae per Galliam, Hispaniam, et Italiam observatae, were students of Tournefort. It is not hard to understand how these networks of botanical knowledge functioned, and what role public and private gardens in the Dutch Republic played, but it is interesting to see that the material reflection of these networks can be found in the dedications of the books in the Fagel collection.

This circle of botanists around the Fagels particularly shared an interest in exotic plants. Plants from East-India, Ceylon, the coast of Malabar, the Cape, Brazil and the West-Indies. As the greffier, and later grand pensionary of the Republic, Gaspar Fagel had first-hand access to exotic plants in the Dutch colonies. Notwithstanding the protective policies of the Dutch East India Compagnie on the import of herbs, plants and seeds, Fagel managed to lay his hands on several rare specimens. The first report in the Fagel archives where the import of plants is mentioned is from 1682. Several boxes with seeds and plants from East-India were shipped to Fagel, and interestingly, also to Paul Hermann and Hieronymus van Beverningk.

Simon van der Stel and the Cape Colony

Shortly thereafter, Gaspar Fagel successfully filed a request to collect plants for him at the Cape of Good Hope. Commander of the Cape colony Simon van der Stel even agreed to plant cinnamon, clove and camphor for Fagel in the VOC garden at the Cape, so the plants could acclimatize before they were shipped to the Netherlands. Even though these specimens were apparently destroyed by VOC officers to protect their trade, some years later seventeen boxes with plants were indeed shipped to the Netherlands for the gardens of stadholder William III, Gaspar Fagel and the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam.

In the light of this history, one of the other minor mysteries of the Fagel collection is easily solved. That is, the question why the journal of Simon van der Stel had been taken from the archives and transferred to the private collection of the Fagels at some point. It had gone missing from the archives, probably already in the early eighteenth century, until it was rediscovered at Trinity College Library as part of the Fagel collection in the 1920s.

Journal Simon van der Stel
Opening page of the journal of Simon van der Stel.

The journal contains an extensive description of travels in ‘Amacqualand’ (Namaqualand, or, Namakwaland) in the Northern Cape Province from Saturday 25 August 1685 until 30 January 1686. Added are drawings and descriptions of a few landscapes, the indigenous people, and a large variety of animals and plants found in the area. Several of these exotic plants might have been included in the seventeen boxes that Van der Stel sent to William III, Gaspar Fagel and the Hortus Botanicus in these years. We do not know if the journal was given to the Fagels, intentionally taken by one of them, or simply ended up in their private collections in a natural way. Regardless of how it happened, it is comprehensible that it happened. In the context the trade of exotic plants and the continuous horticultural interest, the journal of Van der Stel is simply part of Fagel family history.

Coffee-Table Books

The family connection seems to be a key factor in understanding the Fagel fine bindings. The horticultural tradition in the family, the interest for exotic plants, and certainly the personal connection of Gaspar Fagel with Simon van der Stel and the botanical explorations at The Cape of Good Hope, arguably all contributed to the fact that these books were treasured as part of the history of the family. The botanical garden of Gaspar Fagel was dismantled after his death in 1688, the rare plants were auctioned. All that was left of this episode were the books that referred to the garden.

We do not know when the books were acquired by the Fagel family. Most of them were printed after the death of Gaspar Fagel, so presumably by others in the family. It is, however, not hard to understand how the reminiscence of the hortus of Gaspar Fagel inspired his descendants to collect and treasure the books that glorified this garden. It might have been Cornelis Gerrit Fagel who commissioned the colouring and the bindings, and if so, he did this as a bibliophile rather than a naturalist.

Though speculative, one can see how later generations of Fagels entertained their guests at their estates, taking them for a stroll through their gardens, and later, showing them these beautiful books to start a conversation about their proud family tradition in horticulture. Coffee-table books, so to speak, but in a very personalized way. Nicely bound in red morocco.

Selected Literature

  • E. den Hartog, ‘Leeuwenhorst, een buitenplaats van wereldformaat‘, in: Kernpunten 67 (2006).
  • J. Kuijlen, C.S. Oldenburger-Ebbers, D.O. Wijnands (eds.), Paradisus Batavus: bibliografie van plantencatalogi van onderwijstuinen, particuliere tuinen en kwekerscollecties in de Noordelijke en Zuidelijke Nederlanden (1550-1839) (Wageningen: Pudoc, 1983).
  • J. Storm van Leeuwen, Dutch decorated bookbinding in the eighteenth century (‘t Goy-Houten: Hes & De Graaf, 2006).
  • G. Waterhouse (ed.), Simon van der Stel’s journal of his expedition to Namaqualand, 1685-6 : edited from the ms. in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin (London & New York: Longmans, Green, 1932).
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