The Keys to the Fagel Treasury

Digital Reunification of the Fagel Collections in Dublin and The Hague
By Alex Alsemgeest, Project manager ‘Unlocking the Fagel Collection’, The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Fagel Collection at Trinity College Dublin is long recognized as one of the best preserved 18th century private libraries in Europe. The collection was brought together over the course of one-and-a-half centuries by the Fagels, a family of which successive members held high public office in the Dutch Republic. In 2020 the Library of Trinity College Dublin and the KB, National Library of the Netherlands started a project to ‘Unlock the Fagel Collection’. The emphasis in this project lies in the bibliographical description of the collection of more than 30,000 books and pamphlets at Trinity College, which answers to the long-standing call of researchers to open up the treasury.

To unlock the Fagel Collection we need to look beyond the gems of the Fagel library in Dublin. We tend to talk about ‘the Fagel collection’ as an indivisible, static entity, an 18th century private library that has been ‘frozen in time’. In reality, a collection that has been built up by different members of a family over the course of one-and-a-half centuries is much more organic: books were added to and removed from the library at all times. In addition, there are other collections of books and archives that were brought together by members of the Fagel family, both in their private lives and as part of their work at the offices of the States General. These collections which have been dispersed over a number of libraries and archives in the Netherlands are indispensable in understanding the Fagel library in Dublin.

The ultimate goal to unlock the Fagel Collection at Trinity College Dublin can only be achieved, I argue, if we can digitally reunify all Fagel collections. This blog post is a first attempt to map the different bits and pieces, and consider what is needed to bring it all together.

Fig. 1a-d: Some of the gems from the Fagel Collection a) Presentation copy of Kerkelyke geographie (Fag.B.7.14-15) b) Fagel Missal (IE TCD MS 81) c) “Arbor Coral Americana” in Commelin’s Catalogus plantarum horti medici Amstelodamensis (Fag.N.9.57) d) The Copernicus Planisphere by Andreas Cellarius in 1660 (Fag.A.2.36)

The Fagel Collection at Trinity College Dublin

In the winter of 1794-1795 Hendrik Fagel the Younger, ‘Greffier’ or chief administrator to the States General of the Netherlands, was on a diplomatic mission in England when French revolutionary forces invaded his country. Hendrik Fagel lost his position as a greffier and, quite literally, the key to his home. The family residence and all of his possessions in The Hague were confiscated by the newly installed revolutionary government. In the next couple of years, Fagel managed to salvage most of his collections and had them transported to London. Due to the loss of income he was soon forced to sell his collections. The private library was put up for sale at Christies in 1802 and an auction catalogue was sent out to attract the interest of buyers. Before it would come to an auction, the governors of the Erasmus Smith Schools put in a successful bid on behalf of Trinity College to acquire the collection as a whole. The books arrived in Dublin from May 1802 and were placed in the East Pavilion adjoining the Long Room of the Old Library.

The auction of the Fagel library never took place, but the auction catalogue gives an impression of the magnitude and depth of the collection. Ten thousand lots cover virtually every area of human endeavour: politics, law and history, genres that would have been particularly useful for the Fagels as a working library, but also philosophy, theology, geography, natural history, science, the visual arts and classical and contemporary literature in a number of languages. Some lots in the auction catalogue cover a universe of their own, most notably the thousands of political pamphlets that are listed in the catalogue under no. 7593. It has been argued before that the acquisition of the Fagel Library was of great importance for the development of the Library of Trinity College in the early 19th century. Not only did the total number of books in the library increase by forty percent, the variety of continental books was a welcome addition to the existing collections at Trinity College Library. These were poorly represented in the collections before then. The library was kept together as a whole and all books were marked with a library stamp that reads Bibliotheca Fageliana and a handwritten auction number.

The paradigm of a collection that was ‘frozen in time’ has slowly become the dominant frame for research into the Fagel collection, culminating in the highly informative edited volume that Timothy Jackson published under that title in 2016. But what does it actually mean to have a collection that is ‘frozen in time’? First and foremost, the books that are now in Dublin are the core of the collection that was still extant in 1795. A handful of earlier auctions related to the Fagel family show that books were removed from the family library throughout the 18th century. The current collection is at best a snapshot of the library in its final state when it was in the possession of Hendrik Fagel the Younger, even if there are significant elements that can be traced back to some of the earlier family libraries.

Furthermore, the auction catalogue includes a small number of items that were either not assigned a shelf mark, or never made it to Dublin. In the annotated working copy of the auction catalogue at Trinity College, these have no corresponding TCD shelf marks. So – to raise just one of the many questions about the composition of the collection – what happened to these missing books? Most of the items that never came to Dublin were arguably not that interesting for the Library of Trinity College and their audience in the early 19th century. Take for example the Dutch broadsheets, occasional poetry and other items that are easily categorized as ‘varia’ or ‘miscellanea’ in auction catalogues. We have no record of what happened to these items. They may have been removed from the library even before the collection was shipped to England, or retracted from the auction by one of the Fagels who subsequently incorporated these items in the family archives.

The Fagel Archives in The Hague

The Fagels were administrators at heart. In their daily work as greffiers of the States General they were responsible for registering incoming books, drafting and, if necessary, printing of state documents, and organizing the archives. Even if the actual work on a day-to-day basis was partially executed by lower clerks, it makes perfect sense that a family of greffiers observed high archival standards at home as well.

The family archives were kept at their mansion at Noordeinde 140 in The Hague, together with the private library and art collections. The art collections were auctioned in London between 1799 and 1802, the library was spared from such a fate when it was acquired by Trinity College. The Fagel archives remained in private possession until they were handed over to the Dutch state in 1922, and officially acquired in 1930, shortly after the last male descendant had passed away. The archives had an air of seclusion and secrecy for a long time. Dutch historian H.T. Colenbrander was one of the first who was granted access and stated that the Fagel archives were arguably the most important source for Dutch history in private possession, apart from the royal collections.

Fig. 3: Dinner invitation for Hendrik Fagel at Windsor Castle in 1805.
The Hague, National Archives 1.10.29, no. 198.

The archives contain genealogical documents, travel accounts, a vast correspondence by men and women from the family, financial administration, inventories and account books, as well as curiosities such as handwritten poems, pencil drawings, aphorisms and even threatening notes. Also, there are numerous state documents connected to their work as greffier. These make up about half of the Fagel archives and include both printed items and manuscripts that are related to specific event in Dutch towns, the colonies, international politics, and other events. To come across these documents in the private archives of the Fagels rather than the state archives is a clear sign of how much the family was entangled with the office of greffier. It is understandable how all sorts of books and documents were transferred back-and-forth between home and the office at times.

When it comes to the printed documents in the private archives, ranging from the academic thesis of Hendrik Fagel the Younger in a fine binding, to occasional poetry relating to different family members, and a large variety of state documents, it would be interesting to see if these are some of the books from the 1802 auction catalogue that are not found in Dublin, or whether these are duplicates. More importantly, the private archives offer valuable insight into provenance, and thus the reasons why specific books are part of the private collection of the Fagels. References to the private library are found throughout the archives, in account books and correspondence, but there is just one library catalogue – an overview of the library of François Fagel from the first half of the 18th century.

Fig. 4: Account book of François Fagel, 1730 with mention of the acquisition of a book of Johnson and books from [Hendrik] Scheurleer. The Hague, National Archives 1.10.29

State archives

Next to the private archives, there are the archives of the States General. These stretch over one kilometre and are the obvious starting point for all research into early modern Dutch political history. The Fagels clearly left their mark on these archives, after all, for 125 years it was their responsibility to draw up the documents and organise the archives. The inventory alone holds close to five thousand references to the respective members of the family.

The distinction between state and private records is ambiguous for a family that was tangled up with their office for so long. There are numerous state documents in the Fagel collection in Dublin as well as in the Fagel archives in The Hague, and conversely, there are private documents in the state archives. In 1803, the ‘state documents of Hendrik Fagel from the beginning of the Republic until 1793’ were put up for sale at an auction in The Hague. The catalogue is a shocking account of the dismantling of the greffiers’ offices after the fall of the Dutch Republic, comprising hundreds of volumes containing the resolutions of the States of Holland and the States General, as well as hundreds of books and manuscripts in the fields of law, history, geography and commerce.

Fig. 5: State documents from the series of publications by the States General. The Hague, National Archives

Most of the state documents were confiscated directly after the auction and transferred to the National Archives. Apparently, the authorities of the Batavian Republic understood just in time that these were too important for the continuity government administration to be dispersed between various private collections. Hundreds of other lots from that same auction were not rescued from that fate and came into the hands of private collectors. Curiously, a dozen of these ended up in the National Library as early as 1807, through the acquisition of the collection of Joost Romswinckel.

The majority of books that were auctioned in 1803 have vanished into the mists of history. That may very well be the natural fate of all collections, but it contradicts the belief that the Fagel Collection is frozen in time.

More Fagel auctions

The private library that is now kept at Trinity College Dublin is the collection that Hendrik Fagel the Younger retrieved from his mansion in The Hague in the years after the Batavian revolution of 1795. It comprises significant parts of the library of his grandfather Hendrik Fagel the Elder (1706-1790) who served as a greffier from 1744 until 1790, as well as parts of the collections of the likes of François Fagel (1659-1746), Cornelis Gerrit Fagel (1663-1746) and Hendrik Fagel the Eldest (1617-1690). Full provenance research has yet to commence, but it seems evident that books were added to and removed from the respective libraries at all times.

The library of the first greffier of the family Gaspar Fagel (1634-1688) was auctioned one year after his death. Several of the titles which are listed in the catalogue are found in the Fagel Collection in Dublin, meaning that other copies of those editions re-entered the library through different lines of acquisition or inheritance. A library that is made up from the collections of several generations inevitably has duplication. When Hendrik Fagel the Younger inherited the collection of his grandfather in 1790, he decided to sell the ‘duplicates’. The extensive auction catalogue holds so many fine bindings and large-paper copies, that it is questionable whether deduplication really was the motive for selling the books.

Finding all copies that once belonged to a Fagel collection is an impossible task, especially since they did not use a bookplate or write their names on the books. Understanding the dynamics of books being added to and removed from the collections over time is however crucial in the process of digital reunification.

Tracing the Fagels in The Hague

It is self-evident that a family that held high office in the Dutch Republic for such a long time, has left its mark in the city of The Hague. In a series of videos that has been labelled ‘The Fagels’ we visit several of the places where a connection with the family can still be found. The videos are an attempt to recreate and visualise the historical context of the Fagel collection for a broad audience. On a theoretical level, these videos help us understand how collecting, consumption and creation of knowledge by members of the family were spatial activities that took place within well-defined geographical contexts.

The former Fagel mansion at the Noordeinde is now home to an Irish pub and a hotel, but the ‘Dome of Fagel’ has survived. This dome is now a pavilion in the garden that was once connected to the house by a long corridor. The collections were originally placed in the corridor, the Dome at the end was a garden house with stunning visual references to nature and the arts. The richly coloured botanical works in fine bindings which are now considered among the highlights of the Fagel Collection in Dublin can be admired anywhere. However, in the Fagel universe they form a closed narrative with the dome, the elaborately painted ceiling, and surely the flowers in the garden that came from all four corners of the world.

Fig 6: Trompe-l’œil ceiling painting in the Dome of Fagel by Daniël Marot and Mattheus Terwesten.

In similar fashion we can look at the offices at the Houses of Parliament and ask ourselves which parts of the Fagel collection resonate here. Or consider the wider context of book culture, auctions and private collectors in The Hague, as we have done with our video in Museum Meermanno, House of the Book. And what to think of the KB, National Library of the Netherlands, which not only holds a large variety of books and manuscripts about the Fagels, written by the Fagels, or even from the collections of the Fagels? The national library was founded by revolutionaries in 1798 and came forth from the same revolution that had ended the Fagel reign as greffiers.

Researchers may be interested to explore this further along the lines of concepts like geographies of knowledge, social and cultural networks in the eighteenth century, and books as agents of cultural exchange. It is debatable to what extent it is the responsibility of a library to take this all into account and facilitate research into the collections that are dispersed over a number of institutions in two different countries.

Bringing it all back together

The aim of the project ‘Unlocking the Fagel Collection’ is to catalogue the entire Fagel collection at the Library of Trinity College Dublin before the end of 2022. That means the creation of approximately 30,000 records in the local catalogue of Trinity College and the Short-Title Catalogue, Netherlands (STCN). A direct result of this work is that several hundreds of rare or even unique editions that were previously unrecorded, will instantly become available through the respective catalogues for researchers. In the currently envisioned second phase of the project these will all be digitized and made available through the Library of Trinity College’s Digital Collections.

A next step can only be achieved with the help of international partners; to unlock the Fagel universe, related collections in the Netherlands will have to be catalogued and digitized as well. The classic approach would be to build a website or a portal where the different Fagel collections can be found, and ideally, searched and queried at once. Such a platform should at the very least include digitized copies of the Fagel Collection at Trinity College Dublin and the Fagel archives at the National Archives, supported by reliable bibliographical data from the STCN and possibly other (national) bibliographies. The advantage of a Fagel platform would be that individual items from other institutions could be included. For example the correspondence between Stadtholder Willem V and Hendrik Fagel the Younger in London from 1793 until 1795, the manuscript genealogy of the Fagel-Dierquens families at Museum Meermanno, House of the Book, or the handwritten pamphlets against Gaspar Fagel at the KB, National Library. The benefit for the respective institutions is that their Fageliana gain context, meaning and become part of a much larger story. These and dozens of other items would never be considered to be part of the Fagel collections, unless someone provides the basic infrastructure.

Fig 7: Manuscript genealogy of the Fagel-Dierquens families, House of the Book

The risk of such an approach is that the portal will be set up on the basis of the current project, and that the portal will quickly lose its relevance after the project has been completed and fall into a dormant state. Data that is created within the project obviously must be reusable, compliant with technologies of the semantic web and linked open data (like RDF for structured data and IIIF for images). In such a way, the Fagel family and their collections, can potentially be a window into hidden stories and sources about European cultural and political history at large.

The books that are recorded in the STCN are not just linked to the private library of the Fagels, but are significant in the context of Dutch book production and European book trade; the correspondence which includes letters of basically every European ambassador, envoy or diplomat who resided in The Hague in the 18th century, is undoubtedly significant in early modern letters projects such as EMLO, and documents from state and family archives are indispensable sources for Dutch and European political history, colonial history and the history of slavery.


These are just examples of the possible connections that can be made. The Fagel universe is large enough for a European research project, but is in itself connected to other spheres of research. The question that remains is who should take the lead in connecting the different Fagel collections. The current project Unlocking the Fagel Collection is an example what can be achieved when two libraries from two countries – generously supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs – are prepared to look beyond the gems of their own collections. Creating reliable structured data and providing the basic infrastructure for collections that comprise tens of thousands of books and several hundreds of meters of archives in two countries goes far beyond the scope of any research project, let alone an individual researcher.

It is unquestionably up to international partners such as the KB and Trinity College to take up the challenge. The expertise of CERL in hosting, sharing and connecting data collections, providing support to build an infrastructure, and experience with European research projects, is undoubtedly much needed to fulfil our ambition to open up the Fagel collection. We all know that the Fagel Collection at Trinity College is the treasury, but the keys to the vault are rarely locked inside the vault. In this case, the keys are found in The Hague. 

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