June 20, 2019

From the Highest Point: Land surveys in the time of Mesdag

Panorama Mesdag and TU Delft move together onto a higher plane with the exhibition

14 March 2019, Den Haag _ In 1880, while Mesdag was making sketches for his Panorama from the highest dune in Scheveningen, land surveyors were trekking across the entire country drawing up a map of the Netherlands.

The painter and land surveyors alike sought out the highest points in the landscape: the first to create a spatial illusion and the latter to measure distances accurately. What similarities and differences were there in the approach of the artist and that of the surveyors? Thanks to a collaboration between Panorama Mesdag and TU Delft, this theme is explored and explained in an accessible way.

Surveying the Panorama. A student from TU Delft conducts a survey at Panorama Mesdag to find out exactly where Hendrik Willem Mesdag was standing on Seinpost dune.

TU Delft Library collection at Panorama Mesdag

TU Delft Library is offering visitors a unique opportunity to come and admire its Special Collections outside the walls of the campus. In the exhibition rooms of Panorama Mesdag, the history of land surveying is ‘mapped’, as it were, using measuring instruments, drawings and historical maps. Scientific photos show the highest points on the landscape, including spectacular temporary constructions that were specially built for surveying the land.

Visitors can also stroll through digital and interactive maps that show earlier measurement points used by Cornelis Krayenhoff and the National Committee. These maps also show how the landscape has been constantly changing from Mesdag’s time to today.

Water board map.A detail from the overview page of the map showing the area of Delfland water board. The map was produced by the Cruquius brothers over a period spanning 11 years, from 1701 to 1712. The map shows every sluice and ditch in the landscape as well as the administrative entities responsible for their upkeep. TU Delft Library, Special Collections

Unique experiment

Specially for this exhibition, TU Delft students and researchers performed a land surveying experiment involving the Panorama to determine exactly where on the Seinpostduin Mesdag stood when painting his huge canvas. The starting points are the lighthouse, water tower, Oude Kerk (church spire) and other elevated spots Mesdag depicts. Even today these reference points are clearly visible and recognisable on the landscape of Scheveningen. Now, 137 years later, using traditional techniques, the position of these points in the Panorama are compared to their actual coordinates.

Repeating circle. A repeating circle used to measure angles when performing triangulation. The sights are set to two different points in the landscape, and the angle between them can then be read from the circular scale. If the distance between two of the three angles is known, the other distances can be calculated. The measurement would be repeated more than ten times to improve the reliability of the results. This instrument was used early in the 19th century by Cornelis Kraijenhoff (1758- 1840) during the first large-scale survey of the Netherlands based on triangulation. The instrument was made by French instrument maker Étienne Lenoir based on a design by Jean-Charles de Borda. TU Delft Library, Special Collections, Inv. no. 2000.0106.GEO

How accurate was Mesdag and how much artistic license did he allow himself? The fascinating results of this experiment in ‘surveying the past’ are presented and explained at the exhibition.

The exhibition From the Highest Point: Land surveys in the time of Mesdag is in collaboration with TU Delft and is on display at Panorama Mesdag from 31 March to 22 September 2019.

Photography by Panorama Mesdag.

Main image a Land survey kit. 18th century land survey equipment packed in an octagonal case covered in shagreen. The contents include a semicircle with a detachable sighting telescope, alidade, plane table, compass, transversal scales, plumb bob and other attachments. These instruments allowed the surveyor to conduct measurements in the field and also to produce maps. They were made by Benjamin Ayres, who in 1749 was appointed as the first instrument maker for the Dutch Admiralty. TU Delft Library, Special Collections, Inv. no. 2000.0055.GEO

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