An unprotected roadway runs on either side of the water, which makes the houses beside these canals no place for Charles Lamb’s friend, George Dyer, to visit in. Accidents are not numerous, but a company exists in Amsterdam whose business it is to rescue such odd dippers as horses and carriages by means of elaborate machinery devised for the purpose. Only travellers born under a luckier star than I are privileged to witness such sport.
In the main Amsterdam is a city of trade, of hurrying business men, of ceaseless clanging tramcars and crowded streets; but on the Keizersgracht and the Heerengracht you are always certain to find the old essential Dutch gravity and peace. No tide moves the sullen waters of these canals, which are lined with trees that in spring form before the narrow, dark, discreet houses the most delicate green tracery imaginable; and in summer screen them altogether. These houses are for the most part black and brown, with white window frames, and they rise to a great height, culminating in that curious stepped gable (with a crane and pulley in it) which is, to many eyes, the symbol of the city. I know no houses that so keep their secrets. In every one, I doubt not, is furniture worthy of the exterior: old paintings of Dutch gentlemen and gentlewomen, a landscape or two, a girl with a lute and a few tavern scenes; old silver windmills; and plate upon plate of serene blue Delft. (You may see what I mean in the Suasso rooms at the Stedelijk Museum.) I have walked and idled in the Keizersgracht at all times of the day, but have never seen any real signs of life. Mats have been banged on its doorsteps by clean Dutch maidservants armed with wicker beaters; milk has been brought in huge cans of brass and copper shining like the sun; but of its life proper the gracht has given no sign. Its true life is houseridden, behind those spotless and very beautiful lace curtains, and there it remains.
One of the wittiest of the old writers on Holland (of whom I said something in the second chapter), Owen Feltham the moralist, describes in his Brief Character of the Low Countries an Amsterdam house of the middle of the seventeenth century. Thus:—
When you are entered the house, the first thing you encounter is a Looking-glasse. No question but a true Embleme of politick hospitality; for though it reflect yourself in your own figure, ’tis yet no longer than while you are there before it. When you are gone once, it flatters the next commer, without the least remembrance that you ere were there.
The next are the vessels of the house marshalled about the room like watchmen. All as neat as if you were in a Citizen’s Wife’s Cabinet; for unless it be themselves, they let none of God’s creatures lose any thing of their native beauty.
Their houses, especially in their Cities, are the best eye-beauties of their Country. For cost and sight they far exceed our English, but they want their magnificence. Their lining is yet more rich than their outside; not in hangings, but pictures, which even the poorest are there furnisht with. Not a cobler but has his toyes for ornament. Were the knacks of all their houses set together, there would not be such another Bartholmew-Faire in Europe....