Ensor’s entry into the Archiefbank
Archiefbank Vlaanderen (Archive Database Flanders) and the Vlaamse Kunstcollectie (Flemish Art Collection) marked the occasion of the 150th anniversary of James Ensor’s birth by collaborating in the search for the archival legacy of the Ostend artist. A fascinating pursuit which was to reveal primarily the archival materials which were held by James Ensor(1860-1949). In addition, they were also focusing on Ensor-related archival records and relevant documentary collections.
After his death, Ensor’s personal papers were scattered across different collections. An important part of the materials were transferred to the Archief voor Hedendaagse Kunst in België (Archive of Contemporary Art in Belgium, Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels). It contains key documents such as his Memoranda: eight notebooks consisting of incoming and outgoing correspondence over the period 1933-1939, as well as lists of works of art, surveys of private collections, copies of his speeches, etc. These documents – which popped up for auction only forty years after his death – form the core of the archive holdings, supplemented by the Liber Veritas, a sketchbook kept by Ensor over the period 1929-1941. It contains 246 drawings and was purchased in the 1950s by the Art Institute of Chicago. The Archiefbank also succeeded in collecting basic data about other records which were transferred to institutions, both in Belgium and abroad. Obviously, tracking down privately owned archival records is more difficult.
Collections of secondary sources supplement the holdings of original Ensor records. They consist primarily of letters which were written and sent by Ensor to various correspondents, such as Octave Maus, Emma Lambotte, Pol De Mont and André de Ridder. Their archives, which have often come down to us in fragments, contain important complementary information about artistic and other activities of the artist.
Finally, collection efforts have resulted in some interesting and wide-ranging documentary collections. They have continued to provide relevant information about Ensor’s work and character to the present day. The Ensor collection of the Ghent Studie en Documentatiecentrum voor de Moderne Vlaamse Kunst (Research and Documentation Centre of Modern Flemish Art) is a good example of this genre.
Ensor’s archival legacy exemplifies the precarious situation of artists’ archives. Original documents signed by artists are commercial items.They have rarely come down to us in organically developed, coherent sets. Consequently, Ensor’s manuscripts were scattered across different public and private collections. Only parts of them have been published. But our virtual reconstruction of the Ensor archives indicates that an important part is accessible to researchers.
The Archive Database Flanders, which is easily searchable, provides a survey of the records retained or received by the archive creator. Descriptions of these records are linked to the repositories which hold them. Information is systematically updated and corrected, as documents become accessible to the wider public. This survey is also available for consultation via the Ensor website.
Birth certificate of James Sidney Edouard Ensor, 1860.
Portrait of James Ensor by Henry De Groux, 1907.
Notation of Madeleine Maus concerning the lettres of Ensor in the Octave Maus records, s.d.
Biographical notes in the Ensor ‘Memoranda’, 1933-39.
Dedication to the painter Maurice Boel, 1938.