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Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77): View across the rooftops of Lambeth Palace

As a rare 17th century sketch of the view from our medieval tower is brought to market by Sotheby’s, we take a closer look in this essay reproduced from Sotheby’s New York January 2023 Catalogue: Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries

Wenceslaus Hollar’s bird’s eye view of Lambeth House (Palace), official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is a splendid example of the artist’s dynamic ‘on the spot’ sketches. It has not appeared at auction since the drawing was discovered in a sale, in 1931, by the art historian, Iolo A. Williams. Its re-emergence, as a work by Hollar, provides a wonderful opportunity to delight and delve into the world of this fascinating Bohemian artist, whose drawings rarely come to the market.

Born in Prague in 1607, Wenceslaus Hollar was a prolific draughtsman and printmaker, who is perhaps best known for his visual records of mid 17th century England. His drawings and prints of London before the great fire of 1666 are historical documents of great importance, as well as aesthetically appealing images of a bygone world.

Rendered in pen and brown ink and black chalk, this view is drawn from the tower of St Mary’s Church at Lambeth (now home to the Garden Museum), looking out over a section of the grand edifice of Lambeth Palace, across the river to the north bank of the Thames, where some of London’s renowned buildings are rapidly sketched (with inscriptions); the Savoy, Somerset House, Arundel House and far right, not annotated, old St Paul’s. The inclusion of Arundel House, rather poignantly, highlights the important role that the Earl of Arundel played in Hollar’s career; it was in the service of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel that Hollar first came to England in 1636, when he was initially employed by the Earl to produce prints of his art collection.

During his first sojourn in England, Hollar was enthralled by London and its environs and frequently sketched parts of the city and its architectural landmarks; the majority of these drawings were the basis for his engravings. Hollar often re-visited views and buildings in his drawings and prints and this is particularly evident with Lambeth House, as many of his drawings and prints feature the magnificent palace. The present sheet, although squared in black chalk, does not, however, seem to have been engraved.

Lambeth Palace, originally called the Manor of Lambeth or Lambeth House, has occupied its current site since circa 1200 AD, when the land was acquired by the diocese. The Palace stands north of St Mary’s Church, whose tower Hollar climbed to sketch this bird’s-eye view (see fig.1 for the same view today). The original structure of the palace has undergone many restoration phases during its rich history, however the earliest remaining part is the chapel, built in the mid- 13th century in the Early English Gothic style. The tower, at the North-West corner, referred to as The Water, or Lollards’ Tower, and used as a prison in the 17th Century, was built on the site of an earlier building by Archbishop Chicheley, and dates from 1435-40. The historic entrance to the palace, seen in the left foreground of Hollar’s drawing, is Morton’s Tower, an early Tudor brick gatehouse built by Cardinal John Morton and completed in 1495 and it retains, more than any other part of the Palace, its original character both inside and out. Canaletto’s splendid veduta painting of Lambeth House, now at the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague, shows the view from Morton’s gatehouse. The Great Hall, located in the central section of Hollar’s drawing, with the steep roof, was ransacked during the Civil War and completely rebuilt by William Juxon after the Restoration, in 1663, with a late Gothic hammerbeam roof.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto, The river Thames looking towards Westminster from Lambeth, 1747, Lobkowicz Palace, Prague

One of Hollar’s earlier drawings of Lambeth, dated 1638, in a private collection, Washington, depicts the palace from Westminster.1 Here, the artist has concentrated on the surrounding view and the activities taking place in the water and on the riverbank; Lambeth House is loosely sketched in the background. Another drawing at Hardwick Court is a view of the palace, seen from the opposite side to the Washington study. A more developed drawing, of circa 1644, in pen and brown ink and black chalk, is a view of Westminster Abbey and Lambeth, taken from the riverbank, now in the John Rylands University Library, Manchester. Generally, Hollar executed his in situ drawing in black chalk, rapidly applying the basic outlines of the view to paper and later reworking and refining his composition, in pen and ink, when back in the studio.

The present drawing is quite different in its handling and approach to the previously discussed sketches and can be more closely compared to Hollar’s bird’s eye views, dated 1640-1647, of London from St. Mary Overy toward Southwark and a View of the East side of Southwark towards Greenwich. Interestingly, both drawings were part of the same group lot (147) in the 1931 sale, when discovered by Iolo A. Williams. These studies are now in the Yale Center for British Art and are preparatory sketches for Hollar’s etching of the Long View of London, realised at a later date, when the artist was in Antwerp. While there is no print by Hollar that corresponds exactly to the present view of the Palace, it seems very possible that the artist made use of this ‘on the spot’ drawing when etching his Prospect of London and Westminster taken from Lambeth, c. 1647, which includes Lambeth Palace seen from very much the same angle, though from a distance.

View from the Medieval tower © Janie Airey, Art Fund 2020

In Iolo Williams’ article, published in 1933, he discussed the writing on the present sheet and pointed out that the word ‘bley’, inscribed in two places on the roof of Lambeth house, is an old spelling of the German word ‘blei’ which translates to ‘lead’. He observed that the other, indecipherable, inscriptions, presumably also in German, must refer to the materials or other details of the building. These inscriptions are a further indication of the rather meticulous artistic steps that Hollar employed in the preliminary stages of a specific project. While this drawing does not directly relate to the Long View of London, as in the case of the Yale studies, stylistically, it must date to a similar period in his career.

Unlike so many works made as a topographical record, this is a lively and spontaneous drawing, and remarkably modern in its aesthetic. Providing us with an intimate insight into Hollar’s working method, we feel we are standing beside him on the church tower, looking out over the Thames, towards the landmarks of the great city for which he clearly had immense affection – a city that changed enormously during Hollar’s time in England, and whose architecture we often only know about thanks to the remarkable prints and drawings that he made during his stays there.

‘Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries’ takes place on 25 January 2023, 10am EST: auction details

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