It’s getting hard to imagine life before cheap phone calls and “The Internet”. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s, moving to the other end of the world was a pretty radical thing to do. Letters were the only practical way to keep in touch, particularly in the form of aerograms (single sheet, folding letters).
Aerograms were economical and convenient, taking typically around a week to travel between the Netherlands and Australia.
Mum and Dad kept any family correspondence and there are hundreds of letters in the archive. Of course, these are (with rare exceptions) letters from friends and relatives rather than those they sent themselves, but they represent an interesting snapshot of family history from the late sixties.
While all the correspondence is in Dutch, Google Translate does a passable job with the letters. Here is Dutch Transcription of the letter above and here is a English Translation. So… here is my next task, scanning and transcribing hundreds of letters… I have set myself a target of 25 letters a month to scan and transcribe, so this will be a ‘work in progress’ for a few years…
Here are 25 letters which I scanned in April. You will need a password… please email me (email@example.com) and I’ll send it to you.
While Jo was employed by the Hydrographic Office of the Netherlands Navy as a draftsman from 1947-1967, his education and ambition was as an artist. He used those skills after hours as a freelancer and illustrated various books. In the mid fifties, he illustrated an album for Hooimeijer, a Dutch rusk (beschuit) maker. The Youtube video below gives an overview (in Dutch) of the company, including archival footage and showing off the albums of collectors’ pictures which were included in the product.
Customers would purchase the album with a place for all the pictures. The illustrations (all with a marine theme) were done by Frans Naerebout and the last album together with Jo . I don’t remember the reason why Jo was asked to take over illustrating the album. No doubt Jo’s brother-in-law (Wim), who worked for Hooimeijer had something to do with that… I think that there was a contractual dispute with Frans.
A subsequent album was cancelled before completion in the mid-late fifties. The album cover for that unpublished volume, featuring a Hydrofoil, was subsequently used in an exhibition by Leclanche , at which time the title was painted over ( you can see the remains of the title still….)
When returned, it found a place on the wall in my (Marius’) room in The Hague and subsequently followed us to Australia. The picture frame had been built to last the duration of an exhibition, but lasted 60 years until I dropped it recently. So I got it re-framed last week and it adorns my wall again.
At age 74, it is rare to get a really surprising birthday present! However, my brother Simon managed that the other day when he brought over a beautiful copy of the famous Rietveld chair (and table) which he had built especially for my birthday.
What a precious gift! It triggered off a series of emotions and memories from the past 60 years. Here are a few of my encounters with a Rietveld chair.
1960’s Den Haag I (Marius) was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, but spent my formative years (7-19) in The Hague. Dad (Jo) worked for the Hydrographic Office of the Dutch Navy, where he was a draftsman (1947-1966), working on Marine Charts. However, his training and ambition was as an artist/illustrator, rather than as a draftsman.
I was, at least in part, wondering about my own lack of artistic ability. My own educational path was painful and patchy, but while at High School (MULO) in The Hague, the city offered passes to local museums. Consequently, I spent many hours wandering around a couple of terrific museums, the Mauritshuis and the Gemeentemuseum (recently renamed Kunstmuseum).
The Gemeentemuseum is a wonderful 1930’s building designed by Berlage and has the world’s best collection of paintings by Mondrian and … there I first saw a chair by Gerrit Rietveld. All three were part of an art movement called “De Stijl” in the early part of the 20th century.
It dawned on me that you didn’t have to be an artist to appreciate art and that art extended beyond realistic representations on canvas.
Later in the sixties, Dad decided that moving to Australia might be a solution to his ambitions, while I found a “home” away from the arts, in technology.
1976 Dit & Sjaak
In 1976, my Australian employer, a medical electronics company, sent me to Europe for training. On free weekends, I took the opportunity to visit relatives, among the favourites, Sjaak and Dit Velthoven in Zuidhorn. A visit to them was always stimulating, whether it was Sjaak spinning wool or Dit designing dresses. And of course, I admired the Rietveld chair in their living room, a copy built by their eldest son, Willem. Proving it was not just an abstract art object, but one available and accessible as an everyday item. Also at that time, I met Thomas, their youngest (12 year old) son who we went shopping for “raw milk” from a local farmer with).
2017 Thomas In 2017, Joy and I went to Europe on a 2 month holiday to celebrate my 70th birthday, which included a visit to the Nordic countries and a cruise down the Norwegian Coast.
Well ahead of our trip, I had contacted Thomas Velthoven, who had moved to Norway with his family. It promised to be a unique opportunity to once again catch up again with a member of the Velthoven family.
Unfortunately, a short time before our trip, we learnt that Thomas had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. Nevertheless, his wife, Annemiek encouraged us to still visit them when we were in Oslo. By that time, Thomas’ illness had taken hold of him, but we valued the opportunity to meet up and get to know his family.
Much to my surprise, the “Velthoven” Rietveld chair was in their lounge room, some 40 years since I last saw it at Sjaak and Dit’s place.
2021 Birthday present When Simon told me he had a present in the back of his car. I was stunned to find a Rietveld chair… One carefully scaled to suit my large derriere, but a real Rietveld chair. And a side table to boot!
I had previously admired the Rietveld chair which Simon had made for himself. He had been similarly impressed by the work of Gerrit Rietveld and built one for himself after admiring the collection at the Centraalmuseum in Utrecht during a visit which he and Anne made to the Netherlands for his own 70th birthday in 2019.
Here are some images of that trip (click or tap to enlarge ):
I’m still working my way through all of Dad’s “stuff” , posting items of interest to the Picstory.net site.
One of the items was a sketchbook with photos, taking during his time at the Academy of Arts in Rotterdam. A bunch of students having a bit of fun (Dad is the one with the violin).
It looks like these photos were taken of the “activities” described in this letter (translation), suspending him from the Academy for two days. So what were they celebrating? The invasion in Normandy a few days earlier?
In any case, Dad did not finish that year at the Academy, he was picked up by the Germans, together with his future brother-in-law, Jord. They were sent to Germany by river boat but escaped on the way. He spent the rest of the war in hiding at Peer de Hoed‘s place. You can read a letter from his sister, Henny written during that time (detail on pictory.net).
While rummaging through Dad’s papers for items to archive to picstory.net (yes, there is still much more to discover), I found some pages of “Het Kompas”, a newspaper from August 1945, originally 32 pages long. Unfortunately only the wrap-around pages survive.
It was the peacetime version of a second World War underground news sheet. It’s clear why Dad kept this copy, the front page is all about the famous forger of Vermeer’s paintings, Han van Meegeren, who had recently been arrested. Ref. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_van_Meegeren
Why was this of interest to Dad (Jo Coomans)? As the story goes, he found occasional work during the war by copying valuable paintings, so owners could store the original away. The painting below is one of these copies, supposedly returned to him after the war.
Also, immediately after the war, he worked for a short time with an entrepreneur who sold souvenir paintings to the liberating troops, the usual windmill/canal views. So the controversy about van Meegeren and his Vermeer-like paintings would have been of interest to a budding painter like Jo.
Anyway… the remaining pages of the newspaper are just as interesting, read on…
It’s about time that I posted an update on progress with the picstory website.
While it was a lot of work, there was a lot of satisfaction in archiving Willem Kooij’s sites to picstory.net. The website re-coding should result in Willem’s writing and photos being preserved well into the future.
Because it took some months to archive Willem’s work, I’ve gotten a bit behind with the main picstory archive. The main additions this year have been family photos and funeral notices. All in all, the archive now contains over 650 items, with many thousands waiting to be added…
I just acquired a new Epson V550 scanner, with attachments for slides and negatives and look forward to capturing some of the old negatives from the vault!
The picstory.net website was meant as a repository of family documents, photos, documents, etc… But I decided to slightly expand its purpose.
My cousin, Willem Kooij started blogging in 2005. He wrote daily stories right through a turbulent time, including the death of his wife Yvonne and up to his own passing in 2013.
After his death, a couple of friends looked after his affairs, including his websites. Recently, I approached them about some glitches with the site and ended up offering to archive Willem’s ( and Yvonne’s) sites on a permanent basis.
As might be expected, it was more involved than just copying files. I converted the WordPress files to static files and, while it was a slow process, it should be stable long term that way.
I built an overview page to access all of Willem and Yvonne’s sites here.
So, there we are… another year gone! While I would have liked getting more of the family site built, it now has just over 400 items, at least enough to see where it’s heading…
I really enjoyed scanning in some terrific Christmas / New Year cards from Han Hoogenkamp recently, he was one of Dad’s colleagues back in Holland at the Navy (see earlier item). They’re all hand-made (more on Han’s page) and a wonderful memory of the man, who I remember very well. He taught Dad to play the organ, was a valuable colleague at the Hydrographic Office and kept in touch for many years after we left for Australia.
After some distractions in the first half of the year and a terrific holiday in Europe, I’m back working on the picstory.net website. As I’ve given myself 10 years to build it, what’s six months off occasionally?
There are now pages for around two hundred family members (most of them pretty basic) and over 250 photos and other items of interest.
Some of the recent enhancements:
A new category – “Other Items” for things I couldn’t fit in elsewhere, like newspaper clippings and memorial booklets.
An illustration for the front page – yes, it’s Dad/Jo Coomans, the inspiration for this site ( “what to do what all that stuff he left behind?”). He’ll also show up as the icon for the site.
My first translated letters. I can’t see how I can translate more than a few representative ones, but I’ll try.
I’d love some feedback/critique of the site. Here are a few things which I don’t like and will look towards changing:
While the miniature photos on a personal page are Ok, even if a bit small, documents end up looking all the same. I think I will end up adding titles below the document miniatures.
For some people, the sheer number of items will end up ovewhelming (ie when I upload hundreds of Dad’s artworks). Not sure how to solve it yet, I might have to group the items.
Similarly, for some events there are lots of photos, threatening to ‘flood’ pages, for example I uploaded our wedding album. What I ended up doing is only link selective photos to Joy’s and my personal pages. You would need to go to the year (1971) to see the other photos.
Lots more things to consider, but that’s enough for now. I look forward to feedback / suggestions / critiques. Fire away in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org