Saturday, October 21, 2006

Around The Hague, 2006. Part 1

Margreet, being summoned to a conference in The Hague gave me a chance to tag along and to amuse myself while she listened to power point presentations.

So, with our car, we slid through the Channel Tunnel and drove over the flat and barely-interesting countryside of France, to bear left after Belgium to reach The Hague, in Holland.

It was arranged through her work that we would stay in a five star hotel. I expected a lot - probably never having slept in such a grand establishment before. But the furnishings of our room were dun-coloured, there was no chair and mirror for ladies to do their make-up, it was impossible to spit into the basin when cleaning our teeth because a shelf intervened, and the brown-tinted window glass allowed only brown-tinted light to reach the room. It was not a particularly pleasant place.

Before leaving London I packed my usual writing notebooks and, this time, a packet of plain postcards and a handful of crayons. Now, with Margreet at work, I was free to roam.

The Hague is a duller place by far than Amsterdam. But it does have the huge advantage of being near to Scheveningen by the seaside, and Delft inland. Both are easily accessible by the number 1 tram, and paid for by folding and inserting into the tram's red box one ticket from a 'strippenkaart' per zone. The red box stamps the date and time, allowing the passenger to travel through the chosen zone(s) for the following hour.

But, first of all, when in The Hague, I walk through the smart shopping streets to find my favourite venue - the Panorama Mesdag.

In 1881 Hendrik Willem Mesdag, with his wife and helpers, was commissioned to paint a 360 degree panorama from a sanddune by the sea in Scheveningen.

Although the panorama was painted where it now stands in The Hague, Mesdag stood beneath a sort of bandstand on his sanddune, poked his head into a cylinder of, I suppose mica, and on the inside traced the landscape that he saw all around. This gave him the correct dimensions.

It was a major undertaking, the panorama canvas being 14 meters high and a 120 meters around.

To view it, you enter through a rather dreary and ordinary museum building, pass through grey galleries, enter a dark passage, and climb some wooden steps into the middle of a bandstand perched on a fake "dune" of real sand.

And there, all around you, with the "dune" marrying imperceptively with the painted scene, is exactly what you would have seen there in 1881. You are there, really there.

Outside light reaches the scene through unseen glass above the bandstand. So, as scudding clouds pass overhead, the changing light from the sky passes over the painted scene.

Below are fishing smacks lying on the sand, floating in the foreshore water, or out at sea. Along the coast on sanddunes to the south is a church, lighthouse and domed building. Inland, beyond more sand, is The Hague in the distance. A canal abruptly ends beneath the dunes. The small town, with a pavilion of delight belonging to a Prince of Orange, leads the eye back to the shore again, where ladies dip their toes into the water from bathing machines, and a troop of cavalry, with gun carriages, ride over the sands for exercise.

This panorama in The Hague gave its citizens a chance to be beside the seaside in days of poverty and poor transport.

It was one of some 300 panoramas around the world, most to be abandoned with the advent of photography. This one is not only one of the very few remaining (the others often having a religious or military scene), but remains in the very spot where it was painted.

To give you an example how "real" the scene is, I saw a viewer take out his binoculars to look at something in the distance, when "the distance" was only fourteen paces away from him on canvas.

Out came my packet of blank postcards so that I could record people as they stood to be taken in by this magical illusion.

In later blogs I'll tell you about Scheveningen (the real one this time), a sordid sexshop, Delft, a redlight district, and Dutch food.