The Fire Framer

The keynote presentation at last night’s Conflagration symposium, commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, was focused on modern urban fires and their impact on firefighting, but I must admit that my mind drifted almost as soon as the speaker introduced one of the earliest fire engineers, the Dutch artist, draughtsman, and all-around urban innovator Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712). Very rarely do my scholarly and local historical worlds intersect, but this was just such a moment, and I also love it when art and science come together–as they do in the work of this Dutch Golden Age Renaissance Man (mixing epochs and metaphors). Apparently Van der Heyden witnessed the burning of Amsterdam’s Old Town Hall when he was a teenager, and this conspicuous conflagration inspired him not only to depict fires and fire-fighting (along with more placid streetscapes) but also to invent the first manual fire engine and (with his brother) an effective leather hose. He professionalized Amsterdam’s volunteer fire companies and wrote and illustrated the first modern fire-fighting manual, Brandspuitenboek (The Fire Engine Book, 1690). This publication, with its very detailed yet still artistic prints (see below–how great is the dissection image of a house fire!) ensured his influence beyond the Netherlands–along with his fire engine and his street lighting scheme, which served as the western European model until the mid-19th century.


Van der Heyden 2 houses

Van der Heyden book-001

Van der Heyden 3 1690 Sectional View Met

Van der Heyden Rope and Tar Fire 1690

Jan van der Heyden, Dam Square, Amsterdam (with rebuilt town hall on left), c. 1669-70, Kunstmuseum, Basel; Two Wooden Houses in the Goudsbloemstraat Burned 25 November 1682, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; The title page of Van der Heyden’s Book (with his title of “Generaale Brandmeesters”, or Fire Warden, of Amsterdam, and two illustrations: Sectional View of an Amsterdam House on Fire, and Rope and Tar Fire, 1690, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) was 15 years old when he witnessed the Town Hall blaze, and like other artists he also depicted the scene in sketches and paintings. But the event also inspired him to invent an engine that revolutionised fire-fighting. – See more at:


2 responses to “The Fire Framer

  • Secret Gardener

    Getting to know a little of this stuff is so satisfying. And that is just a funny concomitance to me–all the stiil lifes I know; I just have to bend my mind toward the windmills against clouds, the neat little brick streets, the burghers’ families– so that I can fit the notion of inventing fire-fighting apparatus into the picture -(!).
    I think of Ben Franklin in Philadelphia; and of my father moving from Brooklyn into the Bucks County countryside, & loving being part of the community of farmers, artists, and volunteer firefighters so that he became a township supervisor & tried to implement land-use laws decades before the world cared about it—and the wonderful Mercer Museum and the respect it paid to the beautiful old tools of farming, firefighting, tile-making.

    —Then the whole subject of lighting the civilized settlements in the world, and how we have come to confuse all life on earth –including our own biological machinery–with our omnipresent insistence on staking out our endless territory with what is now shockingly intrusive & relentless illumination, to the destruction of all the helpless creatures who can’t escape our presence. As in so many realms: What once protected us from nightmare is now the nightmare.

    • daseger

      Wow–such an interesting comment! It is interesting to me to chart the stages of civilization through the quest for mastery over nature, and then the realization that either 1) nature can’t be mastered or 2) mastery is scary–and dangerous! But 17th century people were not bothered by these concerns.

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