Wenceslaus Hollar: Etching the 17th century

Wenceslaus Hollar: Etching the 17th century

Self-portrait, 1649, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Hollar vs. Lindauer

So, you think Gottfried Lindauer is the most significant Czech artist in Te Papa’s collection? Wrong, certainly in terms of world fame, quantity and arguably in quality too!

In Collections Online, Lindauer is trounced 68-21 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–77), whilst in our new Ngā Toi exhibition, Splendour, there are six Hollars alone on show.

Hollar’s output is huge – his Descriptive Catalogue lists 2717 works, which averages out at over one print a week over a period of fifty years. This is an incredible achievement given the political upheavals he experienced in his lifetime (the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War), disasters (the Great Fire of London), constant travel, as well as personal tragedy, such as the deaths of his first wife and son.

Some art historians argue that Hollar’s prolificness compromises his reputation but this is unfair. His livelihood completely depended on printmaking and far from making him a fortune, according to one popular account Hollar died a pauper. Instead of condemning his work as ‘illustrative’ (a stock modernist term of abuse), we should praise it precisely because of this: it shows us what life was like in his turbulent century.

A bouncing Czech

If you want art that movingly explores the human condition and spirituality, then you would prefer Hollar’s close contemporary, Rembrandt. But if you want art of, about and for the people – and the objects that defined their lifestyle – then Hollar is your man.

He’s like a 17th century Bill Bryson: an artist of ‘nearly everything’. He bounces from subject to subject, and reflects the priorities of his time: religious prints, mythology, satire, landscapes, geography and maps, portraits, costumes, sports, natural history, architecture, heraldry, numismatics, ornaments, title-pages and initials.

It may be exaggerating to say that Hollar had a bouncy temperament, though you can sense his gusto in depicting one landscape after another, one person after another, especially one woman and her fashion proclivities after another, shown for example in his popular series The severall habits of English women, from the nobilitie to the contry woman, as they are in these times.’

Plate from Ornatus Muliebris Anglicanus…, The severall habits of English women…, 1640, by Wenceslaus Hollar. 17C American Women blog

Yet if the commission required it, Hollar could stray into very different terrain, as in his series of boys (not all of them with innocent, child-like faces) cavorting with goats, of which a prim 20th century commentator writes: ‘It has been suggested that they were produced to satisfy homosexual taste; and it is possible that to that kind of mind they might appeal.’ Food for thought in Queer History Month. But the point is this: Hollar was a compulsive etcher, not a lecher!

Five boys, two satyrs and a goat, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Wikimedia Commons

Covenants and chalices

Hollar was born a Protestant but evidently converted to Catholicism in his middle age. Yet you sense that he was never dogmatically sectarian. Although he could lovingly depict an impeccably Catholic object like an intricately decorated chalice used for Communion Mass (see below), he was also ready to illustrate A Solemn Discourse upon the Sacred League and Covenant, the propaganda tool which advocated the establishment of severe and stern Scottish Presbyterianism in England during the Civil War of the 1640s, and which aimed to crush ‘Popery’.

A Solemn Discourse upon the Sacred League and Covenant, 1643, by Wenceslaus Hollar.

While it is notoriously difficult and dangerous to read a person’s character into his art, what emerges from Hollar is his curiosity, charm, humour, technical excellence and good nature. As hinted earlier, this is all the more impressive coming from someone whose formative years were spent during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), during which an estimated eight million people died, while the population reduction in German states caught up in its midst was between 25% and 40%. Hollar’s native Bohemia, to which he frequently returned in his etcher’s needle and his heart, was the theatre of brutal war when he was in his teens.

A noble benefactor

Probably because of the 1627 imperial edict requiring Bohemians of good birth to forcibly convert to Catholicism, Hollar left for Germany, spending stints in Stuttgart, the free city of Strasbourg, Frankfurt and Cologne. Then, in 1636, Hollar got his big break: the offer to work in the household of Thomas Howard, second earl of Arundel, who was on a diplomatic mission to the war-torn German and Imperial states. Lord Arundel was an art connoisseur and collector bar none and Hollar returned with him to England. The next five years were spent under Lord Arundel’s patronage and some impressive works date from this period, including panoramic views and thinly-disguised studies of fashionably dressed women, The Four Seasons.

Allegories of the four seasons: Spring, 1644, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Wikigallery.org

The Large Chalice

Hollar also copied art masterpieces from Lord Arundel’s and other collections. We don’t tend to regard copies highly today, but the Splendour exhibition shows how the past felt differently. The Wedgwood Portland vase is an impressive pottery copy of the Roman original, while Hollar’s Large chalice is an etching that copies a drawing then thought to be by Mantegna and now located in the British Museum.

A chalice, 1640, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1961. Te Papa (1961-0006-12)

Hollar lovingly follows every loop of the pen in the original. Looking at it closely, we see the ornamental scenes near the top of the bowl depict Christ’s Passion, while the stem is like a miniature tabernacle. The etching is impressive enough: the original object (if it ever actually existed) must have been an early Renaissance object of wonderment.


Political disruption, with the outbreak of the English Civil War, hit Hollar hard once again: Lord Arundel fled to Antwerp in 1642 and left him wholly dependent on his own means. It is from this period that Hollar’s nine recorded studies of muffs date. These are the most loved and admired of his prints and enjoy a timeless appeal. On one level, it is wonderful to see how Hollar’s myriad lines of the etching needle convey myriad strands of fur. Look at them further, and these inanimate objects look like strange creatures. Look at them further still, and their their warm, soft appeal is unquestionably sensuous: while this is evident in Te Papa’s beautiful Muff with a band of brocade, it is still more so in A dark fur muff with stripes, which looks like a semi-concealed version of the sexy classical story of Leda and the Swan!

Muff with a band of brocade, 1647, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952. Te Papa (1952-0003-128)
A dark fur muff with stripes, 1647, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Wikigallery.org

I’m Henry VIII, I am

While Hollar is very much a figure of the 17th century, he has a profound sense of history. This is evident in his copy of the chalice drawing; in his superb renditions of the exteriors – really the personalities – of Gothic cathedrals – and also in his portrait of Henry VIII (1489-1547).

Henry VIII, 1647, by Wenceslaus Hollar after Hans Holbein the Younger. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952. Te Papa (1952-0003-127)

This is based on a painting by Hans Holbein then in the Arundel Collection, as indicated in the Latin inscription ‘Holbein pinxit, W Hollar fecit ex Collectione Arundeliana’. It dates from 1647, by which time Hollar too had fled from war-stricken England to Antwerp. Whether it was a belated commission from his noble patrons or – more likely – a royal portrait intended to be a best-selling etching is not documented. It depicts Henry VIII in his massive, regal prime, wearing a fur gown over a brocaded vest, and a chain with a circular jewel round his neck. He is immediately recognisable to people today, including the many New Zealand school students who study the Tudors and Stuarts for NCEA Level 3 History.

King Charles the Martyr

Whereas Hollar revives Holbein who painted well over a century earlier, the portrait of King Charles I is very much of the moment. It dates from 1649, the year of the King’s execution.

Charles I, 1649, by Wenceslaus Hollar after Sir Anthony van Dyck. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952. Te Papa (1952-0003-126)

There can can be little doubt that Hollar’s own sympathies were strongly with the deceased monarch, who for all his flaws was second only to Lord Arundel in the culture, depth and genuineness of his art collecting and patronage. The location of Charles’s death, the Banqueting House, Whitehall, is visible on the right, behind his shoulder, while Westminster Abbey and Parliament are on the left. Hollar’s rendition functions as a memorial portrait, and strikes a deliberately sombre and austere note when compared with other members of monarchical families that hang beside him in Splendour. This is especially evident when we look at the voluptuous portrait of Charles’s consort, Queen Henrietta Maria, engraved by Hollar’s rival, William Faithorne, showing her in happier days.

Queen Henrietta Maria, 1640-1642, by William Faithorne the Elder, after Sir Anthony van Dyck. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1971. Te Papa (1971-0048-4)

A trendy houpette

Hollar loved the idiosyncrasies of fashion, and in the so-called Antwerp Citizen’s Wife, he portrays an attractive young woman with long, fair wavy hair covered at the back by a black veil. On her forehead is an extraordinary device called a houpette, a black pad with a stiff upstanding stalk ending in a rosette.

An Antwerp citizen’s wife, 1643, United Kingdom, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Gift of Mrs Harold Wright, 1965. Te Papa (1965-0012-13)

The houpette is surely a distant ancestor of the headgear that enchanted the media and public when they were worn by Princess Beatrice of York and her younger sister Princess Eugenie at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. Significantly, Princess Eugenie was then studying Art History at Newcastle University; in her baroque ‘fascinator’, could she have been paying conscious tribute to Hollar and 17th century fashions?

This print is perhaps more of a routine illustration, but is highly significant to the Splendour story in relation to international commerce that brought anything from muffs to mahogany to Britain.

The Royal Exchange, 1645-1650, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-178)

The Royal Exchange is labelled ‘Byrsa Londinensis’ (the Bourse of London), where the exchange of goods and by Hollar’s time stock-trading flourished. It was founded in the previous century by merchant Thomas Gresham and was built in the Elizabethan style. Hollar’s depiction is historically valuable because, as elsewhere, it provides an unparalleled record of the architectural character of London prior to its destruction of the Great Fire of 1666. Hollar enlivens the composition by depicting a man with a rod chasing small boys, possibly pupils at the nearby City of London School. Over the centuries, London has maintained its role as the hub of world finance, seeing off all contenders apart from New York. Will Brexit consign this to history?

Hail Hollar!

Hollar returned to London in about 1652, and spent the last 25 years of his life there, working and travelling frenetically to the end: one of his final works was illustrating The Antiquities of Nottinghamshire for which he did field work. In 1669, in his early sixties, he petitioned King Charles II for permission to accompany Lord Henry Howard on his embassy to Tangier, Morocco, as official artist. This was granted and 31 drawings and fifteen etchings have survived; a highlight was surviving an attack by Algerian pirates. Partly because his earnings were never great and partly because he had no head for business, Hollar was always more famous than he was rich. His ambitious project to make an enormous map of London was thwarted by the Great Fire. Three of the most significant writers of his day, John Aubrey, John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, all greatly respected him, and he was friendly with the first two. Even his more routine, commissioned work reflects the vitality of Stuart London and its hunger for knowledge and curiosity. In his etchings of muffs, moths (several of which are in Te Papa’s collection) and rare shells, in his architectural perspectives and in his urban panoramas, Hollar is unquestionably a great artist.

Muscarum scarabeorum … varie figure. Plate 8. Two moths and six insects, 1646, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-172)

Hollar was never self-consciously ‘arty’, nor was he particularly intellectual. What you see is what you get. Yet everything is always rendered with a technical brilliance both in the etching medium and in each composition in a way that is all too easy to take for granted today. While Hollar is ‘our’ artist at Te Papa, I end on a personal note: with my Czech whakapapa on my mother’s side, here I give thanks to Václav (Wenceslaus) Hollar: Vítám tê Václava Hollara!


  1. The Splendour exhibition was so amazing and I really recommend it to people.

    1. Thanks Isaac!

  2. Great blog! Informative, educational and funny. Laughed out loud more than once reading this. Though confess to having to google what ‘numismatics’ is.

    1. Thank you Megan. It’s a posh word for the study of coins but it can also include medals. As I’ve been writing articles in this area for 30 years it’s good to be reminded that there is a whole non-numismatic world out there – guys, you’re missing a treat!

    1. Thanks, Isaac. Yes, Hollar definitely knew his stuff!

  3. I enjoyed the fast, witty, insightful, informative and entertaining text. Though many of Hollar’s images are “after’ the work of others, in a number of senses, that doesn’t lessen their own vitality. Viva Mark and the redoubtable Wenceslaus !

    1. Thanks for the comment, Peter. Yes you’re quite right – Hollar ‘copied’ Rembrandt, Callot, Van Dyck and more. It’s been suggested that Van Dyck wouldn’t have liked Hollar’s renditions which are miles away from his ‘bravura’ style. I think Hollar takes the prize for being the least baroque-like artist in the century of the baroque. He’s a lot more sober and sensible, and certainly not into illusionism or other special effects, but is no less interesting for it.

  4. Such an interesting subject Mark. I hope you will give us more about printmakers from the Te Papa collection and I really enjoyed reading Anna Rigg’s ‘Taking Rembrandt for a walk’ earlier this year. Thank you. Belinda Ricketts

    1. Author

      Thank you Belinda. The historic prints are a real strength of our collection. And Anna’s blogs are excellent too, she was great to have as our summer scholar.

    1. Thanks David!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *