Etching of a Gunpowder Explosion on a Ship in Leiden
This evocative print by Reinier Vinkeles (1741–1816) preserves a significant moment in Dutch history, recalling the aftermath of a catastrophic explosion that claimed 151 lives and left a large portion of the port city of Leiden in ruins. The year 1806 was one of tension in French-occupied Holland as the French Empire was preparing for war with Great Britain. Fearing invasion, Holland produced and stockpiled 250 000 tonnes of gunpowder to be transported by three ships. Diversions caused one of these ships to dock in Leiden on January 12, 1807, when the gunpowder was accidentally ignited and an explosion ripped through the city. Not only were many lives lost, but the collapse of countless buildings impacted the appearance, infrastructure, and intellectual life of the city. Here, a brick and timber shell frames the wreckage while heavy clouds above mirror the tumult of figures scurrying to clear the rubble. A single tower rising in the distance draws the eye to the action of the middle ground – perhaps also signifying hope. This is one of several images representing the event that became a media sensation for publishers, artists, and poets. Such images followed a tradition of depicting disasters in print in the Netherlands to preserve/shape memory, and provoke emotion and charity. Vinkeles himself followed this tradition as this image was engraved after a painting by artist Hermanus Numan (1744 –1820). Combining technical mastery with a dynamic handling of tragedy and resilience, this print reflects on life and loss in times past.