The Thirty Years’ War, and its devastating effects on Prague, had an unexpectedly beneficial effect on the world of art. A young Czech man whose family had lost its money gave up the idea of studying law and, instead, chose art as his profession. At the time of his death, he would leave behind approximately 3,000 etchings and 400 drawings.
Wenceslas (in Czech, Václav) Hollar was born in Prague on July 13, 1607. When he was only eleven years old, the Thirty Years’ War began, and in 1620, the teenager would be subjected to the knowledge that Czech troops fighting at Bílá Hora had been overwhelmed and soundly defeated by the Habsburg troops. The following year, 27 noblemen were executed on Prague’s Old Town Square; three by hanging, the rest by beheading.
It was during the 1620s that Hollar became involved in drawing and etching. It is known that he was living in Frankfurt in 1627, apprenticed to engraver Matthäus Merian. He lived in several German cities in 1630, making etchings of all of them; three years later, he moved to Cologne.
Clearly, Hollar made a name for himself, and early in his career. In 1636, he came to the attention of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, an art collector. Howard hired Hollar as a draftsman, and the artist traveled with his employer to Prague and Vienna. In 1637, Howard brought Hollard with him to England, which would remain his home for the rest of his life.
Upon his arrival in England, Hollar became a member of the Earl’s household, though he did not work exclusively for Howard. One of his first works in England was titled “View of Greenwich”, and it is nearly three feet long. He charged thirty shillings for this piece, and later, fixed upon a price of fourpence an hour for his work.
Hollar married his wife, Tracy, on July 4, 1641. She was in the service of the Countess of Norfolk. In 1642, Thomas Howard left England, and Hollar found work (and a home for his wife and two children) with the Duke of Norfolk. Thomas Howard died in Padua in 1647, and in 1650, Hollar was commissioned to create an engraving in his memory, to be given to Howard’s widow.
When the English Civil War broke out, Hollar joined the Royalist Regiment. In 1645, he took part in the defense of Basing House, which was besieged by parliamentary troops. The house was overrun, and Hollar was captured. Architect Inigo Jones and author Thomas Fuller were other notable people in the house at that time. Comic actor William Robbins was killed in the siege, as was Thomas Johnson, who had written several works on botany. Hollar would later create an etching depicting the siege.
Hollar left for Antwerp soon afterwards, where he met Thomas Howard briefly. He would not return to England until 1652; after his return, he lived in London’s Temple Bar area. His works were no longer in high demand, and his personal life suffered a heavy blow when his young son died of the plague.
After the Great Fire of London burned out the plague, Hollar made a series of etchings depicting the devastation of his adopted city. The King of England, perhaps because of the success of these works, sent Hollar to Tangier in 1668 to create cityscapes and views of the forts.
Hollar returned to London the following year, and sank into abject poverty, though still working steadily. His last known words were to ask the bailiffs not to remove his deathbed while he was still alive. He died on March 25, 1677. He was buried in St. Margaret’s Cathedral in London.