In the industrial area on the outskirts of The Hague is a massive hi-tech storage warehouse. A James Bond-like set-up with electric fences, laser beams and doors you are buzzed through, it is a state of the art storage facility for museums and galleries in The Netherlands. In it lie Alexine TInne’s sketchbooks and a few photographs taken by her. (Must be a few Rembrandts in there as well I think!)
The curator of the Hague Historic Museum, Lex, was there to meet me and we spent a couple of hours unfolding grey storage files and looking at the drawings and sketches Alexine made in the East. Surprisingly sturdy, the pages are thick and soft, with evocative rubbed edges, like what happens when a notebook has been shoved in and out of bags too often.
Some of the drawings are “finished” and make complete pictures in their own right. Others are quick outlines, the beginnings of drawings she’s never come back to. Some are “studies” of an object or a person, without a setting for context. Sometimes she repeats the same image as if shé’s practising it, getting it better each time. And unfortunately all of them, with the exception of one or two, are unlabelled and undated. So we don’t know exactly when or where they were drawn, just that were of her travels in the late 1850s to 1860s in the Orient: Egypt, The Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Libya. (A good lesson for those of us who are making and drawing things – always date them…)
So what do Alexine’s drawings and sketchbooks tell us about her? about what she thought of the East and the places she saw and the people she met?
Obviously they tell us that she, like all upper class women of her time was taught to draw and paint: that she understood how to render perspective and to create tone. They tell us she had a feel for “views” as do most serious travellers then and now. They tell us she was interested in depicting the details of facial features and dress and that she was interested in the daily life: camels resting with their cameleers, the textiles on the bed in her rooms, the baskets women held, the dresses they wore.
The jumble of them in her books and the random use of front and/or backs, with pages skipped and some images upside down is in keeping with her hand-writing. Impulsive? unconventional? not concerned with order? It is tempting to make up the story, but academic study unfortunately won’t let me do that. And we have to consider, are these the only images? Were there others that have been lost? There is not a lot to work with, but by piecing together her sketches, reading her letters, and seeing what others wrote about her, a picture is emerging; that of an fascinating figure: headstrong, intelligent, possibly indulged, practical and with supreme self-confidence. And given the era she came from, quite extraordinary.
The photographs she made are another thing, and add a whole lot more to the story…