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Wenceslaus Hollar At Old St Pauls

February 11, 2020
by Gillian Tindall

Contributing Writer Gillian Tindall sent me her account of the role of Wenceslaus Hollar in creating the historical record of old St Pauls

Wenceslaus Hollar by Jan Meyssens

As all readers interested in old London will know, Sir Christopher Wren’s great domed cathedral – which still holds at bay the sky-scrapers of the City – was built as a replacement for old St Pauls which was lost in the Fire of London in 1666.

The Fire, starting in a baker’s shop near the Tower, was blown by a westbound wind and readily consumed the timbered houses of the City in its path, while the occupants did their frantic best to salvage their belongings in boats. Fires were not uncommon and after a hot summer everything was dry, but no one expected that the great stone edifice of St Pauls would not offer protection.

Printmakers, booksellers and the Stationers’ Company, which had its Hall nearby, rushed to stash their stocks in safety – as they thought – in the crypt of the cathedral, which was designated as a separate chapel, St Faiths. No use! By the third day the Fire reached St Pauls and took a-hold, helped by the fact that the cathedral was encased in wooden scaffolding for repairs. The whole huge early medieval edifice, said to have been the longest in Europe, was burnt out down to the crypt, along with everything that had been put there. The blaze at one point was so hot that melted lead from the roof flowed down Ludgate Hill.

Huge numbers of prints, drawings and records of old London were lost, but not all. As luck would have it, since the cathedral was being restored – Sir Christopher Wren’s original commission before the Fire changed everything – a careful record had been made of the interior, its fine aisles and splendid arching roofs. The artist and etcher employed to do this, for the handsome sum of £200, was a Bohemian (Czech) immigrant, Wenceslaus Hollar. His drawings and etchings were safe in his workshop just off the Strand near St Clement Danes, which the Fire never reached.

We have all seen Hollar’s views of seventeenth century London, though often without realising it. If you visit the Tower of London and buy a souvenir, it is likely to be his portrayal of the place on the plastic bag you are given. But he did far more than that. He was an indefatigable artist and recorder of the city of his time, and a skilled map-maker too. It is largely thanks to him that we know what the appearance of London before the Fire was from the south bank, and what the newly-laid-out Covent Garden looked like before the fruit and vegetable market arrived there, how the river looked when there were still grand old houses along its north bank, what the palaces of Whitehall and Lambeth, Windsor, and Greenwich were like, and how Charing Cross figured before the cross was pulled down.

Yet Hollar was nearing thirty before he came to London. Born in Prague in 1607, he spent his youth knocking around a Europe made chaotic by the Thirty Years War. Where he acquired his remarkable skills is not clear – possibly in Antwerp – but in 1636, when the grand and wealthy Lord Arundel was sent by Charles I to try to mediate between the warring parties, Hollar managed to meet and impress him.

Arundel, who was inclined to collect useful people much as he did fine pictures or pieces of statuary (plenty of pickings in war-torn Europe), took Hollar with him on a great journey down the Rhine – “I have one Hollarse with me,” he wrote to a friend, “who drawes and eches prints in strong water quickley, and with a pretty spiritte…”

When Arundel finally returned to England, Hollar came with him and was given a room in Arundel House on the Strand. There he blossomed, married Lady Arundel’s waiting-woman, got to know the great and good, even gave lessons to young Prince Charles – and went about drawing London and documenting current events. He saw the Earl of Strafford executed and he was there at the trial of Archbishop Laud.

The world inhabited by Arundel and his kind was coming to an end. The rise of Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, the Civil War and finally the traumatic execution of Charles I, sent many people fleeing for safety abroad, Hollar among them. He only returned half way through the sixteen-fifties. By that time his old friends and patrons, including Arundel, were dead or impoverished. But he found new employers among the rising generation of well-educated men, scientists, architects and thinkers, who were within a few years (with a king back on the throne) to form the Royal Society.

The years of the Restoration, from 1660 onwards, were really the first time in history when something that we would recognise as a conservation movement was just beginning. `Antiquarianism,’ respecting and examining old stones, became the fashion. The destruction and losses of the previous century had been great. Medieval monasteries and abbeys all over England had been ruined at the Reformation, and their libraries of manuscripts scattered. (Much of this irreplaceable parchment continued turning up through the decades, put to uses such as lining pie-dishes or cleaning guns). In the next century, under Cromwell, the castles of Royalists were wrecked in turn and there was another round of moralistic church destruction. Carvings and statues were hacked off and stained glass smashed. Old St Paul’s cloister had already been demolished (some of the stones are said to have been used in the rebuilding of Somerset House on the Strand) along with a fine Dance-of-Death mural and the very tall spire had already collapsed in an earlier City fire. By Cromwell’s time, small shops had been installed along the sides of the aisles. Then, in what can only have been a deliberate gesture of insult to the moderate Church of England, Parliamentary troops were allowed to stable their horses in the nave.

No wonder, by the period of relative calm and growing prosperity of the sixteen-sixties, it was felt that something must be done about the church. One of the up-and-coming men of the age – Christopher Wren – was invited to restore it. He commissioned Hollar to record the whole place, duly cleaned up, with neither shops nor horses in evidence, no doubt so that he, Wren, could show when his work was done how faithfully he had maintained the character of the old structure. After the night of Sept 3rd-4th 1666 that was not to be, and thus Hollar’s detailed and beautiful etchings have become a unique and precious record.

Never the man to miss a chance, as soon as the fire was quenched Hollar was out and about in the devastated City – the ground still hot under his feet – creating invaluable evidence of that too. His London-after-the-Fire map has become one of the most famous and often-reproduced to his works to this day.

He spent much of the ten years that remained to him recording battered castles and ruined abbeys in various parts of the country for several different well-to-do antiquarians. Yet he died ‘not rich.’ It was said, by those who knew him well, that he was as decent and amiable a man as you could wish to meet, and a compulsive worker, but hopeless with money. We owe him, in other terms, an incalculable amount.

South view of old St Paul’s with the spire

The west end of old St Pauls

The east end of old St Pauls

The crypt of old St Pauls

Covent Garden Piazza

Easterly view looking towards the city from the roof of Arundel House

Gillian Tindall’s new book The Pulse Glass and the Beat of Other Hearts has just been published by Chatto & Windus 

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

The Bones of Old London

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

Gillian Tindall’s Wartime Memories

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 11, 2020

    Fascinating stuff and great drawings.

    And I had no idea that Wren was involved with the restoration St Paul’s before the fire.

  2. February 11, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, I enjoyed Gillian Tindall’s historic account of Wencelaus Hollar’s providing the artistic record of the Old St. Paul’s and so many scenes of London’s topography during those tumultuous years in the mid 17th.

    He survived and was productive through so many events – the regicide of Charles I, the Cromwell years, the Restoration, the Great Fire, the beginning of the “conservation movement,” and the growing respect for “Antiquarianism.” What a life!

  3. paul loften permalink
    February 11, 2020

    It is hard to imagine life in 17th century London. These images actually place us in the midst of a London so different from what we know of now.
    Thanks to Wenceslas for saving his work from the fire and also thank you Gentle Author for bring his art to our attention.

  4. February 11, 2020

    What an outstanding and downright thrilling article! Absolutely among your best.
    Many many thanks!

  5. paul loften permalink
    February 12, 2020

    My apologies and of course the biggest thanks to the author Gillian Tindall, I missed the name at the beginning of the article.

  6. February 12, 2020

    Really informative. I was unaware there were plans to restore the old cathedral or that it was biggest in Europe. Hollar sounds an interesting individual, talented too.

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