Organisation - March 29, 2018

Begging bowl for The Sower

Rik Nijland

Salverdaplein, Duivendaal, in front of Atlas — wherever Wageningen University’s board went, The Sower followed. He proudly symbolizes the spreading of knowledge. But how did the university actually end up with the statue? The real story is rather more prosaic than the myth.

The Sower in its current spot on campus. photos Guy Ackermans and WUR archives

To put an end to one misconception: The Sower is not a gift from the grateful residents of Wageningen, as is stated on Wikipedia and also in previous Resource articles. The money for the statue was raised in fits and starts by the agricultural sector. It seems as if two separate events on 14 September 1926 have blurred into one over time.

That day was the occasion for festivities in Wageningen, with the official celebration in the city that afternoon of 50 years of agricultural education. The municipality presented a gift to the Agricultural College: not a statue but a plot of land and 25,000 guilders for a new laboratory.

Earlier, just before lunch, a select group had already gathered in Salverdaplein for another high point, the unveiling of The Sower. Two ministers turned up, along with the Queen's Commissioner, the mayor, various professors and the sculptor August Falise. Only Prince Hendrik, Falise’s hunting companion, was missing — he failed to make it on time.

Chairman of the Agricultural College board Schelto van Citters (right) had great difficulty raising the necessary funds.
Chairman of the Agricultural College board Schelto van Citters (right) had great difficulty raising the necessary funds.

A film camera was on hand to record the unveiling. The images (no sound) can still be found in the WUR archives but they are so blotchy that you can barely tell the wife of the rector magnificus apart from the men in dark suits (she cuts a cord, after which the cloth slides off). And The Sower’s head is not shown when the scene reaches its climax.

It is clear at any rate from newspaper reports that the nobleman Schelto van Citters, chairman of the board of the Agricultural College, gave an impassioned speech. ‘This statue speaks of Labour and Trust, Work and Prayer, Science and Religion,’ he told his audience. ‘This is not the statue of some peasant randomly scattering seed; on the contrary, it speaks of serious labour, of toiling and working to properly prepare the soil where he will be sowing.’

Few of those present would have realized that ‘toiling’ was also an apt description of the fundraising for the artwork. While three years of going around with a begging bowl had now finally resulted in The Sower standing proudly on his pedestal, the bills were still a long way from being paid. Two weeks later, Van Citters himself coughed up a hefty sum to save face.

The term ‘crowdfunding’ had yet to be invented but that was what the Sower committee wanted

Empty coffers
Yet the story of The Sower had begun so promisingly three years earlier, in 1923. To mark the occasion of the Agricultural College’s fifth anniversary, the Wageningen artist August Falise donated the design for a three-metre bronze statue. He also promised to pay for the pedestal. This generous gift posed a dilemma for the college as it did not have a budget of its own; it had to appeal to the national government for every penny it spent. And the government was keeping a tight rein on the purse strings.

In fact, it was busy implementing drastic cuts because the coffers were empty. Government funding for the young Agricultural College was cut by a third in the space of two years, while the budget for research was halved. There was no room for any extras. A phone connection in the Laboratory for Technology? Rejected. The government did not even budge when the professors in the main building complained that they were unable to keep their laboratories clean because of all the soot from the heating stoves — even though there was allegedly danger of an explosion. Central heating was out of the question.

The Sower shortly after it was unveiled in 1926.
The Sower shortly after it was unveiled in 1926.

Crowdfunding avant la lettre
In an effort to do something with Falise’s gift despite this difficult climate, a committee was set up in 1923. Van Citters was the chairman and the nobleman Willem Laman Trip, the Agricultural College administrator, was the secretary and treasurer.

He explained in an agricultural science journal what August Falise intended: ‘A sower, the symbol of the Agricultural College, that sows seeds across the country that will germinate to produce a rich harvest.’ Laman Trip philosophized further: ‘Is this not also a representation of the link that binds science and practice, the scientific sower who gives and scatters, the practical farmer who acts according to his instructions and harvests.’

The symbolism was nice but this was also a fundraiser talking. The term ‘crowdfunding’ had yet to be invented but that was precisely what the committee had in mind. The ‘agricultural base’ – i.e. the Netherlands' farmers — would have to donate the 6000 guilders that were needed to cast Falise’s statue. All the national and regional agricultural societies and cooperatives were sent a letter. If they were to donate 10 guilders and each of their members one guilder, ‘then the funds for the statue would be found’.

But the agricultural base was apparently unconvinced of the added value after 50 years of agricultural education in Wageningen and five years of an Agricultural College. The campaign petered out after two months, by which point about 40 guilders had been promised. In the summer of 1925 — the country's finances had now improved slightly — the committee resumed its fundraising efforts so that the unveiling could be part of the celebration of 50 years of Wageningen agricultural education in 1926.

Backward districts
Some regional agricultural consultants warned against being too optimistic. ‘My expectations are not high given that (...) nearly all my contacts are with farmers in the most backward districts,’ wrote one. ‘I don't expect there will be much enthusiasm amongst those who enjoy material benefits from the work of the Agricultural College for contributing to the aforementioned goal,’ thought another.

The sceptics were proved right. Laman Trip became increasingly downcast in his correspondence. In April 1926, when they had only raised 920 of the required 6000 guilders, he wrote: ‘In these circumstances it will not be possible to unveil the statue in September.’ He also gave an explanation for the disappointing proceeds. The Netherlands was in the middle of aid campaigns for the victims of major floods in the river areas and of the tornado that had devastated the centre of Borculo. The Wageningen fundraisers could not compete with so many natural disasters.

After consulting with Falise, the committee therefore decided to go for a simpler, smaller statue, just over two metres tall, to be executed in French limestone (Euville marbrier) rather than bronze. The artist gave a rough estimate for the statue of 1500 guilders. Time was running out and although they still needed another 500 guilders or so, the sculptor was given the go-ahead. As for much of his work, Falise outsourced the execution: the sculptor Hendrik Maurits Hagedoorn got to work using a plaster model. The artist did pay the occasional visit to the site in Scheveningen where Hagedoorn was working.

His own money
When the final bill came, it turned out that the estimate had been far too optimistic. The statue cost 1226.61 guilders plus 644.10 for the transport, pedestal, inscription and installation. When the costs of stationery and postage were added, The Sower came to over 2000 guilders. There is also no sign in the archives that Falise ever paid for the promised pedestal.

Although a new begging letter only raised a few tenners, Laman Trip was still able to breathe a sigh of relief four months after the unveiling as all the bills had now been paid. Chairman of the board Van Citters had paid 400 guilders of his own money, the association of owners of Dutch East Indies sugar companies gave 200 guilders and participants at the conference of East Indies agriculturalists, held in Wageningen in December, made up the remaining shortfall with donations totalling 150 guilders. The big agricultural businesses of the day had come to their aid.

The Sower is a symbol that should make a deep impression on the future agriculturalists
When the university celebrated its 75th anniversary, the event featured a 15-metre-tall replica of The Sower.
When the university celebrated its 75th anniversary, the event featured a 15-metre-tall replica of The Sower.

Back to 14 September 1926. After the fervent speech by Van Citters, an irritated Jan Kan, the Minister of the Interior and Agriculture, spoke. The Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant newspaper had already printed his speech by mistake, so Kan made do with a couple of sentences. The audience would just have to read the rest in the newspaper. Some reporters still printed the intended speech anyway. ‘Anything that can nurture the aesthetic sense in the generation that will follow us is of immeasurable value. What is more, The Sower who sets off to sow seeds, the image of nature eternally renewing itself, is a symbol that should make a deep impression on future agriculturalists.’

The statue certainly has made an impression; it has grown to become an icon of Wageningen, a symbol for sowing knowledge. When the 75th anniversary of university education in Wageningen was celebrated with the Bergfeest, 25 years ago now, it featured a 15-metre-tall replica of The Sower. A cartoon clip was also made in which students from the art school in Tilburg sketched a somewhat ironic picture of the Wageningen science that gave birth to The Sower.

Van Citters would undoubtedly not have been amused. In his incredibly earnest speech in 1926 in Salverdaplein, when he kept up the appearance of a generous agricultural sector, he spoke the solemn words: ‘And now he sows, brave and strong through his appropriation of what science has given him (...). See, this is what is our still young College can glory in spite its short life: that it has managed to bind the practical farmers to it in the free exercise of pure science.’


Wim ter Beest of the WUR Document Management and Logistics Department, the researcher Gerben Kuipers, Wageningen municipal archives, Gelders archives and De Casteelse Poort museum all contributed to this article.

14 september 1926 The Sower is unveiled in Salverdaplein
1990 The Sower moves to the new administration centre in Duivendaal
2012 The Sower moves to campus


More sowers

Other universities around the world also have statues of sowers. The latest was unveiled in 2000, on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. The oldest university sower is probably one that was cast at the end of the 19th century and donated to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in 1914.

Duke University’s Sower in the US.
Duke University’s Sower in the US.

The only sower collector

Sower collector Gérard Urselmann
Sower collector Gérard Urselmann

The flat of Gérard Urselmann (78) in Enkhuizen is full of sowers, mostly but not exclusively male. He has statues, drawings, advertising material, postcards, stamps, ashtrays, plates, medals, you name it. He even has a pocket knife with a sower.

Collecting is in his blood, says Urselmann. In 1984 he spotted an illustration of a sower by the artist Jean-François Millet. ‘I thought, this shows my life. As a child I used to sow turnip seeds, later I worked for the seed company Syngenta, and I like the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. Since then I’ve focused my collecting on sowers. As far as I know, I'm the only one.’

Urselmann has had two exhibitions in Wageningen, the last one in 1993 to mark the 75th anniversary of university education. His collection includes a few references to August Falise’s Sower in Wageningen: for example on a packet of sugar from the Agricultural College and on postcards, but also in the form of a small replica (where the face is too round) that the local tourist office once sold.

‘Many artists have never actually seen a farmer sowing seed,’ says Urselmann. ‘If the right hand is held out forwards, the right leg should be pointing back, but the artist often chooses a more static position because they find it more attractive.’ However The Sower in Wageningen is doing a good job, says the collector. ‘Falise was very observant.’

A part from the collection of sower collector Urselmann.
A part from the collection of sower collector Urselmann.

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