Rijksmuseum acquires rare engraving

The Rijksmuseum, in the Netherlands, has acquired an extremely rare engraving of one of the oldest known depictions of a herring buss (Dutch: 'haringbuis').

The print dates from about 1480, making it one of the earliest engravings from the Low Countries. It is attributed to the goldsmith Willem Vanden Cruce, also known by his monogram as Master W with the key. 

For centuries, the herring buss was the symbol of the great herring fisheries of the North Sea. In fact, the day on which the herring fleet set out to catch the first herring of the season, 15 June, was traditionally called ‘Buss Day’.

Early depictions of fishing boats are highly uncommon. The print is a realistic portrayal of a herring buss, a type of ship from the late Middle Ages that was developed by the beginning of the 15th century to capitalise on the growing demand for fish. The herring buss is larger than other fishing vessels; a crew of around 20 could use a series of long drift nets (called a vleet in Dutch) to make larger catches, which were gutted, salted and packed in barrels at sea, considerably extending the storage life of the fish. As a result, by the Golden Age, North Sea herring had become a major export.

Willem Vanden Cruce (working in Bruges, c. 1465-1490) produced a series of nine extremely detailed depictions of ship types at the end of the Middle Ages. At the time, the town of Bruges where he lived was a major port, visited by ships from throughout Europe, which undoubtedly served as inspiration. Around 1480, there were an estimated 400 herring busses operating in Flanders and Holland.

The purchase of this engraving of a herring buss was made possible through generous donations from the Waller Fund and the Scato Gockinga/Rijksmuseum Fund.