Wenceslaus Hollar - The Czech who drew London

Vaclav Hollar

It is quite possible that you will not have heard of the great 17th century artist Vaclav Hollar, or Wenceslaus Hollar as he is known internationally. But it is very likely that you will have seen some of his wonderful images of Prague or London, the city with which he is most closely associated. Indeed, Hollar was - as one book about the artist puts it - "The Man Who Drew London".

"Hollar came to London in the services of the Count of Arundel, Thomas Howard, who actually employed him as his artist when he travelled through Europe. He took him with him to London, where he worked for the rest of his life, except for trips abroad."

says Milan Kocourek, who has written about the artist and is Czech Radio's correspondent in London.

Hollar was born in Prague on July 13, 1607. The reasons he left the city, where his work was already highly regarded, are not entirely clear. For a long time it was believed he was forced to leave after his family was ruined by the capture of the city in the Thirty Years' War. However, recent research suggests he was just a typical young man in search of adventure.

It is known that Wenclesaus Hollar arrived in England with Lord Arundel in 1637. A few years later he was imprisoned, after taking the Royalist side in the English Civil War.

"According to one source he was supposed to have been involved in a battle on the Royalist side. He supported the king. One of the reasons was that he was the teacher, the art teacher, of the king, Charles I - and also I believe of Charles II. So he was involved with the royal family - as a teacher."

It is not quite clear whether he escaped from prison or was released. But either way he followed Lord Arundel to Belgium, where he again enjoyed great success. Indeed, some people are under the misapprehension that the great Bohemian etcher was Belgian.

"He spent some time in Antwerp. His picture for instance of Antwerp Cathedral is one of his most famous pictures, outside Britain. His pictures are known there as much as in England and the Czech Republic, of course."

Wenceslaus Hollar, also known as Wenzel, left a remarkably varied body of work: he etched views, portraits, landscapes and still life in many different forms. And while he may be best known for his architectural drawings, Hollar was also a master at capturing natural objects such as shells and butterfly wings.

But despite the great variety of Hollar's work he will forever be remembered for his depictions of London. Milan Kocourek explains part of the reason why.

"He's probably the only artist to draw London both before and after the Great Fire of London of 1666. His pictures of London are very lively. His figures for example are always doing something. They are not just static figures, whether they are on ships or in the streets of London."

And the streets of the capital were the focus of a map the artist failed to complete.

"It was meant to be the whole of London but he actually managed only one small part of London, in the area of today's Holborn. Some people regret that he did not continue in his work, because he was able to depict the smallest detail. Mostly he worked from the top of Southwark Cathedral. He was really known for his impeccable detail of his scenes and London is no exception is no exception at all - his Long View of London is very famous."

Wenceslaus Hollar's work may have brought him lasting fame, but it didn't bring him fortune. He never became rich and indeed billed clients - often publishers who used his work to illustrate their books - by the hour.

"In his time artists like him, those who were doing drawings and etchings, were not considered artists. They were artisans, they were not gentlemen - they were basically something like servants in an artistic role. He is known never to have had a workshop of his own, in the sense that he would have apprentices and people who would be taught by him. He always worked alone, and took commissions from anybody really."

Wencelaus Hollar is reported to have died a pauper. Indeed it is said that his final words were a plea to bailiffs not to carry away the bed in which he lay dying.

In all Hollar left nearly 3,000 plates. Almost complete collections exist in the British Museum and in the library at Windsor Castle, residence of Queen Elisabeth II.

"The Queen is actually one of the biggest owners of his works. That is the reason, for instance when visitors to London buy a picture of the Tower of London it is most likely Hollar's work...so I believe the Queen owns many pictures - her Hollar collection is very big. It is however also in other hands, in the hands of other private collectors."

Recently members of the public in Great Britain have had the opportunity to see some of his masterpieces for themselves, at exhibitions being held to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth and the 330th anniversary of his death. Czech Radio correspondent and author Milan Kocourek is clearly a fan of Wenceslaus Hollar's. On the phone from the city that Hollar immortalised forever, he explains why.

"It is really amazing, I've got part of his Long View of London at home. These pictures are very impressive, because of the detail which he put into his work, and the life which is depicted in them. And what is fascinating for me is the fact that many of these buildings no longer exist. So he was basically a chronicler of a London which basically does not exist any more. In that I see perhaps his biggest value and contribution to art."