Bohemian etcher Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) was one of the principal topographical engravers of the seventeenth century. His plates depicting views of London before and after the Great Fire (1666) are some of the most valuable printmaking accomplishments in the world.
Wenceslaus Hollar was born on July 13, 1607, in Prague, Czechia (also referred to as Bohemia), as the eldest of three sons. His mother, Marketa (died c. 1613), was identified by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as being “of Löwengrün and Bareyt in the upper Palatinate.” His father, Jan Hollar (died 1630), was an upper middle-class public official, and although not much is known about Hollar's youth, most agree that he was expected to follow his father into the legal field. However, despite any demands his father may have made, Hollar chose to pursue the printmaking trade as an amateur. Richard Godfrey's Wenceslaus Hollar: A Bohemian Artist in England (1994) explained, “Our knowledge of Hollar's beginnings as an etcher—probably as an interested young amateur rather than a fledgling professional—has been enlarged by … [the] discovery of a cache of juvenile prints … nervously scratched on little scraps of leftover copper … hesitantly executed, snatched too quickly from the acid, but their subjects are revealing.”
Exodus or Exile?
Hollar's colleague and friend John Aubrey (1626-1697) wrote a biography of the etcher that identified Hollar's father as a protestant Knight of the Empire who “forfeited his estate, and was ruined by the Roman Catholiques” when Prague was captured in the Thirty Years' War, according to the Web site She Philosopher. While Hollar did leave Prague in 1627 at the age of 20, sources disagree as to whether it was to seek opportunities as an artist against his father's wishes, or as a self-imposed exile prompted by the governmental changes happening at the time. Emperor Ferdinand II (1578-1637) issued an edict on July 31, 1627, that obligated Bohemian nobility, like Hollar's family, to convert and become Catholics or go into exile, but most scholars agree that Hollar left Prague of his own volition.
Where Hollar Went
Almost every biography of Hollar favors a timeline that claims he went straight from Prague in 1627 to Frankfurt, Germany, and entered training with renowned Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650). In an article written for The Art Bulletin, however, John Pav made a strong argument that “in the latter part of 1627, during 1628, and perhaps even in the early part of 1629, Hollar's presence can be positively documented only in Stuttgart and its immediate vicinity …. In 1629 and 1630, the artist was active mainly in Strasbourg. From 1633 until 1636, Hollar's center of activity was Cologne … [and] for over a year (during 1631 and probably also the major part of 1632) Hollar's whereabouts cannot be traced at all …. The most plausible explanation of this temporary ‘disappearance’ … is that he entered a studio, probably Merian's workshop in Frankfurt, where he became an anonymous member of a team of engravers.”
This timeline appears to be well supported and has been adopted by many scholars. Rather than go straight to Frankfurt, it is believed that Hollar spent 1627-1628 in Stuttgart, but found the township to be too small to support his growing career and skills. In Strasbourg from 1629-1630, according to Godfrey, Hollar “seriously commenced his profession, and … undertook his first commissions for print publishers.” Godfrey further described Hollar's technical prowess at that time, explaining how the etcher “rapidly evolved a delicate technique that employed careful modulations of acid bites.” Not until 1631-1632 did Hollar travel to Frankfurt to work with Merian, whose workshop was the heart of German print publishing, and where Hollar mastered the bird's eye view. From Frankfurt he stopped in Holland briefly in 1634, and then spent the next two years in Cologne, where he focused on landscape and costume, publishing his first collection of etchings there in 1635 at the age of 28.
A Rewarding Collaboration
In 1636 Hollar met the Earl of Arundel—Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel, 4th Earl of Surrey and 1st Earl of Norfolk (1585-1646), a renowned English courtier who is remembered as an art collector rather than as a politician. Godfrey explained, “Whether Hollar had offered his services to Arundel or whether Arundel had sought him out is not known, but the meeting was felicitous for both.” Hollar accompanied Arundel on a tour of Europe that allowed him to return briefly to his native Prague, and he then continued to Vienna, eventually returning to England. The tour was a diplomatic mission, technically speaking, but most who were involved knew it would not be successful as anything more than an opportunity to expand the Earl's already vast collection. According to the Folger Exhibitions Web site, Arundel wanted to “create a visual inventory of his collection, a ‘paper museum’ of etchings that would be an enduring record.” This was never achieved, although Hollar's plates and watercolors are all that remain of some famous works of architecture and pieces of art.
Hollar was not required to work exclusively for Arundel, and he accepted work from print sellers and other patrons while part of Arundel's retinue. In 1637 the tour ended and Hollar settled in London, England, as a member of Arundel's household, and Aubrey described the artist's time there as idyllic. In 1640 Hollar served as a drawing instructor to the Prince of Wales—the future Charles II. Godfrey summarized Hollar's professional position at that time, saying that “he was a skilled but conservative etcher and a first-class topographer … a fine draftsman of costume … [and] a master on a small scale, a talent highly amenable to English taste.” While Hollar may not have been the first landscape engraver to be active in England, he was definitely a primary source of introduction for etching methods and techniques.
No Head For Business
Hollar was not a businessman by nature, and was frequently taken advantage of. According to Hollar's NNDB biography, buyers would pretend “to decline his work that he might still further reduce the wretched price he charged.” Eventually Hollar began to charge by the hour and kept meticulous track of his time with a sand glass. Aubrey remembered seeing him set it on its side whenever his work was interrupted for any reason.
An Artist At War
Some confusion clouds Hollar's activities and whereabouts between 1642 and 1645. The Arundel household left England for Antwerp, Belgium, without Hollar in tow, and he is believed to have served in a Royalist regiment during the English Civil War period. According to the NNDB Web site, the engraver “passed into the service of the Duke of York, taking with him [his] wife and two children” in 1642 and “stood the long and eventful siege of Basing House” with “other royalist artists.” Hollar was either released or he escaped, and made his way to Antwerp. Other sources have claimed that he could not have been part of the siege at Basing because all who were involved were executed.
Wherever he was, Hollar's work suggests that he used this period away from Arundel to focus on the depiction of women's costumes. From 1643 to 1644 Hollar fashioned full-length studies of female figures dressed to represent the seasons, and they became some of his most famous plates. He arrived in Antwerp in 1645, where he once again worked with the Earl of Arundel, who had begun selling off his collection. Hollar's bank of drawings and watercolors provided ample material for him to make etchings of some of the Earl's fleeting treasures.
It was during his eight years in Antwerp that Hollar had the opportunity to address a broad array of personal artistic interests, and his original etchings of fur muffs, insects and sea shells set him apart from other artists of that time. Godfrey believed that Hollar “transcends plain prose and draws and etches with poetic spirit.” His plates from this period still amaze with their attentive and refined ability to reproduce the lacy pattern of veins in a butterfly wing or the intricate spirals and glossy efficiency of a rare shell.
Return to England
In 1652 the restoration of Charles II allowed for Hollar to return to England, where he began what would become a life's labor for various print sellers and publishers, mainly publisher John Ogilby and antiquarian Sir William Dugdale. While there seem to be no accounts to clarify the fate of Hollar's first wife and children, records do show that on July 3, 1656, Hollar married Honora Roberts and is believed to have had more several children. But Hollar soon discovered that the shine had worn from his adopted home. Aubrey stated, “I remember [Hollar] told me that when he first came into England, (which was a serene time of peace) that the people, both poore and rich, did looke cheerfully, but at his returne, he found the countenances of the people all changed, melancholy, spightfull, as if bewitched.” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography noted that “in 1660 Hollar issued a prospectus for a large-scale map of London which he hoped would be his financial salvation.” Godfrey further described the project as “a map that would transcend all others in scale and detail, a task of vaulting ambition for which [Hollar] alone was qualified.” In 1665 Hollar's son James died of the plague, and in 1666 Hollar was appointed with the title of “His Majesty's Designer.”
The Great Fire: Blessing or Curse?
Hollar was most likely in London during the Great Fire of 1666, and the topographical scenes of the city that he recorded from Southwark before and after the fire made him famous. The plates became very valuable as one of the few direct sources of information from that time. Some claimed that Hollar sketched the fire while it burned, but scholars have maintained that this is unlikely because Hollar, as a foreigner, would have been in hiding rather than out in public where roving bands of vigilantes swarmed the streets looking for foreigners who were rumored to have started the fire. While it did make Hollar's London plates legendary, the fire also rendered his work for a large map of London obsolete.
In 1669 Hollar petitioned to be assigned as the official artist on Lord Henry Howard's trip to Tangier, Africa. He traveled with Howard's retinue and returned a year later. Wenceslaus Hollar died on March 28, 1677, at his home on Gradner's Lane in Westminster, and was interred at St. Margaret's Church. Considered one of the most skilled etchers of any time, Hollar did not let the fact that he had lost most of the sight in one eye deter him from cultivating an attention to texture and displaying his gift for translating it into the etched medium.
Carving History into Copper
Hollar produced well over 2,000 pieces in his lifetime, ranging from classical, historical, and religious subjects to portraits, costumes, still-lifes, and topography. His seemingly inexhaustible work ethic assured a prolific turnout in a time before photography when painting and engraving were vital methods of preserving history. The Folger Library hosted an exhibition of Hollar's work from October of 1996 through February of 1997, and the Folger Exhibitons Web site noted in the introductory material that “If Hollar were alive today, he might well be a freelance photographer” because “his eye was his camera lens, [and] his copperplates the film …. His etchings permit us to witness the spectacle of coronations and executions, to pour over the detail of costume and buildings, and to view a terrain that was shifting even as Hollar rendered it and that has since been irrevocably altered.” Godfrey suggested that “it is the gentle modesty of [Hollar's] work, the affectionate curvature of his delicate etched lines, that has assured him a lasting place in our affections.”
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