The Hemony Bells
by Lois Springer
Originally printed as a supplement to The Bell Tower, the official publication of the American Bell Association International, Inc., March 1985. © American Bell Association International, Inc.
"The real pleasure of a hobby," says Harold Lloyd, "lies in its ability to obsess you, to drive you on, to pull you into its complexities, so you try to see if you can overcome them."
Were Mr. Lloyd a bell collector, doubtless he would feel greatly challenged by the many puzzling questions surrounding so-called Hemony bells, questions which no one as yet has found satisfactory answers.
Upon coming into possession of a Hemony bell, collectors invariably delve into reference books to check biographical data on the bell-founder whose name forms a part of the customary inscription around the rim of each bell. Results of such searching end only in perplexity, for the full inscription including date of casting usually reads F. Hemony Me Fecit Anno 1569. Yet, Frans Hemony lived during the years 1609-1667.
If we accept these lifetime dates for Frans Hemony, we must also accept the fact that to all appearances he did not himself cast the small handbells bearing his name and the year 1569. The discrepancy between the casting date on the bells and the dates covered by Frans’ life span have given rise to several theories and to prolonged research on the part of interested collectors.
Preparatory to examining these theories, however, it might be well to sketch briefly what is known of the Hemony family and their work in bell making.
Both Frans and his younger brother Pieter (1619-1680) were natives of Lorraine, but they established the first bell foundry at the Dutch town of Zutfen in 1640. Here, five years later, the brothers Hemony made their first carillon for the Winehouse tower at Zutfen. So satisfactory was it that the city fathers issued a long written testimonial declaring the carillon “to be not only good, but surpassing all other carillons in the vicinity.”
By 1657 Frans had moved to Amsterdam where he was received with great consideration, for the reputation of the Hemonys was spreading rapidly and many towns were buying carillons of them. Knowing Frans’ talent and honesty, the city of Amsterdam assigned him without cost a building for his foundry. At the same time they entrusted him with the making of carillons for five towers.
Pieter joined his elder brother in Amsterdam sometime during the year 1664, and after Frans’ death he conducted the foundry alone until his own death on February 17, 1680. Curiously, the date of Pieter’s death coincides with the calendar’s Holy Day for the patron saint of all bell-founders.
Altogether the Hemony brothers cast scores of ringing bells and carillons. Almost half of the existing carillons in the Netherlands today, as well as many in other countries, are the work of this noted family. While of moderate education, Frans and Pieter became the most skilful craftsmen of their day in producing bells of exceptional beauty; and they possessed a remarkable faculty for tuning their bells. Yet they were not without competition in 17th century Holland; for this was the era when Dutch artistic genius was manifesting itself in many ways, including the making of carillons. The Van den Gheyna and the Dumerys and the Petits were other producers of excellent carillons, to name only a few.
Of the two Hemony brothers the name of Frans, the elder, is better know to collectors since his name appears on so many handbell inscriptions. His younger brother, Pieter, was no less well known in 17th century Holland. It was he who went so far as to write the first published booklet on carillons to present certain of his theories. It was Pieter, too, who carried on extensive correspondence revealing the family’s friendship with great personalities of the day.
Knowing something of the Hemony’s fame, collectors are naturally eager to believe that handbells marked F. Hemony Me Fecit Anno 1569 were made by the master founder, Frans Hemony. And indeed many fine handbells have been the by-product of various carillon makers. In the case of the Hemony bells, however, the recurring problem is how to explain the 16th century casting date in the inscription.