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Wenceslaus Hollar’s Plague Letters

April 9, 2020
by Gillian Tindall

Contributing Writer Gillian Tindall sent me this account of studying letters written by engraver Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77) at the time of the Great Plague of London in 1665

The Coat of Arms of Death by Wenceslaus Hollar, c.1680

We live in an age when a virus can travel at the speed of a jet-plane and cause the entire world to shut down, yet the internet permits us all to remain in constant communication with each other. How dreadful it would be to be shut up for an indefinite number of weeks at home without such means of contacting family, neighbours and friends – including all manner of digital ones, such as you, my readers.

Thank goodness that parcels, boxes and letters still arrive. Safe enough, provided we and the deliverer do not stand too near one another, and we wear gloves and wash our hands and dispose of the packaging.

During the Plague of London on 1665, few people had any perception of the origin of the infection apart from God’s Wrath at Sin, so they did not know what precautions were appropriate. Only a few had any realistic understanding that dirt and infestation were the main vectors of the sickness. It was generally and wrongly supposed that the sheer presence of a sick person or anything they had breathed over might be fatal. Ironically, this is more relevant to the Coronavirus than to the Bubonic Plague of the seventeenth century.

Letters were far rarer and more personal objects than today. By the time of the Plague many people in Protestant England – rather than in Catholic Europe – had learned to read thanks to the translation of the Bible into English, the Prayer Book, the hugely-popular Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Yet for many the art of writing remained a skill too far. So the arrival of a letter, penned with a quill by somebody educated and delivered by hand, was a notable moment, even if no-one knew what such a communication might bring with it. 

By the time the Plague was at its summer height, all kinds of notions were circulating as to the best way to detoxify a letter before opening it. Some said it should be hung up to air or toasted before a fire of pine logs and others that it should be held in the steam of a boiling pot, perhaps one to which vinegar or herbs had been added – there was no shortage of suggestions.

I have held in my hands one of the letters treated in this way, more than four hundred years after it was originally delivered. This was when I was researching my book about Wenceslaus Hollar, the gifted Slav engraver who by the time of the Plague had lived in London for many years. It is thanks to him that we know today what London looked like before the Great Fire. When Hollar died, a dozen years later, he left many prints but little writing, although, being ‘good-hearted and pleasant’ as well as talented, he was missed and mentioned by many people. In particular, he was much appreciated by John Aubrey, a seventeenth century man-about-town who knew everyone. Two letters from Hollar to Aubrey survive in Duke Humfrey’s Library at the Bodleian in Oxford.

Having got to know Hollar and his movements through others’ fleeting views of him, I suspected that the standard catalogue of his surviving work had one of these two missives wrongly dated. So I got the Library’s permission to check the dates on the letters myself, and took the train to Oxford on the appointed day. Without any further fuss – though I am sure someone checked my hands were clean, clean hands being more sensitive than gloves for handling such documents – the slim file was brought to me in the Library’s historic splendour. Inside were two smallish, folded pieces of soft, thick, durable paper – at that time paper was made not from wood pulp but from recycled linen rags. Thrilled to be at last in closer touch with my unseen companion, I carefully unfolded them.

The elegant, clear, small writing was familiar to me from Hollar’s captions on numerous birds-eye maps. In these two communications, both of which seemed, from their content, to be written with some urgency, the writing was hardly less graceful. The letter that interested me most was indeed headed `1st August 1665′ – the height of the Plague, as I had suspected.

It concerned a portrait of Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher and Fellow of the Royal Society, which Aubrey had encouraged Hollar to engrave, “…I have shewed it to some of his acquaintances, who say it be werry like, but Stint… maketh demurr to have it of me…” Hollar’s voice, in the speech of London four centuries ago.

He hoped that Aubrey would buy copies off him. Stint is Peter Stent, a dealer in prints who died a few weeks later. No doubt he had difficulties of the kind that are with us now, that in a time of sickness people do not buy pictures. Yet what most interested me about this short letter was that the writing was very faintly blurred. On receiving it, Aubrey or his servant had taken the precaution of passing it through steam.

Hollar remained at work in London through the summer and survived, although he may have sent his wife and young daughters to Islington which was then a village outside town, since his pictures of Islington are dated to that fateful year and the previous.

Aubrey reported that Hollar’s only son, by his first marriage, “died in the plague, an ingeniose youth, drew delicately,” so there was no male heir to succeed his father. No dynasty of Hollars continued into the great era of engraving in the eighteenth century and his name goes unrecognised by many who explore London’s history today, though they have seen his best known prints. In the City, in Westminster, by the Thames, in Lincolns Inn Fields and in the alleys off the Strand, we are walking in Wenceslaus Hollar’s footsteps and I think of him often.

The Procession of the Dance of Death by Wencelaus Hollar

Wenceslaus Hollar by Jan Meyssens

Gillian Tindall’s The Man Who Drew London, Wenceslaus Hollar in Reality & Imagination is published by Chatto & Windus. Her latest book The Pulse Glass & The Beat of Other Hearts is also published by Chatto & Windus

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

Wenceslaus Hollar at Old St Paul’s

The Plagues of Old London

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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Colin Lennon permalink
    April 9, 2020

    Superb article GA! This has much resonance with the current ‘awkward’ times and yet is quite uplifting. Beautifully crafted as ever, I think this is one of your best posts. However, it has also served to remind me how much I miss London; stuck here in St Albans I haven’t made it into town for weeks. As with the 17th C the good times will roll again.

  2. April 9, 2020

    An interesting and timely piece. I have seen some of his work before but knew nothing of the man. It is strange that the beaked ‘plague doctors’ of this age would be far more protected against our current virus than the plague they were designed for.
    I wish Ms. Tindall and the G.A. well and hope you stay safe.

  3. Chris Webb permalink
    April 9, 2020

    Strangely it had never occurred to me that it is possible to be able to read without being able to write!

  4. April 9, 2020

    Great article GE, thank you. I have the book at home by Gillian Tindall and a huge print of Hollar’s ‘Long View’ drawn from the roof of Southwark Cathedral (or St Mary Ovarie as it was known in the 17th Century). It also reminds me how much I am missing the Great Wen. Keep safe and well.

  5. paul loften permalink
    April 9, 2020

    Thank you Gillian Tindall and the Gentle Author for bringing this to us. It gives us a perspective of times past when true darkness and fear were in the hearts of all Londoners, and they were without the comfort of remedy or knowledge. The phrase ” but Stint… maketh demurr to have it of me…” . puzzled me until I realised that Stint was Peter Stent an print seller who must have promised to buy it off him but failed to keep his word.

  6. David Antscherl permalink
    April 9, 2020

    I had read that Hollar, despite the popularity of his engravings, had to beg the bailiffs to leave him in his bed to die, as he was destitute at that time and all his furniture was being repossessed. If true, a sad end to a wonderful talent.

    Thank you for featuring him in today’s essay!

  7. Gillian Tindall permalink
    April 9, 2020

    The myth about Hollar dying destitute is a long-lasting one, but I’m happy to say there doesn’t seem to have been much substance in it. Aubrey remarked that he was not good with money and `dyed not rich’, but this was part of a comment about what an indefatiguable worker he was, `always uneasy’ when at at work.
    It seems likely that, as Hollar lay dying, his mind was not at its clearest. His goods were not seized. I have seen an inventory made in his house some months later, which shows it to have been furnished with adequate comfort. His widow was still living there several years later when she sold a lot of his water colours and prints to Hans Sloane, whose collection was eventually to form the basis of the British Museum.

  8. Jill wilson permalink
    April 10, 2020

    How thrilling to be able to handle the actual letters written by Hollar and to see the evidence of the anti plague steaming procedure…

    And another timely reminder of how lucky we are to still be able to communicate easily with each other through a time of crisis, unlike our 17th century forebears.

    Thanks GA (and GT)

  9. April 10, 2020

    This was a Sad, but Lovely Work. Thank You So Very Much?????.

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