Wenceslaus Hollar and the Great Fire of London

By Graeme Kemp |

Over the last few months, the Universal Short Title Catalogue welcomed a number of new libraries to our heritage program – Preserving the World’s Rarest Books. One of our recent partners is Armagh Robinson Library, the oldest public library in Northern Ireland. The library was founded in 1771 by Archbishop Richard Robinson and formed a cornerstone of his sweeping plans to improve the city through the establishment of educational and charitable institutions.


Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Richard Robinson
Figure 1: Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Richard Robinson, 1792


The foundation of the collection was Robinson’s own books, although this has been augmented with other donations over the last two hundred years. Today there are an estimated 25,000 early printed works in the library. These are principally seventeenth and eighteenth-century books drawn from the major British and Continental centres of print. As one might expect, the collection is particularly strong on the subjects of theology, canon law and religious controversy – although many examples of literature, history, medicine, atlases and travel accounts are also present.

While investigating the books listed in this collection, one of the most striking items I came across was an engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) entitled A map or groundplott of the citty of London which was published following the Great Fire of London in 1666.


Map of London by Wenceslaus Hollar
Figure 2: Wenceslaus Hollar, A map or groundplott of the citty of London, with the suburbes thereof, British Museum, no. Q,6.57. Armagh Robinson Library object no. P00195263x.


Hollar was a Czech artist who had come to England under the patronage of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel in 1636. He specialized in creating etchings of prints on various subjects, including illustrations for John Ogilby’s Aesop’s Fables (1665) and William Dugdale’s History of St Paul’s Cathedral (1658). He was renowned for his ability to depict cityscapes from the various perspectives, but especially urban high-angle and overhead views.


Hyems by Wenceslaus Hollar
Figure 3: Wenceslaus Hollar, Hyems / Seasons (with views of Strasbourg), British Museum, no. 1843,0513.320


While working on various commissions, Hollar’s developed a project to create the most ambitious and comprehensive map of London ever conceived. His ambition was to surpass even the celebrated map of Paris by Jacques Gomboust and further his reputation as an artist. Producing such a map was a desperately expensive undertaking, one for which Hollar was unable to find a suitable patron. Following in the footsteps of John Ogilby he attempted to turn to subscribers to underwrite the cost, but lacking Ogilby’s flair for self-promotion he did not arouse enough interest to complete the project.

Hollar, Propositions concerning the map of London
Figure 4: Propositions concerning the map of London and Westminster &c: which is in hand by Wentsel Hollar, Folger Shakespeare Library, X.d.454.


With the Great Fire, opportunity arose again. By 6 September the conflagration had done its worst – 13,000 buildings were destroyed and thousands of people were made homeless. On 10 September the King appointed Hollar and Francis Sandford to accurately record and survey the city following the damage. Drawing on his uncompleted work for his map of London, Hollar was very quickly able to produce his map or groundplott of the citty of London. The districts untouched by the fire were detailed with great accuracy, while those areas destroyed were left blank – only buildings of great significance were highlighted to further underline the devastation.


Hollar's Map, detail
Figure 5: Detail from Hollar’s Map


The map took less than 2 months to complete as Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary on 22 November:

My Lord Boruncker did show me Hollar’s new print of the City, with a pretty representation of that part which is burnt, very fine indeed; and tells me that he was yesterday sworn the King’s servant, and that the King hath commanded him to go on with his great map of the City, which he was upon before the City burned, like Gombout of Paris, which I am Glad of.”

It was evidently a great success and another map with the same title was released by John Overton within the year. Indeed, if imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, then the copies of this map published elsewhere in Europe certainly underline its popularity. The Great Fire, it seemed, had saved Hollar’s own work from disaster.


British Museum, Platte grondt der verbrannte stadt London
Figure 6: Platte grondt der verbrannte stadt London, British Museum, no. 1880,1113.1172


Of course, disasters of all forms were of particular interest to readers. Whether in the form of forensic accounts like Hollar’s map, or the more anecdotal ‘wonder-books’ that were printed from the fifteenth century onwards, such accounts proved to be a huge success with contemporaries. In our on-going survey of the survival of early modern print, the accounts of such disasters prove to be among the rarest. We hope to uncover many more such accounts in the collections of our current partners and perhaps in other institutions that join our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books scheme.


References and Further Reading:

Peter Barber, Wenceslaus Hollar as a map-maker

Simon Turner, ‘Hollar’s Prospects and Maps of London’ in Printed Images in Early Modern Britain Essays in Interpretation, chapter 8

Richard T. Godfrey, Wenceslaus Hollar: A Bohemian Artist in England: A Bohemian Artist in London (Yale University Press, 1995)

Gillian Tindall, The Man Who Drew London: Wenceslaus Hollar in Reality and Imagination (Pimlico, 2003)

Is your library one of our partners? Let us know if you would like to contribute to this blog. Please contact us by email at [email protected].

Are you a librarian interested in learning more about the rarity of your collection? Learn more about how to partner with Preserving the World’s Rarest Books.

Graeme Kemp is the Project Manager of the Universal Short Title Catalogue. He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews for a study of religious controversy in the sixteenth century. His current research focuses on the buying and selling of early modern editions in contemporary booklists and auction catalogues. You can follow him on Twitter at @gj_kemp.


Images: 1) The Barber Institue of Fine Arts; 2,3,5,6) © Trustees of the British Museum, available under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license; 4) © Folger Shakespeare Library, available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license

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