May 10 1815: Rubens in Antwerp

On May 10 1818, Colonel August Simon Fraser is in Antwerp. He writes:

I Left Brussels yesterday morning at four, travelling with Maxwell in his tilbury. Wood and Percy Drummond came here rather before us. We preferred the road through Boom to that leading through Vilvorde and Malines, in order to see a bridge of boats thrown over the Scheldt at Boom, where the river is about 200 yards wide. There are but ten boats, which are wide and about a dozen yards asunder. The bridge is not complete, and we crossed the Scheldt in a ferry-boat. Between Brussels and Boom our road was by the side of the canal; but, owing to the late rains, rather heavy. To-day we propose to return by Malines, keeping the pave. The country is very rich on both sides the canal. Near Vilvorde we passed one of those houses of correction occasionally seen in this country, where murder alone is punished with death. The building is large and oblong. “We counted 440 little apertures for light on the two sides visible as we passed; there may, accordingly, if the building be single, be 800 cells; if double, twice that number. Speaking of punishments, one sees here multitudes of fellows heavily ironed and at hard labour in the public works. A delicacy towards minor offenders is whimsical enough: instead of “man traps and spring guns are set here,” boards hint that “wolf traps” are here.

We got to Antwerp early yesterday, and after breakfast visited Monsieur van Bree, an artist of much celebrity. Two of his paintings are of uncommon merit, and arrested our attention for a couple of hours; they are very large, perhaps ten yards long, the figures as large as life. The subjects are most interesting; one is the choosing by lot the seven virgins and seven youths sent annually as a tribute from Athens to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur, and the heroic selfdevotion of Theseus, who offers to accompany them. The king (Egeus) has just drawn from an urn the name of Melita, and the beautiful girl on hearing the fatal sentence is sinking in an agony of fear. Melita is the last of the seven virgins whose fate is to be determined, and her misery is well contrasted with the joy, too strong to be concealed, of another no less beautiful girl, who has for that time escaped the fatal lot. The subject of the other picture is perhaps more interesting still, since its truth can be less questioned than that of the fabulous Minotaur. It is of Regulus, who, unmoved by the entreaties of his wife, his children, his relations and friends, voluntarily returns to the certain torments and death prepared for him by the Carthaginians. This picture is exquisite. Regulus is on the point of getting into the boat which is to convey him from Rome; never was
story better told, every feeling is excited But I should never have done were I to continue the description.

From van Bree’s we visited another collection of paintings, among which some by Vandyke, and the death of Abel by Guido, were admirable. The latter I should think the finest painting I have ever seen.

From paintings we went to the cathedral, a fine and spacious building, remarkable for the number of its aisles, having three on either side the nave. There are two paintings by Rubens, one the descent from the cross; the other the assumption of the Virgin. These were hidden when the French were here, who took to Paris all the paintings of celebrity, of which there were many. At the cathedral we went to the top of the spire, which is 450 feet high; the view beautiful: Breda, Bergen op Zoom, &c. &c., visible in the distance, and the Scheldt, the basins, the dockyards, the city and the works presented to our view as in a plan. The river is about 400 yards wide. Not the “lazy Scheldt,” but the “rapid Scheldt’s descending wave” seemed applicable to a river running with great rapidity. From the city to the Tete de Flandres, one of the redoubts on the left bank of the river, one passes by a flying bridge, which is of the kind usual on the Ehine and other rivers in this part of Europe. We should have crossed, but the tide was flowing, and the bridge is only available when the tide is ebbing. We visited the basins, bombarded, but ineffectually, by the British, two years ago. There are two basins; the inner, which is the larger, will contain twentyfive sail of the line. At this moment there are but four, of which one (a 74-gun ship) is preparing to sail. Near the basin is the once flourishing, now deserted India house. In former days this city was rich, and was the seat of commerce; it is now the reverse, and one cannot avoid a feeling of regret at the aspect of departed greatness which is everywhere recalled to one’s recollection. It is full of fine buildings, some streets noble. That in which I write, the Place de Mer, is the principal street, and is 150 feet wide. A canal once ran in the middle. The dockyards present nothing but piles of wood which lately were ships on the stocks, but have been taken to pieces. With the exception of the four ships I have mentioned, all the Dutch menof-war have been removed to Flushing.

We next visited the citadel, which is very strong. At 6, Colonel Maxwell and I dined with Colonel Gold. Mrs. Gold is here and five of their children. Antwerp is more clean than Brussels, but yet not clean; there is a sad want of police in both, so far as attention to cleanliness goes. Beyond the Tete de Flandres on the other side of the river, and at perhaps 1000 yards from it, is an extensive intrenchment protected by a broad ditch j the country still further in front may be inundated. It was Bonaparte’s intention to have built a new city within the intrenchment: each Marshal of France was to have built himself a house there; so were each of the men of property of this arrondissement. Antwerp was to have become the great port, from which were to have issued the rival fleets which were to have ruined England. There are three British and three Hanoverian battalions here in garrison ; two companies of British artillery, and 550 pieces of artillery mounted on the works.

As I was walking just now, a procession carrying the Host passed by; there might be sixty persons carrying tapers in front of the four priests who supported the canopy, under which walked the fifth, who carried the consecrated chalice; every one knelt down and the Green Market was silent (for ,t was in the bustle of the market that I met the orocession), till it had passed.

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