We were staying in a hotel which gave itself the defining middle name of ‘Art’. Rooms at the front looked out onto a dual carriageway with a BP garage; those at the back onto a public outdoor swimming pool. Inside, someone had produced quantities of ersatz Basquiats with industrial brushstrokes of unrelenting vigour. From here we cycled each day along the railway line and across a park to the Westergasfabriek (the Western Gas Factory), a complex of eighteen industrial heritage buildings, fronted by a canal. For somewhere that hosts multiple conferences, launches and other transitory corporate or commercial events it is a surprisingly pleasant place to be, attracting a constant buzz of locals – on bicycles of course, small children and dogs protruding from every basket and backseat – to its numerous cafes and bars among the handsome, steeply-gabled buildings and pretty landscaped park.
On the first evening I visited, there was a food festival in full swing; above ‘Loco’s Place’ where three men in stripy T-shirts fried prawns and lamb on a grill with Shoreditch-worthy hipster nonchalance there was a makeshift stage erected under a tarpaulin awning. As we devoured the freshly cooked wares, a guitarist looking very much like he had wandered off a Californian beach, climbed a ladder onto this precarious platform and began to play renditions of chart hits in laid back style. This was to form my impression (work aside) of the happily relaxed pace of Amsterdam life.
De Bakkerswinkel, a heaven-sent cafe steps from our venue and filled with fresh organic bread, scones, pastries and essential coffee, resided in the ‘Regulateurshuis’, a lodge building next to the canal bridge, from which gas was once pumped into the city and a kiosk sold gas coins and bags of coal to the populace from the late 19th Century.
The finale of the event took place in the Rijksmuseum, and gave us at last an opportunity to explore beyond the Westergasfabriek’s boundaries. From the enormous glass-roofed courtyard, across acres of smooth white surfaces and through one of the modern-monolithic arches, we ascended and reversed in time to the second floor galleries of neo-gothic vaulting and painted piers. The Gallery of Honour spread out before us, two tables running its length and lit by lamplight, calla lilies shining in cylindrical glass, the band setting up near the Vermeers. And at the far end shone the Night Watch, its angelic girl-mascot seeming to emanate light onto the silk doublets, sashes and ruffs of the militia company preparing for action.
The study to one side shows that it was at some point cut down to fit a new location, losing a significant chunk on the left hand side so that the captain and his companion would have been more decidedly off-centre and the tenebrous archway behind them centred – above the captain’s outstretched left hand.
Of the Vermeers – a clutch of masterpieces gathered together halfway down the gallery – I was most intrigued by the most unlikely. One expects still interiors with one or two figures caught in motion or meditation; his ‘View of Houses in Delft’ (c.1658, above) takes one outside those hushed rooms into the light that so often falls in a sharp diagonal over a bare plaster wall, so minutely picks out the folds of fabric, the gleam of a pearl or the details of domesticity. We are removed to a distance where the expression of a face is no longer identifiable and the quiet dramas are hidden behind the shutters of the dignified facades. Meanwhile the Milkmaid must have sighed, endlessly pouring her jug of cream, as people turned their backs to her and cameras flashed.
Further on was Avercamp’s ‘Winter Landscape with Skaters’ (1608, above), the impish figures teeming in an ethereal haze of icy air. And van Ostade’s ‘The Painter’s Studio’ (c.1670-5, below), in which the artist portrays his metier within an exaggeratedly bare and gloomy interior – though never straying into melancholic romanticism; no, here the penurious painter has two assistants to grind his pigment and prepare his canvases. He has a job to do.