Bodel Nijenhuis: a collector of famous people Biographical information written by Bodel Nijenhuis at the bottom of a letter by mathematician Cornelis Amelse.

Bodel Nijenhuis: a collector of famous people

Collector Bodel Nijenhuis is best known for his collection of maps and atlases, but he also collected portraits and autographs. Through his collections he created a documentation system on famous people, with portraits, specimens of their handwriting and biographical information.

Collector Johannes Tiberius Bodel Nijenhuis (1797-1872) is best known for his large collection of atlases (300), maps (50,000), and topographical prints and drawings (22,000), which is now kept at Leiden University Libraries as the Collection Bodel Nijenhuis. Also part of this Collection are some 15,500 portraits of Leiden professors and directors, Dutch nobility, clergymen, artists, scientists and other renowned persons. Lesser known is his autograph collection, consisting of individual signatures as well as complete letters and documents, which were scattered over several collections and remained underexposed, until now. Now that this forgotten collection is catalogued, its history is ready to be uncovered.

Portret Bodel Nijenhuis door Cornet Portret Bodel Nijenhuis door Cornet
Portrait of Bodel Nijenhuis by Jacobus Ludovicus Cornet, 19th c.

Bodel Nijenhuis bequeathed his atlases, maps and topographical prints and drawings, together with his portraits collection of Leiden professors and directors to the Leiden University Library by will. His portraits of members of the Society of Dutch Literature (MNL) were bequeathed to the said Society, of which the collection ended up in the University Library as well in 1876, as part of a permanent loan. The remainder of Bodel Nijenhuis' collection was sold off in 8 successive auctions in 1873-1874. The last auction, in November 1874, offered a collection of portraits of famous Dutchmen. Shortly before the auction, however, it was withdrawn from the sale and purchased in its entirety by the Dutch state, after which it was donated to the Leiden Print Room, since 2002 part of the University Library.

One of the wrappers originally housing the now catalogued letters has a note from 1877 by Willem Nicolaas Du Rieu (1829-1896), curator of manuscripts at Leiden University Libraries from 1866 to 1879 and director of the library from 1879 until his death in 1896. The note indicates the autograph collection was originally part of the portrait collection which was bought by the Dutch State for the Leiden Print Room. According to Du Rieu, the collection contained ‘signatures and facsimiles thereof, and many letters without historical importance, but which could be of some value because of the signatures on them.’ In 1877 the signatures, letters and documents were separated from the portrait collection in the Leiden Print Room and transferred to the University Library. Some signatures, however, remained at the Print Room for they were pasted on portraits.

Oude omslag ca 1877 1 Oude omslag ca 1877 1
Original wrapper containing the collection of letters and autographs, ca. 1877.

In 1887 the then curator of manuscripts Scato Gocko de Vries (1861-1937) placed the letters that he found most interesting under shelfmark ‘XVIII 885’, now BPL 885. This was a general shelfmark meant for individual letters acquired in the years between 1868 and 1906. This means that not all letters now kept under BPL 885 are from the collection of Bodel Nijenhuis but also come from other sources. According to another note on the original wrapper, a certain ‘Van Lelyveld’ further arranged the material in the 1970s, separating the letters addressed to Bodel Nijenhuis himself and historical documents from the rest. In 2016, the signatures and letters left out by Van Lelyveld were catalogued under shelfmark BPL 3713, the letters to Bodel Nijenhuis under BPL 3714, and the historical documents under BPL 3715. Together with a portion of the letters in BPL 885, these now represent the autograph collection of Bodel Nijenhuis.

Brief met biografica door Bodel Nijenhuis Brief met biografica door Bodel Nijenhuis
Biographical information written by Bodel Nijenhuis at the bottom of a letter by mathematician Cornelis Amelse.

The signatures, letters and documents are presented here as an independent collection, but they probably weren’t for Bodel Nijenhuis as he himself did not keep them separate but as part of his portrait collection. He kept the autographs as specimens of the handwriting of famous Dutchmen, of whom he, in most cases, also had a portrait. Sometimes he added biographical information to the letters or on the wrappers in which they were kept. He also added letters that were directed to him personally, not because of their content but because of the handwriting of the sender. This way Bodel Nijenhuis built a documentation system on famous people, with their portraits, specimens of handwriting and biographical information.

The large amount of signatures, letters and documents brought together by Bodel Nijenhuis is difficult to recognize as a collection, not only because Bodel Nijenhuis saw them as part of a larger whole, but also because they were separated from the portraits, were processed in parts over time, and are kept under multiple shelf marks. Although De Vries in 1887 considered large parts of the collection not interesting enough to be catalogued, in 2016 the decision was made to catalogue all of the signatures, letters and documents and consider them a collection nonetheless. Nowadays they are deemed valuable for research and education. Bodel Nijenhuis himself has become a research subject, which makes the letters addressed to him relevant for all the details mentioned in them. But the greatest value seems to lie in the collection as a whole and what it tells us about Bodel Nijenhuis as a collector, not only of maps and atlases, but of famous people.