Preserving the world’s first illustrated newspaper

By Arthur der Weduwen |

The Heritage Library in Antwerp (Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience), one of our PWRB library partners, holds a distinguished collection of early printed news pamphlets and newspapers. The jewel in this collection is a series of some 400 publications by Abraham Verhoeven (1575-1652), an Antwerp printer, publisher and woodcut artist, which have recently been digitised in their entirety by the library.

Verhoeven dominated the Southern Netherlandish news trade for more than two decades, roughly spanning the period between 1605 and 1629, during which he enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the publication of current affairs in Dutch. In 1605 Verhoeven received a privilege from the Habsburg government in Brussels to ‘print and cut in wood or engrave, and to sell, in all the lands of the Archdukes [the Habsburg Netherlands] … new tidings, victories, sieges and conquests of towns.’ Throughout this period, he kept up a prolific output, and he was responsible for some of the most important inventions in the European news trade. Although he specialised first in the publication of illustrated broadsheets and other ephemera like almanacs, from around 1617 Verhoeven focussed most of his energies on publishing short quarto news pamphlets.

a broadsheet with a woodcut depicting the Habsburg ambassadors and dignitaries
An early example of Verhoeven’s news publishing: a broadsheet depicting the Habsburg ambassadors and dignitaries who were present for the publication of the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1609 in Antwerp, complete with woodcut portraits, and a song printed in Dutch and French. At the start of his career, Verhoeven specialised predominantly in broadsheets like this. Credit: Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience.


An example of a Verhoeven news pamphlet before he launched his newspaper
An example of a Verhoeven news pamphlet before he launched formally his Nieuwe Tijdinghen. The pamphlets which he produced during 1617-1619 resembled the Nieuwe Tijdinghen closely, including the title-page woodcuts, but lacked consecutive signatures and serial numbers. Credit: Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience

Most pamphlets were composed of eight or sixteen pages and covered one or two short news stories, invariably related to Habsburg successes abroad. Verhoeven published around one pamphlet a week in 1617, 1618 and 1619, but in 1620, after Verhoeven had his government privilege renewed and extended, he intensified his efforts. Verhoeven began publishing three or four news pamphlets per week and serialised them by adding consecutive signature statements and issue numbers. This series, now known to us as the Nieuwe Tijdinghen, remained in print until April 1629. Verhoeven published at least 1,346 different issues, a remarkable output for a publisher who ran his own print shop with little assistance from outside his small family, and carved his own woodcuts. Then again, few publishers seem to have been gifted with the restless creative energy of Abraham Verhoeven.

The Nieuwe Tijdinghen was one of the most innovative products of the early newspaper age. While most news publishers tried to cultivate a reputation for objective, sober news reporting, set in dense paragraphs with no contextual commentary, Verhoeven revelled in sensationalism. The issues of his Nieuwe Tijdinghen featured bold, expressive titles, reporting momentous events, and were enlivened by a large woodcut underneath, which was supposed to give the potential customer some inkling of the news of the week. Verhoeven often used the titles and accompanying woodcuts to great effect, coupling headlines of victory, defeat, disaster and wonder with illustrations of battles, sieges, shipwrecks and executions. When special news was to be reported, like the funeral of Archduke Albert of Austria, governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, Verhoeven produced a specific woodcut to mark the event. Nevertheless, there was often a disjunction between the news content of an issue and the title-page rhetoric. Issue 96 of September 1624 opened its title with the large header: ‘News from the King’s army before Breda’.  Only two short paragraphs on the final page of the issue were dedicated to the King’s army around Breda. The title of issue 90 of September 1625 was completely given over to a report from Liège: ‘News from the land of Liège; how those of Liège have executed several Dutch soldiers who had plundered and ravaged throughout that land.’  Only one and a half pages of the same issue covered the report from Liège.

One of the unique issues of Verhoeven’s Nieuwe Tijdinghen held by the Heritage Library
One of the unique issues of Verhoeven’s Nieuwe Tijdinghen held by the Heritage Library, number 135 of 1621. This is a typical example of the Nieuwe Tijdinghen, complete with a prominent title promising ‘new and happy tidings’, and a generic but pleasing woodcut image below. Credit: Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience

Verhoeven frequently re-used his woodcuts and did not cut a new illustration for every issue. Depictions of the Habsburg General Ambrogio Spinola, a portrait of a generic Turkish Sultan, and a chaotic cavalry battle appeared time and time again. To the knowledgeable reader, the title-page illustrations could also feel a little misplaced: issue 40 of 1622 contained reports from Den Bosch and The Hague but featured on the title-page a woodcut of the coat of arms of Amsterdam. Despite these incongruities, Verhoeven can lay claim to the title of publisher of the first illustrated newspaper.

The Nieuwe Tijdinghen generally contained some 800-1,000 words of text.
The issues of the Nieuwe Tijdinghen generally contained some 800-1,000 words of text. Verhoeven’s creative use of woodcuts on the title-page and in the pamphlet itself limited the actual news content. Verhoeven made up for this shorter text, however, with his prolific output. Credit: Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience

Many early news publishers tried to stick to a regular day of publication: not so Verhoeven. He generally printed his Nieuwe Tijdinghen every Friday (the main market-day in Antwerp), but also frequently on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and sometimes on Tuesdays or Thursdays. Verhoeven often published two or three issues on the same day. He had a habit of reprinting particularly popular issues a few days after the original printing. The survival of the Nieuwe Tijdinghen in overlapping collections has revealed 114 variant editions. Around half of these variants contain typographical differences: correction of spelling mistakes, different signature statements, and differences in the title. Uniquely amongst seventeenth-century newspapers, fifty-two variants are distinct only because they contain a different date on the title-page. If Verhoeven anticipated heightened demand, it seems that he would sometimes keep the text in standing type, and reprint a new run of copies the following day. At other times he would recompose the type of a popular issue three, four, or even seven days later and republish the same exact text.

Each issue of the Nieuwe Tijdinghen bears the initials of an ecclesiastical censor, as here, on the final page
Each issue of the Nieuwe Tijdinghen bears the initials of an ecclesiastical censor, as here, on the final page, or on the title-page. Verhoeven made sure that his news content did not deviate from positive coverage of Habsburg politics and military successes abroad. Credit: Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience

We know much about Verhoeven’s production strategies thanks to the survival of his issues in multiple collections. The majority of seventeenth-century newspaper issues can be found only in a single copy, if they survive at all. Because Verhoeven’s Nieuwe Tijdinghen were clearly marketed as a serial, which could be bound in a single volume, they survive rather better. They are held in partially overlapping collections in Brussels, London, Paris, Amsterdam, The Hague, Antwerp and Ghent; stray issues and smaller collections are found in twelve other libraries. The Heritage Library collection in Antwerp has one of the largest sets of Nieuwe Tijdinghen, and includes 45 unique editions, of which 20 are unique variants.

There are many remarkable aspects to Abraham Verhoeven and his publications. Verhoeven was the first newspaperman to pioneer the use of advertisements, announcing forthcoming issues and related publications at the end of his pamphlets. His newspaper was an innovative mixture of factual news reporting, poetry, satire and visual art. He kept up a constant stream of publications in a small workshop with a single press; and navigated for many years his way through the rivalrous politics of the Habsburg Empire. He died, at the age of 77, a poor man. Verhoeven had his share of demons: he drank heavily, suffered from gout and frequently engaged in violent confrontations with his wife, family and colleagues. He ended his working days as a wage labourer in his son’s workshop, indebted and exhausted.

Verhoeven’s sad end gives us all the more reason to reflect on his creative contributions to the early news trade, and preserve the physical examples of his efforts today. We are extremely grateful to the Heritage Library in Antwerp for their vision to digitise these precious survivors of the first age of the newspaper.

Read the Heritage Library report on the digitisation, and click through to see the digitised pamphlets:


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Dr Arthur der Weduwen is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of St Andrews and the author of Dutch and Flemish Newspapers of the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., Brill, 2017). His PhD (2018) is a study of government attempts to shape public opinion in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. He is a long-term associate of the Universal Short Title Catalogue project.  His most recent book, The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (co-authored with Andrew Pettegree), appears on 26 February 2019 with Yale University Press (in English) and Atlas Contact (in Dutch).

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