In this feature in our monthly newletter we present an inspirational person who has crossed our paths and has a professional link with Flanders . This month:
An Van Camp, ‘Christopher Brown Curator of Northern European Art’ at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford
An Van Camp, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. Since 2015, you are the ‘Christopher Brown Curator of Northern European Art’ at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Can you tell us how you ended up in Oxford and what you work entails?
When I was a child, my family did a lot of cultural holidays, for example to Crete. I was completely fascinated by ancient languages, dead languages and languages that had not been deciphered yet and from an early age it was my dream to become a curator at a museum.
After my studies at Leuven University (Ancient History, Art & Archaeology), I moved to the UK to also one of the best connected for work placements with all the national museums nearby. I was very fortunate I could do an internship at the British Museum, in their Egyptology Department. When I finished my studies, there were 2 jobs at the British Museum: a 6-month stint at the Egyptology Department where I would be scanning documents from the archive, and one for 2 years, cataloguing Flemish and Dutch prints. I chose job certainty.
By the end of my 2 years, I was completely fascinated by the Flemish and Dutch prints and when the position of Curator of Dutch and Flemish Drawings and Prints opened up, I applied for the job. My dream came true: I was a curator in my favourite museum, looking after one of the world’s best collections of Flemish art on paper.
After having worked for 5 years as a curator at the British Museum it was time for a change of scene. My husband (also a curator) and I were very fortunate again: there were 2 positions available at two different museums in Oxford, we applied, and we got the jobs! So, since 2015 I am the ‘Curator of Northern European Art’ in the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford, where I am responsible for the world-famous collection of art (paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures,etc) from Flanders, the Netherlands and Germany.
I really have the best job in the world! There is a fantastic variety. I spend most of my time organising exhibitions, which involves research, planning, programming, … Sometimes I even have to travel the world to negotiate with top museums about loans. I also write publications, I give lectures, go to conferences, and do tours for a very diverse demographic: school groups, the public, university students, sponsors, to name but a few.
Part of my job here at the museum is the digitisation of our collections, which we do with the help of interns, volunteers, and PhD students. I really like that part of the job, because I can train young people and help them along their career path. It is very time consuming, but extremely rewarding in return.
A curator also travels a lot: when we lend a work of art to another museum, we must escort it until its installation in the new location. This is another part of my job I really enjoy: to see the artwork on loan, in a different environment and with a different audience, which really contributes to our own understanding of the work as we can see in a different light.
Is there a lot of interest in the Flemish Masters in the UK? Can you give a top 3 of your favourite works we can visit in the UK and Flanders?
The English have always been very interested in Flemish culture, already since the 15th-16th century. Not only in high art, but also crafts; think for example of all the weavers that moved to Norfolk and Kent in the 12th century: they were attracted because of their outstanding skills.
In the 16th-17th century, English art was not as well developed as that on the continent, which is why so much foreign talent came over, such as Pieter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. They were mainly commissioned to paint portraits, usually in the service of the nobility and royalty, but they also painted mythological and historical scenes. There are traces of Flemish art to be found all over the UK, not only paintings, but also silver work, stained glass, …
By the 18th & 19th centuries, British art developed, like for example Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, who both were heavily influenced by Van Dyck. Even so, the interest in Flemish art remained. That is one of the reasons why there is so little Flemish art in Belgium: most of it is owned by foreign museums and collectors (not just in the UK!).
My top 3:
1. The Van Dyck self-portrait, at the National Gallery
2. The Rubens Landscapes: View of Het Steen at the National Gallery and The Rainbow Landscape, at the Wallace Collection
3. The world famous Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, at the National Gallery (link toevoegen)
In Oxford, I would recommend the extraorodinary painting ‘The Apotheosis of Germanicus’ by Rubens. It is a painting of an ancient Roman cameo depicting the glorification of the Roman emperor Germanicus. Rubens did a lot of research into the story behind the cameo, which he drew and painted.
At the Ashmolean Museum, we also have a beautiful still-life painting by the woman artist Clara Peeters from Antwerp, made in 1612-1613.
What makes the Flemish Masters so unique and how did they differentiate themselves from their contemporaries in other parts of Europe?
The Flemish artists from that time had lots of international appeal. They travelled a lot and were commissioned by foreign courts-not only in the UK, but also in Spain, France and Italy. They were often diplomats as well, for example Rubens, who travelled across Europe on diplomatic missions. These artists clearly had political influence too, in all of Europe.
At the same time, their art was immensely popular: every monarch or aristocrat wanted Flemish artists to paint their portraits or to decorate their palaces. This way, the Flemish Masters were able to make their mark across Europe.
Another reason they were so special is their style of painting. A lot of our artists went to Italy for training in order to perfect their own style. They became unique because they combined their own Northern style with Southern influences.
What are the biggest differences between the collections and museums in the UK and Flanders, according to you?
It is a great shame that relatively little Flemish art from the period of the Flemish Masters remains in Belgium. The art that is still there is mainly made for cathedrals and churches. We don’t have any royal or ducal collections left, like other countries. A lot of our Flemish art can therefore be found in Vienna and Madrid.
Museums in the UK are run very differently from the museums in Belgium – they have a lot more independence. The Ashmolean Museum, for example, is partly paid for by the university, but also by the government, our own income and private sponsors. I think that makes us more self-sufficient. Sponsors don’t interfere with the running of the museum: they get their name on a building, or they are thanked in different ways.
What is the cooperation between curators in Flanders and the UK like? What research and conservation of the Old Masters is happening in Oxford?
I have a very close relationship with my colleagues in Belgium. The fact that I am Belgian myself, creates a bond and it helps having grown up in the culture of the art you are curating. When I visit Belgium, I always make a point of visiting museums, catching up with colleagues and their projects.
CODART (an international network of curators of Flemish and Dutch art) is especially important. We meet once a year with all the Flemish and Dutch curators and it is so enriching! I have no knowledge of a similar scheme for German or Italian art, for example.
Where the research into the Old Masters in Oxford is concerned, we are very proud and happy we were able to secure an important acquisition for the Ashmolean Museum, thanks to the Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme of the British government. This is an incredibly valuable system, where inheritance tax can (partly)be paid for by art. Our most recent acquisition is an early portrait by Anthony van Dyck from around 1619, of a woman from Antwerp. It is rare, because it is a full-length portrait of a non-royal, non-aristocratic person and it is also part of a wedding portrait: the wife is now with us in Oxford, while the husband has been resident in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp for many years.
Other projects involve the cataloguing and digitisation of hundreds of thousands of prints, many of which are from Flanders and the Netherlands. The Francis Douce Collection, for example, is a collection of hundreds of boxes, in which everything is ordered by theme. This collection offers us an invaluable blueprint of prints through the ages, from the 15th century until Douce’s death in 1834.
Volunteers are currently scanning and cataloguing a collection of portrait prints, a gift from Frederick William Hope, at the museum as well as online. Once we have digitised the prints, we will be able to extract all sorts of interesting information, using specialised software.
I am also working on a revised catalogue of our Flemish and Dutch drawings, which that haven’t been published since 1938.
In the future, I would still like to organise an exhibition about Belgian symbolism between 1880 and 1910. I hope we’ll get there in about 5 years’ time.
Are there any future exhibitions in the UK you would recommend? Are there online possibilities to experience art?
I would really recommend a visit to Rubens’s Landscapes, because they are less known in Flanders. One can be admired in the National Gallery, the other in the Wallace Collection.
In December an exhibition about the North Sea Crossings will open in Oxford in the Weston Library (part of the Bodleian Libraries), a project focusing on the literary heritage that originated out of the medieval and early modern exchanges between England and the Low Countries.
Online, I can warmly recommend the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, where you can for example watch Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in high definition: you can zoom into every brush stroke, you can see additions to the painting, you can see what the original would have looked like, etc. A very interesting way to watch a painting.
These days, a lot of museums offer videos and virtual tours of their collections and exhibitions, so you can enjoy the art without having to leave your home. A nice example is our own Young Rembrandt exhibition, which I organised in 2020.
September is an important month for art with many art fairs taking place (Frieze Art Fair, Frieze Masters,). London boasts important auction houses, like Christie’s and Sotheby’s and has a prominent place on the international art market. Do you think Brexit has had an influence on the art market and you think it will endanger its position?
It may be too early to judge that yet. The combination of Covid and lockdown has caused a lot of chaos. From a personal point of view, I think it will be harder to buy internationally, because British buyers will have to pay import taxes on their acquisitions from the EU. That percentage can be very high. On the other hand, the British auction houses and dealers will attract fewer European buyers because the buyers from Europe will have to pay taxes too. All this may well slow down or shrink the market.
Maybe museums in the UK will now have a better chance to buy within the UK, because there may be less competition from abroad, but it is probably too early to judge that.
What are your favourite cities in Flanders and what would be your recommendations to friends visiting Flanders and Brussels and vice versa?
I am from Antwerp, and I love my city! It has so much to offer: culture, architecture, fashion, jewellery, the Zoo, the River Schelde, restaurants, little bars, … A city on the waterside is so much more atmospheric: the docks and quays of Antwerp have been regenerated and now boast a most
interesting collection of museums, like Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), the Red Star Line Museum, the Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum, …
My most favourite museum in the world is the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Christoffel Plantijn settled on the site in the 16th century and today you can still see the original printing presses, the courtyard, all like it looked hundreds of years ago. It is also a very didactic museum: you can learn everything about making prints, printing books, bookbinding, making books and selling books.
In the UK I can warmly recommend Oxford. You can visit the whole city in one or two days. There is a variety of museums about art and culture, the Natural History Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum (whose director is from Antwerp too!). The Pitt Rivers Museum is unique in the world, with an incredible ethnographic collection presented in a very old-fashioned way - I highly recommend it. Oxford also offers beautiful walks through the old university buildings and punting on the two rivers that flow through the city.
Finally, a little bit of nostalgia: What do you miss most about Flanders?
My family! And the ‘al fresco’ culture, where you sit outside for a drink after work with your friends.
And not to forget mussels with fries, “mussel sauce” and mayonnaise of course!