Oud Holland

Nov 2021: In memoriam Willemijn Fock (1942-2021)

In memoriam Willemijn Fock (1942-2021)

10 November 2021

Last summer, on 3 June 2021, Prof. Dr. Willemijn Fock died at the age of 78. She was a member of the editorial board of Oud Holland for more than 35 years, from 1981 to 2017.

Cornelia Willemina Fock was born in Surabaya on 25 June 1942. She spent her school years in The Hague, and she studied art history at Leiden University. The appointment of T. H. Lunsingh Scheurleer, as professor with a special focus on the applied arts in January 1964, was a decisive moment in furthering Fock’s career in art history. She became a specialist in this field under his guidance, developing two areas of research that held her interest throughout her life: tapestry and precious metals. Her first findings on both subjects found their way to Oud Holland. The first issue of 1969 included an article based on her doctorate thesis, 'Nieuws over de tapijten, bekend als de Nassause Genealogie', for which she received the Mr. J.W. Frederiks Prize. A year later, Oud Holland published her article 'The Medici crown: Work of the Delft goldsmith Jaques Bylivelt' based on the first part of her PhD dissertation, which she would defend at Leiden University in 1975. Goldsmith Bylivelt was active in Florence, and for her study she conducted extensive archival research in the city. Her dissertation was awarded another prestigious award: the Carel van Mander Prize (1975).

In the meantime, Fock collaborated with Lunsingh Scheurleer at the Art Historical Institute in Leiden. There she made an important contribution to the publication of the inventories of the House of Orange, published between 1974-1976, and to the preparatory research for the Rapenburg project, which appeared between 1986-1992. The latter marked the formation of a third field of interest for Fock: the history of living and collecting in Leiden. It is telling that her first article on this subject, 'Willem van Mieris als ontwerper en boetseerder van tuinvazen' (1973), also appeared in Oud Holland. Her interest in Oud Holland should come as no surprise, since her promotor Lunsingh Scheurleer had been editor of the periodical from 1960 onwards. By the early-1970s he had become a driving force behind efforts to maintain the journal – which had by then already been in existence for almost ninety years – to save it from imminent discontinuation.

Anju van Wersch, Portrait of Cornelia Willemina Fock, 2018, Leiden, University Leiden; W. Fock (ed.), Het Nederlandse interieur in beeld: 1600-1900, Zwolle 2001; W. Fock, 'The Medici crown: Work of the Delft Goldsmith Jaques Bylivelt', Oud Holland (85) 1970, pp. 197-209.

Lunsingh Scheurleer retired in 1981 and a year later Willemijn Fock succeeded him as professor in Leiden. For Oud Holland the procedure of succession went a bit faster, and she took over Scheurleer’s position on the editorial board as early as the beginning of 1981, with a special focus, of course, on the applied arts. Her fellow editors at that time were Prof. Dr. J. Bruyn, Dr. P. J. J. van Thiel and Drs. J. Nieuwstraten. The workflow then, and in the following decades, was such that all incoming submissions were circulated among the editors, who wrote their comments and notes in the margins of the texts and on a separate assessment form. In principle, editorial meetings took place quarterly to discuss whether texts were suitable for publication, if they needed to be amended, required drastic revisions, or would be rejected. All of the editors judged each contribution and there was no delegation of tasks to specific editors. But it goes without saying that Willemijn Fock’s opinion on articles in the field of applied arts was taken very seriously by her fellow editors. The general division of tasks also meant that she was expected to carefully read and comment on all contributions outside her own field. She did this with great dedication, though on occasion there were articles, for example, of a highly theoretical nature or that involved specialised discourses on Christian iconography, upon which she honestly remarked that she did not consider herself competent enough to pass judgment. For these she gladly left the assessment to her fellow editors. Still, even in those cases, she looked carefully at the readability of the article in question and whether the results were presented to the reader in a comprehensive manner.

Her own art historical activities, before and after her appointment as professor, resulted in numerous prestigious projects on which she often collaborated with students and other specialists. One such example, the catalogue of Leids zilver, was published to accompany the eponymous exhibition in Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal in 1977. The year 1986 brought the start of the renowned book series of Het Rapenburg: Geschiedenis van een Leidse gracht, of which the sixth and final volume was published in 1992 (the series comprised ten parts in total, since volumes 3-6 appeared each in two parts). This groundbreaking publication about the history of the Leiden Rapenburg canal was written by Fock, together with T.H. Lunsingh Scheurleer and A.J. van Dissel. Lunsingh Scheurleer initiated the whole project and wrote the voluminous introduction to the first volume. Bert van Dissel, who died shortly before the last volume was published, was responsible for a substantial part of the content. However, Fock was the driving force behind the project. Her tasks were not limited to research, writing, editing, and the handling of communication with external collaborators, but also to the actual production of the books. Characteristic of her, she even compiled the index of names for the whole series entirely on her own. She rightfully received the silver medal of honor from the city of Leiden in 1990. In 2003, she was appointed a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and upon the granting of her emeritus status she also became Officer in the Order of Oranje-Nassau in 2007.

Six years before her retirement, Fock made yet another monumental contribution to the field with the book, Het Nederlandse interieur in beeld: 1600-1900 published in 2001. Justifiably referred to as the bible of Dutch interior art, she wrote and edited it together with three of her former PhD students. It was the culmination of her tireless efforts on behalf of the section Applied Arts of the Dutch Research School Art History (OSK), founded in 1995.

Willemijn Fock had many plans for her retirement, including research into the corpus of all tapestries in Dutch public collections. Unsurprisingly, she was disappointed when Leiden University discontinued its educational offerings in the history of applied arts and did not appoint a successor after more than forty years of successful efforts by Fock and her predecessor. From then on, she continued her research until an illness forced her into inactivity for a long time. The treatment proved such an assault to her system that she was no longer capable of exerting much effort. She was no longer able to devote much attention to Oud Holland, although she officially remained editor until the reorganization of 2017. Nonetheless, she followed its developments with great interest.

Weakened but clear of mind, Fock appeared in public twice in recent years. As part of the efforts of Leiden University to give more recognition to the merits of female professors, her portrait by Anju van Wersch was presented in the Senate Chamber in 2019. It is a fine painting, which in the eyes of anyone who had known her longer, depicts her as a shadow of her former strength. Later that year, the Dutch Association of Art Historians (VNK) named her an honorary member, a much-warranted acknowledgment of her role in the art historical world. After that time, her health gradually continued to deteriorate until finally, on 3 June 2021, she passed away.

Oud Holland owes her a great debt of gratitude for her important and long-standing commitment to the journal.

Rudi Ekkart
Editor of Oud Holland from 1990-2017