It’s strange how much of our visual knowledge of what mid-17thc England was like comes through the work of non-English artists, like Van Dyke and Wenceslaus Hollar. Whereas most people have heard of Van Dyke I’m not so sure if the same is true of Hollar. This is partly because Van Dyke painted large flashy canvases portraying the court and aristocratic world before the Civil War whereas Hollar usually worked on a miniature scale. Yet he created prints and drawings of amazing accuracy and detail even if they require careful study to appreciate his talent. His work also required great technical skill but, because printmaking smacks of artisanry rather than artistry, it has traditionally been considered a lesser art form.
However Hollar was the greatest engraver and print maker of the 17thc, indeed, arguably amongst the greatest of all time, and his work tells its own story. His range of interests and output was vast, and about 400 drawings 3000 different etchings and many sketches and watercolours also survive. Between them they provide an amazing insight into 17thc life.
Todays’ post is a look at some of his fashion prints, particularly a series of four full length figures he produced in 1643 and 1644, one for each season, and before you wonder why it sounds as if I’m intending to tell you about 17thc women’s clothes on a garden history blog take a look at the backgrounds…
Bohemian by birth Hollar met the “Collector Earl” of Arundel in 1636 at the age of 29, when the earl was on a diplomatic mission in central Europe. He got an invitation to London and effectively joined the earl’s household
Hollar produced several series of fashion plates, including some which suggest from the costumes that he had access to Van Dyke’s studio over a long period. Most show women set against plain backgrounds but a few, notably the series of four full length studies produced in the early days of the English Civil War have topographical backgrounds.
These plates were drawn just before Hollar decided to return to continental Europe in the footsteps of his patrons the Earl and Countess of Arundel who, in 1642, had gone into exile as the Civil War threatened. Like them he settled in Antwerp and probably joined the countess’s household there, as the earl himself had already moved on to Padua where he was to die in 1646.
In the first plate, Spring, a fashionably dressed young woman stands in front of a house and garden holding a bunch of tulips in her right hand. This we should remember was not long after the height of tulipmania in 1637. It used to be thought that the woman portrayed was the countess herself, but that’s unlikely as she would have been in her early 50s by the time of publishing. There are a couple of other suggestions as to who the model might be. Gillian Tindall in her book on Hollar says there is little doubt it is Catherine Howard, one of the Arundels’ grandchildren, and on the basis of another portrait there is certainly a strong resemblance. She would only have been about 12 at the time, but would even by that age have been dressed as a little adult. Another alternative I have heard suggested is that it is in fact Hollar’s wife, Mistress Margaret Tracy who he married in 1641 and who was also employed in the Arundel household.
But it’s the grand house and garden that’s most interesting but they are elusive to put it mildly, and do not resemble any known aristocratic mansion. Ann Saunders [full ref at the end] studied various possibilities and ends up arguing that it might be a house that was going to be built but, because of the Civil War, never was.
However I’m going to suggest that there is another potential, although definitely not perfect match. The Countess was independently wealthy and maintained her own house and household separately from that of the earl, and they sometimes lived apart. In 1638 she had a new property built under the supervision of the great mason Nicholas Stone. Known as Tart Hall, probably after an existing house on the site, it stood at the end of St James’ Park, near where Buckingham Palace stands today.
There are no known identified images of Tart Hall. The nearest thing we have is a tiny detail from a vaguely contempoary map. And it doesn’t really bear that much resemblance, although we should remember a few things about the map before dismissing it out of hand. It was organized by Richard Newcourt, a Somerset landowner and the survey has been dated from various other details to the late 1630s and early 1640s. So its even possible that this was the old Tart Hall before its replacement. The Civil War stopped the map’s publication and it didn’t appear finally until 1658.
The map is visually naive [polite way of saying crude] because it was probably engraved by a couple of the teenage apprentices of Hollar’s friend and fellow artist, William Faithorne, who were working at at least one stage of remove from old drawings done by somebody else. The detailing is poor and bears little more than a superficial relationship to the print at best, but that is true of all the depiction of great houses and garden on the map. [I plan to write a more general piece about the gardens shown on the map one day!]
The walled garden in the engraving is impressive. Although it is a simple layout, with four parterres which seemingly ornate knot patterns, there is also a terraced walk with views back over it as well as out into the neighbouring woodland, a large fountain and steps up to a plantation of trees which could be an orchard or more likely a then-fashionable ‘wilderness’ area. The adjoining space, a courtyard behind the house, has grand gates which look as if they are wrought metal, and are in a style which was very fashionable. It bears at least a vague resemblance to the garden on Newcourt’s map.
What persuades me [perhaps because I want it to be true!] is the fact that we know by the time was print was made in 1643, Arundel House, the family’s main residence, between the Strand and the Thames between Westminster and the City, had been shut up because the earl and countess had gone into exile. However not all of their household accompanied them and among those who did not go were Hollar and his wife. Instead they had almost certainly moved to Tart Hall because Elias Ashmole [later founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford] noted in his journal that “James Hollar, son of Wenceslaus” was born there on the 5th April that year. So where better to use as a background, during uncertain times, than your own residence.
Luckily most of the other landscape backgrounds are more clearcut.
The Summer print has a veiled woman with a fan, in front of a parkland scene. The veil is probably not for relative anonymity but to keep the sun from tanning her face, as we will shortly see explained in the verses underneath another version of Spring.
Here we can be more ceratin of the location because of the two buildings in the far distance. The one on the right is Inigo Jones’ newly completed Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace, now the only surviving part of the complex, while slightly to its left and even further in the distance can be seen old St Paul’s Cathedral.
So the view was drawn from the other end of St James’ Park, in fact from somewhere like Tart Hall where Hollar was living. This idea is reinforced by the man fishing in the foreground. This is Rosamund’s Pond in the south western corner of the park. The avenues and clumps of trees shown were largely hacked down for firewood during the Civil War and replanted by Charles II when the park was remodelled after the Restoration.
Autumn is another fan-holding woman, less ostentatiously dressed than the other three figures, but also standing in an interesting landscape setting. There is a vine-covered wall on the left and in the mid-distance on the right a ruinous classical building. This is Albury in Surrey which was the country retreat of the earl and features on other Hollar engravings.
The final print in this full length portrait series, Winter, has a masked woman richly dressed in furs in a distinctly urban setting. The tower on the right has been identified as that of the Royal Exchange in the centre of London, so the model is standing at the junction of the east end of Cheapside, Poultry and Cornhill. The whole area was destroyed in the great Fire. Hollar gives an indication here, one suspects artistically moderate rather than a depiction of the reality, of the air pollution levels that were more normal in the capital, and which is not evident in any of the other prints.
Three others of his many fashion plates also have topographical backgrounds. Two of them are three-quarter length views dating from 1641 which share some of the same features as the full-length ones above. In Spring the woman holds a bunch of tulips whilst pointing at a vase of flowers. The floral arrangement was almost certainly not drawn from life but copied from a Dutch flower painting or print, several of which were known to have been in the Arundel collection. In the background is a house and garden, although where, if it was a real place, is unknown and I can’t see evidence to suggest it was Tart Hall again. Given the view shown in the next print in the series it might be Arundel House on Thameside [not shut up until the following year], otherwise, if it is an Arundel property, then their country ‘villa’ in Highgate might be a possibility.
In the Summer three-quarter length print once again the fashionably dressed model is veiled and carrying a fan. The verse here is quite explicit about the reason for the veil. The warmth of the season is also suggested by her long gloves designed to protect her hands from the sun, and of course by the two refreshing melons on the table. In the background is the Thames and Westminster with St Stephen’s chapel on the north bank, and the mudflats of Lambeth on the south, in other words the view from Arundel House further downriver.
The final print with a topographical background is another image of Spring, again dating from 1644, but this time part of a half-length portrait series. It’s very tempting to suggest this was also drawn at Tart Hall, because of the similarities of the gateway, but I’ll leave that judgment up to you.
I will come back to Hollar’s work again at some point, but in the meantime if you want to know more about him and his prints good places to start are:
Richard Godfrey, Wenceslaus Hollar: A Bohemian Artist in England [Yale centre for British Art, 1994]; Katherine van Eerde, Wenceslaus Hollar:Delineator of His Times, ; Ann Saunders “The Four Seasons by Wenceslaus Hollar”, The Costume Society Extra Series no.6 . A very short pamphlet covering the costumes and topography portrayed.; The definitive catalogue of his work is Richard Pennington, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etched Work of Wenceslaus Hollar ; There is also a semi-fictionalised biography of Hollar The Man who drew London by Gillian Tindall 
The British Museum have a large selection of his prints on-line as does the University of Toronto’s Wenceslaus Hollar Project.