Island Women: Marie Tak van Poortvliet; critic, mecenas, organic farmer

Marie Tak van Poortvliet
Jacoba van Heemskerk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marie is born into a wealthy Zeeland family, where influentional and governing positions are the norm. Her noble birth grants her freedom; her freedom allows her her principles. Her father is the director of Steamship Company Zeeland. He is a Liberal and later becomes Foreign Secretary. He dies in 1907 and with her substantial inheritance, in Domburg Marie comes into her own. She builds a villa, Loverendale, where she lives during long summers and where she can smell the nearby sea. Roses blossom in her garden and in the shadows of tall trees she reads books and scribbles her thoughts in notebooks. Her garden is an oasis and it’s easy to forget that just a stone’s throw away, fashionable seaside visitors pour in from all over Europe. They parade the tiny boulevard and enjoy oysters in the Badhotel. The skies are low, the Jacob’s ladder reflects the horizon of the shimmering sea and the hulking church throws its anchor at the village.

Although she enjoys her own company, Marie’s house is always open to the intellectually inclined; she hosts, she gives, she befriends and she collects. The villa is the centre of animated discussions. Guests with striking personalities and new ideas come and go. Marie has an intrinsic motivation and an outspoken curiosity to learn about the human mind and the artist’s view. She beams with enthusiasm but makes sure she does not impose her ideas on others. Artists flow in and out of her life. Stately Loverendale with its rhombic shutters and dormers that offer wide views is a painters’ hub. Men of repute, Toorop and Mondriaan for example, who want to “catch the colours and the light” and attract the wealthy visitors to their paintings. There are also a few female artists in Marie’s circle, Lucie van Dam and the young Charley Toorop. But it is the painter and stained glass artist Jacoba van Heemskerck she loses her heart to. Their love is to be labeled “an ardent and loyal friendship”. She gives her a studio in her back garden. The light streams in through the high horizontal windows, filtering it before it reaches the walls, just like Jacoba prefers it as an artist. Jacoba likes to work alone, but outside her studio, they love exchanging their ideas and talk about the meaning of life and their place in it. They also love to laugh. Marie is not Jacoba’s muse, she is her discrete mecenas and partner in life.

Zesty Marie has a sharp mind. She travels through Europe, often accompanied by Jacoba. She publishes essays and modern art and music reviews. She writes about the connection of man with “the spiritual essence of the cosmos” and for the German avantgarde magazine Der Sturm she writes about expressionist art. Marie is interested in both the spiritual and the earthly. The soil, the furrows in the Zeeland clay, the wind and the water. The artists in her life have tried to capture, interpret and internalise the spiritual and the earthly in their canvases: The Red Tree, The Marigolds, View of a Village, A Portrait of an Oystercatcher. Marie experiences spiritual affinity with visual arts, but during the years her life goal is starting to shift. Anthroposophy comes to the fore and epitomises her life’s work. She wishes to share her sought-and-found ideals and truths and serve the public with them just as she has done with art. She decides to introduce biodynamic farming, according to Rudolf Steiner’s rules, to her fields and farms on the conservative island of Walcheren. She employs the anthroposophical Swiss Ehrenfried Pfeiffer as director of Loverendale, where he starts experimenting with the saline soil. Marie translates Rudolf Steiner’s books into Dutch and even befriends him. Her focus alters from the creations and expressions of individuals to the greatest creation of all: the universe that connects everything. When her beloved Jacoba dies suddenly of heart problems in 1923 in Marie’s villa, Marie’s world goes black. There is no more meaning, no more greater good.

But anthroposophy with its premise of “dying as transition and spiritual awakening” offers a guideline, the faintest light. And after some weeks of mourning, she forces herself out of her darkened bedroom and starts organising a major retrospective of Jacoba’s work. A final act as patroness of Jacoba’s oeuvre. As her lover, she will always miss her.

Organic farming Walcheren

During the 1920s Marie’s fortune has swindled considerably. Management of her farms is in kind but rather incapable hands; idealistic people who are theoretically schooled, but not very practical. The economic crisis years are taken their toll. A few of her farms are being sold off, just like some of her collected works of art (her unparalleled art collection is bequeathed to major Dutch museums), but Marie refuses to give in, and just before her death, she transfers the last of her possessions to a new plc, Cultuurmaatschappij Loverendale.

Loverendale veg crate

Thanks to Marie, the roots of Dutch organic farming lie on the island of Walcheren. The farmers in Zeeland were averse to her ideas and as tenant farmers this could cost them dearly. They laughed at her, “crazy herb lady”, but hindsight proves that she was way ahead of her time: an inconvenient truth.

Few material traces of Marie are left on the island of Walcheren. A small white museum, a replica of the studio she had built in the back garden of her villa, bears her name. And Loverendale-Ter Linde is still a biodynamic farm with a small farm shop.

The synagogue of Zeeland

Hidden in a quiet street in the heart of the city of Middelburg on the island of Walcheren is an extraordinary building. If you wouldn’t know of its existence, you’d walk right past it. Only a small wicket-door with some Hebrew lettering reveals an entrance and a promise. The old synagogue is unique in Zeeland and was built in 1705. In that time the building permission was considered a great tolerance, albeit on the condition that it was out of view of any passing God-fearing Christian Middelburgers. That was the beginning of a conventicle, a ‘frowned-upon house of prayer’, in the small walled garden of the Jewish merchant Benjamin Levi. The serene looking synagogue comes with a nearly silenced history.

In 1942 the synagogue was occupied by the Germans and used as storage for confiscated radios and other goods. And in 1944 it was seriously damaged by British shell fragments during the liberation of Middelburg. Everything was smashed, in line with what was going on in Europe. Most Jewish people were gone. A ruin was born. In the years after the Second World War, only the crumbling walls of the synagogue remained, the site soon overgrown. The two yew trees watched on.

After many years of post-war reconstruction, the city of Middelburg was restored to its former glory. Today, walking around the authentic city, the ruins of yesteryear are hard to imagine.

But there was much discussion among the city and province councils about the monumental and symbolic value of the building for the almost wiped-out Jewish community. Thanks to the initiative and perseverance of, among others, Aad Vos, a non-Jewish resident of Middelburg, the restoration did occur and in 1994, fifty years after its destruction, the Jewish people of Zeeland finally had regained their anchor.

We cast our gentile gaze at the airy room with its large windows. Despite the rain, there is a sea of light. Lea Rots shows us around, herself a member of this Orthodox community. She explains the meaning of each object; she talks about Jewish traditions and faith and she points us to the two different candleholders: the seven-armed menorah that will never be burnt again and the eight-armed hanukkiah. She talks about the annual cycle of Torah readings and the Jewish way of life; how a house where the dietary laws and prayers are observed can be an extension of the synagogue; about the different roles of women and men; and how the mother is the determining factor in being Jewish. We learn new words and their meanings, such as minyan (quorum of ten adult men needed for certain prayers and also for a synagogue service), bima (table on which the Torah scrolls are placed during reading), and chazan (cantor).

 

Finally, we look at the doors of the aron hakodesh, the sacred ark of the synagogue, made by artist Appie Drielsma, in which the Torah scrolls are kept. The bronze doors are richly decorated and symbolise facets of Judaism, such as the twelve tribes, and refer to the blazons of Middelburg, Jerusalem, the Jewish community, the Star of David and the historical candleholders. These symbols are also reflected in the fence Drielsma designed for the Sephardic of the two Jewish cemeteries in Middelburg.

The same street door leads us away from the quiet oasis, and before we know it, we are back in the busy tourist centre. A little dazed, still absorbed by the place behind us, a little richer by having been passers-by in this historic building.

If you want to know more about the Jewish history of Zeeland and Middelburg, then start at https://www.synagogemiddelburg.nl or http://www.joodszeeland.nl

A broader horizon; islands close to home: Willemstad.

Willemstad from the rampart

The islands we carefully picked to visit in 2020 are out of reach. They require border and water crossings and long-distance travel. So we have been looking for islands closer to home, reachable by car, bicycle, foot. What more is an island but a piece of land surrounded by water? This question kept popping into our heads when we were aching for an island view, some new surroundings, a sense of space and freedom. Apparently to us the sense of an island goes together with broadening your horizon. 

We live in the Netherlands, so islands reachable to us are located in the Netherlands, a country known for its water. But what about its islands? Some are famous and very beautiful (the Wadden), some lack that inexplicable but irresistible island feel. Islands usually have interesting histories, even if they are not obviously ‘beautiful’ or wild or breathtaking. Is an island ever just ordinary? Time to explore!

Travelling apart together. Our first island destination of 2020: Willemstad, located in the western corner of our home province of Noord-Brabant. We took the car, and because we are not part of each other’s household, we had to keep our distance. Margo was behind the wheel and I sat in the back, being chauffeured to Willemstad, a small, star-shaped town, surrounded by water, steeped in history. 

We walk around the handful of quiet cobbled streets. The three main streets, Voorstraat, Groenstraat and Achterstraat, all come to an end at the small harbour, and the smell of water prevails. Not the salty seawater, but a crusty smell of the peeling metal paint of boats. The smell comes from Stadshaven with its many boats, mostly pleasure yachts. A bit further, in Hollands Diep, cargo ships pass to and from Rotterdam Harbour.

Willemstad is named after William of Orange and was ‘designed’ by his son Maurits, who granted the small town a charter. Many of the buildings reflect the history of this strategic town. An old City Hall (with a clock from the 12th century) in Renaissance style; an Armoury built by the Orange family to store weapons and ammunition; the Domed Church from the early 17th century; the prince’s residence Maurtitshuis; and an 18th century Corn Mill, its sails restored to their former glory. So much jostling history on a tiny surface area. Due to its strategic position Willemstad has been attacked, besieged and occupied countless times, the last time by the Germans in 1944, when the population was evacuated to safer regions in the province.

We walk around the almost intact city walls (we think away the modern cars) and feel transported to times past. We look out across the water on all sides and towards the forts in the southern vicinity. We remember the Sea Beggars (refugees who had left the Netherlands during the revolt against Spain in the Eighty Years’ War and who lived as pirates) and we feel happy to be free (and to be out and about)!

Isle of Mull – The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre

Usually after I finish reading a book, I know exactly how I experienced it. Sentences and scenes can stay with me for days. With The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre I wasn’t sure of my ‘final judgement’. It was such a mixed bag. I thoroughly enjoyed some parts, but struggled with others. And it’s hard to summarise in a few lines what the book is about, which can be a good thing.

Ivor Punch is an old man and former policeman on a small island in the west of Scotland. He doesn’t speak much. But when he does, he throws in the word fuck every few lines, a habit that I found utterly annoying, because it made him come across as an imbecile, and it halted things, I didn’t see the point of it. But what Ivor does do really well, is write loads of letters (which, again, he peppers with countless fucks). The letters are revealing, touching and very true, and are the framework of the story. All those letters are linked to island stories, to the people who live(d) on it, including multiple Punch generations. Fiction and facts are liberally mixed up.

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