105. Wencslaus Hollar

(1607–1677)
A Fur Muff with a Band of Brocade
Etching, 1645, first state (of two), a very good impression of this rare and delicate subject. (Pennington 1950).
Size: 9.2 × 14.8 cm

Wencslaus Hollar was born in Prague to a Protestant family. His first known etching dates from 1625, five years after the Battle of the White Mountain and the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. In 1627 he left Bohemia for Stuttgart, and then went on to Strasbourg, Frankfurt and Holland. In 1634 he was active in Cologne, until 1636 when he entered the service of the Earl of Arundel whose embassy was passing through the city. He thus arrived in London in December of that year, and stayed working until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1644. Legend has it that he was captured along with Inigo Jones by Cromwell’s troops at the siege of Basing House. He escaped to Antwerp, remaining there until 1652 when he returned to London, finding it very changed, puritanical and miserable, under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. He was appointed King’s Scenographer to Charles II in 1666, the year the Great Fire destroyed much of London. In 1669 he travelled to Tangier as official draughtsman. He died in 1677 and was buried at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. He was notoriously devoid of business sense. The bailiffs were carrying off his possessions as he lay dying, and he had to beg them to let him die in his own bed.

The range and quality of Hollar’s work is extraordinary. Most famous is the Long View of London from Bankside printed from six plates in 1647; and most loved his beautiful series of shells. Women’s costumes from different parts of Europe inspired another long series of prints.

My first encounter with Hollar’s fur muffs took place in the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, in the context of an exhibition in 2008 entitled: ‘Amazing Rare Things’. There they were, eight of them, laid out in a case. I found them astounding, surreal even, with a palpable soft erotic charge. The only thing which came to mind that seemed atmospherically related was ‘Also a woman’s glove…’ from André Breton’s Nadja. Otherwise they were out there on their own. Later I read Richard Godfrey’s Wenceslaus Hollar, A Bohemian Artist in England, (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1995) whose sensitive assessment is probably the best there is. ‘Hollar adored women – the complexities of their hair, their posture, and their clothing and accessories, their fur muffs being to his special delectation. This enraptured contemplation of the feminine world is the best-loved aspect of his work, and one in which he transcends plain prose and draws and etches with poetic spirit. In this he is at one with such courtly poets as Herrick, Lovelace, or Suckling, who vie for our attention with their verses in praise of female beauty…..These are justly the best loved and admired of all Hollar’s prints, and they constitute his most original contribution to the history of printmaking. The closely laid and expertly bitten lines perfectly suggest the softness and warmth of fur, in which Hollar delighted. The delicacy and closeness of the lines is such that they wore quickly and could scarcely be retouched; consequently fine impressions of them are rare.’

Hollar knew all the great men of the Restoration, those brilliant figures clustered around the Royal Society. John Evelyn was his close friend and admirer. It would seem obvious that, while branded in France in the 18th century, the Enlightenment began in England in the second half of the 17th century, in much the same way that the Industrial Revolution was initiated a hundred years later by the ‘Lunar Men’.

Provenance: Ex coll. George Ambrose Cardew (L. 1134); an unidentified collector’s mark (not in Lugt).