The creator of the J A van Tilburg Collection was Jacob Abraham van Tilburg, who was born on 13 September 1888 in Zoeterwoude near Leiden in Holland. He was the youngest of eight children and his mother died when he was only three years old. On her deathbed she requested one of Jacob’s older brothers, from a previous marriage of his father, to take care of the child as his father was already 65 years old and, due to ill health, probably would not live long enough to raise the child.
Shortly after his father’s death, when he was only eight years old, Jacob was placed in a church orphanage. He remained there until he started working as an apprentice in the building industry. He was trained as a carpenter and builder at a trade school in Dordrecht until 1906. He was active in the building trade until 1909, when he was called up for military service in the Netherlands field artillery. From 1912 to 1914 he undertook the building of a large dairy factory, a church and a power station in Leiden as well as 12 houses in Bussum. During this time, he seriously started buying artworks. The graphic art, which was exhibited every Friday in Muiden near Amsterdam, excited him and he eventually started buying some of it – carefully at first, but later with more self-assurance. His financial position had improved considerably and he had more money to spend on art. In 1913, he was able to afford his first oil painting.
During the early years of the First World War, he served in the Dutch Army as a shipping officer, but left the army in 1916 to become a partner in a building company. In 1917, he used his inheritance to buy his own business, the sawmill ’De Nachtegaal’ near Dordrecht. His urge to collect became an obsession and in 1918 he discovered the lure of Chinese art, which resulted in the addition of bronze, wooden and porcelain objects to his collection.
In the years between the two world wars, Van Tilburg became a wealthy businessman in Holland, with interests not only in the building and wood trade, but also in the nursery industry, metal trade and in the art world in Dordrecht and Rotterdam. In 1937, he opened an art dealership for his daughter in Rotterdam. By then he could afford to spend considerable amounts of money on his collection and bought artworks from private collectors, various dealers and at art auctions.
He improved the value of his collection by selling off the poorer works, which he had purchased earlier, and replacing them with better quality art. At this time he had an agent in Amsterdam who used to buy artwork for him. During the Depression he bought the entire contents of a bankrupt museum for Oriental art without even seeing its collections. Pieces from this museum still form the most valuable part of the Oriental ceramics of the Van Tilburg Collection. In December 1941, he sold a large part of his painting collection to buy a collection of Oriental ceramics.
As a result of his friendship with many Dutch artists such as Louis Apol (1850-1936), Cor Brandenburg (1884-1954), Antoon Derkzen van Angeren (1878-1961), Bernhard Cornelis Noltee (1903-1967) and Marinus Reus (1865-1938), he was able to purchase many of their artworks to add to his collection. Around 1928, he became acquainted with Antoon Derkzen van Angeren through his work, and regularly attended his art classes in Rotterdam on a Saturday afternoon. Initially Van Tilburg only bought work by Derkzen’s students, but later he entered into an agreement with the artist that he would buy an example of every etching he made. In this regard Van Tilburg wrote that: “door die overeenkomst en mijn groeiende belangstelling kwamen wij overeen dat hij van de, van dien tijd nog in portefeuille zijnde etsen, mij een exemplar leveren zou. Hij was zo vriendelijk om mij ook die waarvan er maar een aanwezig was en die waarvan schlechts een exemplar gedrukt was ook die aan mij te verkopen. Toen hij later van zijn bruin-zwart werk over ging naar zijn wit-zwart werk kwam ik ook in het bezit van duplicaten die hij van zijn oude platen in wit-zwart maakte. Ik heb dat contact onderhouden tot in de laatste oorlogsjaren”. In this way Van Tilburg eventually acquired about 288 etchings by this talented graphic artist.
In 1927, Van Tilburg was appointed as the representative of the Calvinistic Christian Historical Union on the city council of Dordrecht. Shortly after, he was elected as chairperson of the ’statenkring’, and from 1937 onwards he was an alderman for public works and social activities, and chairperson of the commission in care of monuments in Dordrecht. During this period, he regularly bought artworks, and expanded and improved his collection. Amongst others he bought landscape paintings by Jan van Essen (1854-1936), Hendrik van de Sande Bakhuyzen (1795-1860), Johannes Bles (1825-1875), Salomon Leonardus Verveer (1813-1876), Balthasar Paul Ommeganck (1755-1825), Johannes de Haas (1832-1908), Adrianus Eversen (1818-1897), Jean Jacques Spöhler (1811-1879) and seascapes by Abraham Storch (1635-1710) and Johannes Heppener (1826-1898), as well as a portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669).
During the German occupation of Holland in the Second World War, Van Tilburg remained in his post as alderman in Dordrecht and collaborated with the Germans. He helped with the administrative control of the liquidation of posts and the sale of businesses, and was head of development and recreation for the German forces. According to him he remained in his post as alderman at the request of the Allies to ensure the orderly management of the town, since his resignation would mean that he would simply be replaced by a German. It was alleged that Van Tilburg made capital gain out of the war situation by carrying on doing business in wood, shares and gold on the black market. As a result of these activities he was arrested twice by the Gestapo, but was released again after a month. At this time, a catalogue of his collection was compiled for the first time on the recommendation of Professor Vogelzang of the Art Historical Institute in Utrecht.
From this catalogue it is evident that, at that time, he already owned 1 347 paintings, of which the most important 600 were photographed and described in six albums, as well as about 6 000 other artworks.
After an intensive investigation after the war into Van Tilburg’s wartime activities, a tribunal in Dordrecht exonerated him from all war crimes on 15 May 1948, but sentenced him to four months in prison for collaborating with the Germans. He was, however, released shortly after the court case as he had already spent almost a year in custody.
About five years after the war, a dispute arose between Van Tilburg and the Dutch Department of Finance, when the Department demanded a monetary guarantee from all wealthy people in Holland as part of a new tax system. The amount demanded from Van Tilburg was 700 000 guilders (R140 000). His objection was that the Dutch government did not take into account that the Germans had stolen about R150 000 worth of silver and gold investments from him during the war. In 1951, it was eventually agreed that he should pay 160 000 guilders (R32 000) in levies and taxes, and that the Dutch government would then investigate the case of the stolen investments. This was never done, however.
Family members of Van Tilburg in South Africa, among them Mr G Braak of Pretoria, encouraged him to come to South Africa. He arrived in Cape Town by ship on 12 November 1951 and settled in Pretoria. He came alone as his wife and four daughters, Dina, Nonnie, Hendriekje and Jacobina, did not want to come to ’darkest Africa’. His luggage included 94 crates of art. Later, his daughter Jacobina also settled in Pretoria where she did restoration of paintings for the Pretoria Art Museum.
In Pretoria, Van Tilburg bought the home in Brummeria of Piet Grobler, the pre-war Minister of Native Affairs, and displayed his collection there. However, shortly afterwards he had a disagreement with the South African customs, and customs officials confiscated his entire collection. The Commissioner of Customs was informed of irregularities concerning the bringing of Van Tilburg’s property into South Africa and declared his statements as ’false as regards value, nature and description’. In his statement Van Tilburg had described his collection as household goods, while the customs officials considered it to be commercial wares, as they believed that he intended to trade in antiques.
Only after a lengthy court case in which Van Tilburg had to furnish customs officials with the names of 27 persons from whom he had purchased the most important part of his art collection and in which the Pretoria architect, Gerard de Waal, who had known and visited Van Tilburg before the Second World War, testified that the objects were indeed Van Tilburg’s household goods, was the case against him withdrawn and his collection returned. After this, a settlement was reached out of court. According to this agreement Van Tilburg undertook to pay a substantial amount of additional customs tax. To acquire the necessary funds he had to sell about a third of his collection to prominent private collectors and well-known museums in South Africa. Shortly afterwards, Van Tilburg moved to ’Elangeni’, the home of the South African painter, J H Pierneef in Brummeria in Pretoria.
Towards the end of the sixties, Van Tilburg applied for permission from the City Council of Pretoria to open an underground museum in Brummeria. His idea was to bequeath the museum to the City Council of Pretoria upon his death. Permission to establish such a museum was, however, rejected and Van Tilburg withdrew his offer.
It was at about this time that Professor FGE Nilant, then head of the Department of History of Art and Fine Arts at the University of Pretoria, befriended Van Tilburg and became aware of his anxiety about the future of his collection after his death. Professor Nilant encouraged him to consider donating his art collection to an educational institution. He emphasised that, if Van Tilburg did not take proper precautions beforehand, the collection could be broken up and sold at auction. Professor Nilant did not only point out the continuing role of a university as a possible recipient of such a collection, but he also expanded on the estate tax advantages that such a step would have for the family.
During an exhibition of sculptures by Coert Steynberg at the University of Pretoria in March 1975, Van Tilburg finally decided to donate his collection to the University. After protracted negotiations, a function for the handing over of the collection to the University of Pretoria was held on 19 November 1976 and during this ceremony Van Tilburg donated an additional 12 ’krone’ (chandeliers) to the University. The most important conditions for the bequest was that the collection had to remain intact as a unit, that it be named the JA van Tilburg Collection of the University of Pretoria and that it remain in the possession of the donor for the rest of his life. After Van Tilburg’s death on 5 October 1980, the Collection as a whole was transferred to the University of Pretoria and was temporarily housed in the basement of the Education/Law Building on the campus for the first 13 years. In 1996, about two-thirds of the collection was taken to the upper floor of the Old Arts Building, where it was exhibited so that it could be on view to the public and students daily from 8:00 to 16:00 on every working day of the week, without any entrance fee.
The collection can be divided into three main sections:
- Far Eastern and other ceramics;
- antique European furniture;
- paintings, and graphics.
The ceramic collection is the largest in the southern hemisphere and contains numerous unique pieces. The furniture comprises cabinets, chests, chairs, tables and clocks, which date from the 12th to the 19th century. The large collection of paintings and graphic works are dated between the 16th and 20th centuries.