Adventures with the Henry J. Van Lennep Collection

black and white photograph of Amherst, MA featuring Amherst College, 1800s

     In 2018 I worked closely with the Henry J. Van Lennep Collection, one of the collections that the Digital Programs department and Archives and Special Collections have selected for digitization for the upcoming Amherst College bicentennial. This chance to work with the Van Lennep collection was interesting and appealing to me for several reasons: the richness and beauty of the materials, the careful photography needed to shoot the fragile materials, and the chance to roll up my sleeves and dig into some metadata creation.


Drawing of Bebek, Constantinople, 1851

     Henry J. Van Lennep was a missionary and alum of Amherst College in the 19th century. He was born in Smyrna, Turkey (now Izmir), in 1815, but was sent to the US for his education, and attended college at Amherst, where he decided to pursue mission work. He came from a wealthy family of Dutch traders living in Smyrna, and was the only one of 6 brothers who chose to follow a religious calling rather than become a merchant in the family tradition. After graduating Amherst, he attended Andover Theological seminary and was ordained minister in 1839. Van Lennep travelled extensively over the subsequent years; to the US, Greece, the middle east, and within Turkey. He had 3 wives during this time, all American, the first two tragically dying early in their marriages. In 1853, with his third wife, Emily Bird, he was transferred from Constantinople to Tokat, a small town in the foothills of central Anatolia. In 1861 they left Tokat, and after a visit to the US they settled in Smyrna for another 6 years. The couple returned to settle in the US, partly because of Henry’s failing eyesight, but also perhaps because of disagreements with missionary policy and antagonism from his colleagues. He taught in LeRoy, New York, and Great Barrington, MA, where he was director and owner of the Sedgewick School for Boys. He had six children, and died in MA in 1889.

     Van Lennep was a talented and prolific artist, sketching scenes of daily life, as well as architecture, portraits, and detailed recordings of archaeological objects and ruins during his travels and time at his missionary posts in Constantinople and Tokat. The collection, while only 1.2 linear feet, contains many pencil sketches and watercolors that are representative of Van Lennep’s experiences in Turkey. The majority of the artworks cover the period of the late 1840’s to the 1870’s. He was a writer and a scholar, and his published works contain his own drawings.


Several watercolor drawings of Turkish people and subjects

     This collection was a challenge and a joy to work with. It took me many hours to photograph because of the fragile materials. Many of the sketchbooks are in delicate shape and the bindings and pages are difficult to handle without causing damage. I used the camera stand for most of the images, but also the Phase One medium format camera for some of the larger or more complex items. In addition, this collection, although small, contains many different types of material. There are printed books, sketchbooks, photographs, framed watercolors, and delicate paper ephemera. Tim Pinault, our Digitization Coordinator,  was incredibly helpful as I worked on photographing these unique and varied items. I quickly realized how important it was to digitize these materials and get them online, from a preservation perspective as well as a research one.

     After the photography was completed, I was trained by Amanda Pizzollo and her colleagues in the Metadata department, to create metadata records for these objects. This process was especially interesting to me, and it was a great opportunity to see first hand the work that goes into metadata creation for digital objects here at Amherst. It allowed me to look at the materials from a different perspective, and approach them with a different set of questions. We try to represent the object in ACDC as reliably as we can by using photography and metadata. While creating the metadata records, it was very important to find the most appropriate subject headings to describe the images so that researchers can correctly locate them, which often me to research different styles of Turkish costume or names of household objects. Finding the correct, and contemporary, names for ancient sites and Turkish towns and villages proved to be an adventure in itself some days.


A photo of Henry J. Van Lennep and his brothers, 1840-1845; Van Lennep’s passport 

     Some of my favorite aspects of working with Van Lennep’s papers and sketchbooks included studying his art and researching his family history. Some of his sketches are incredibly detailed and beautiful. I am impressed by his field sketches and watercolors, especially the way he has captured people in motion. I sketch sometimes, and keep sketchbooks when I travel, so I know how difficult it can be to quickly capture an expression or a moving animal. I’m quite in awe of his talent. I also enjoyed looking at his foreign passports and family photos. His Turkish passport paper is so delicate and fragile, folded, most likely, from being kept in pockets and wallets over the years of his travels. Oh, if documents like that could talk… The Van Lennep family history was very exciting to research as well, filled with stories of the Dutch opium trade, trade wars between the Netherlands and other countries, romance and life in 18th and 19th century Turkey. There were even tales of bandits, and Henry’s brother was once captured and held for ransom!

     This collection situates itself within the early history of Amherst College, and finds its place with other early missionary collections in Archives and Special Collections, such as the Justin Perkins Papers and the Sidney Brooks collection. It sheds light on the early missionary history of the college, and the life of early alumni. What is unique to the Van Lennep collection, however, is its visual richness and archaeological subject matter. It could easily be of as much interest to classical scholars and researchers of 19th century theology as art history and architectural students.

Drawings of furniture and buildings from the sketchbook “Plans et Modeles”

     I’m excited to share the Van Lennep collection with the Amherst community, and proud to work with my colleagues in Digital Programs, Archives and Special Collections, and Metadata to digitize valuable and fascinating collections such as this and make them available to the public.

     Travel to 19th century Turkey from your armchair by browsing the Henry J. Van Lennep Collection in Amherst College Digital Collections.