Kasteel Well threw a homecoming party last week, but the guest of honor was exceedingly quiet and kept to himself.
On Thursday, October 13, Emerson’s Netherlands campus celebrated the official transfer of an 18th-century painting of Willem de Liedel, a former inhabitant of Kasteel Well, to the trust and care of the castle.
“What makes the man remarkable is he has this wonderful expression: very self-aware, very accomplished, noble,” said Dulcia Meijers, executive director of the Emerson College European Center and an art historian.
Willem de Liedel (1713-1777) was a former ship’s surgeon who went on to make a fortune as a sea merchant in the India trade, according to the Well Archives. He inherited the 14th-century castle from his cousin in 1771, the year A. Marquart painted his portrait. Over the next six years he married, fathered three children and died, the Archives said.
The portrait hung in the castle until 1905, when the then-owner ran into financial trouble and sold all its contents under the hammer. Kasteel Well’s treasures were scattered to the wind, kept together only in a list of auction items.
Over a century later, Meijers got a visit from two men representing the family that purchased the portrait, asking if she’d like the painting back. She said she was excited to see it.
She was quickly disappointed.
“When I saw the painting for the first time, it looked terrible,” Meijers said. “He was a total ruin with holes and everything.”
To make matters worse, clumsy 19th-century attempts to restore the painting had patched some of the holes with what amounted to spackle, she said.
“It was like a scratch on my soul.”
But when she looked at it closely under the light, she could tell that underneath the filthy varnish and holes, there was “quite a nice painting.” She agreed to take the portrait and hired restoration experts who she knew would do the job right.
Sometimes when you look at old paintings in a museum, they’ve been so radically restored that they look like they were painted yesterday, she said. Meijers was adamant that only the superficial layers of varnish be cleaned, and that the craquelé, the natural crackling of aged paint, be preserved.
“When the varnish over a painting over the centuries turns darker and yellow, you can only guess at what the original colors were,” Meijers said. “When he started cleaning and taking the first layers off, the dirt came out and instead of a greenish-yellowish little coat you saw a beautiful, warm, blue velvet jacket.”
Dignitaries from the region, including the mayors of Bergen and Boxmeer, nearby towns along the Meuse River; and the governor of Limburg, the province in which Well is located, attended the transfer ceremony last week, as did the family who donated the painting. Willem de Liedel will remain above a mantel in Kasteel Well for as long as Emerson owns it; if the College were to ever sell or leave the castle, the painting must either stay behind or revert to the Limburgs Museum in Venlo.
Meijers said that in speaking with the museum director, she learned there may be an opportunity for some of the other artifacts auctioned off in 1905 to return to the castle, including two or three other paintings, two “beautiful” 17th-century cabinets, and a wooden statue of St. Barbara.
Just three generations of the de Liedel family lived in the castle, which is unusual for aristocratic families generally, but not for the families who inhabited Kasteel Well, Meijers said. From medieval times to its transfer to Emerson College, no more than three generations of any family had possession of the property.
“A legend came into being, they said it must be a curse,” Meijers said.
Having just celebrated 30 years – or a generation – at the castle, Meijers said she hopes Emerson College remains in Well for well over 61 years.
“We want to break this curse,” she said.