The (European) Draughtsman’s Contract

Кирилл Кобрин

Translated by Elena Malysheva

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) was born into an affluent family of a serving nobleman at the Prague court of Rudolph II, and died in poverty (destitute as legend claims) in London during the reign of Charles II. Hollar was famous during his lifetime, had admirers, friends, pupils, travelled extensively, and created hundreds of works. He lived a long working life as an artist and refugee, portraying Europe and time after time escaping European wars and revolutions. His prints and drawings show this very Europe in many of its smallest details –except perhaps the most recognisable ones we know from books and the works of Hollar’s colleagues. There is, it seems to me, a mystery in this circumstance. It is time to solve it now.

Let us start with his life; we will talk about his work a little later. So: he was born in the famous Prague of the time of that half-mad collector and patron of the arts, Rudolf II; the city was jam-packed with artists, alchemists, astrologers, and adventurers: they hung around the court, hoping for a handout or even a pension, while the emperor, like Miser pined over his treasures, which (mixed with all kinds of exotic trash) filled room after room in his residence at Hrad. At that strange time in Prague, as in the whole of Bohemia, Catholics and Protestants lived together quite peacefully, a remarkable and gratifying fact, considering the disaster that was to begin 11 years after the birth of Wenceslas Hollar. No evidence of his family’s confessional affiliation has survived, but the vectors of the artist’s movements through a Europe already gripped by religious slaughter, suggest that the Hollars were Protestants. A disaster in Bohemia began to unfold in the second decade of the 17th century: the scenic collector was first quietly stripped of his crown, then he died and was succeeded by another Habsburg, who preferred the Catholic transformation of bread into the Body of God to the alchemical transformation of iron into gold and valued the arquebus more than Arcimboldo. The Czech Protestants did not like this Habsburg, and they found another ruler, who reigned for only one winter, hence his nickname «the Winter King.» The entire Czech national drama bookended by two events: The «Second Prague Defenestration» of 1618, when the Czechs who rebelled against the emperor threw two crown officials and one poor clerk out of the windows of the town hall, and the battle of White Mountain in 1620, in which the imperial army defeated the Protestant army of the «Winter King» and occupied Prague. A postscript to these events was the public execution of twenty-seven Czech Protestant leaders in June 1621 in the same Old Town Square in Prague, flooded with tourists today. Was there a 14-year-old boy in the crowd of onlookers watching the decapitation of the best Czech heads of the time? I can’t tell.

What began in Bohemia after 1621 can hardly be called anything other than «genocide» — if one uses the modern political vocabulary, of course. The English did something similar in Ireland in the seventeenth century. The victors imprisoned hundreds of local Protestants. A quarter of the free population left the country — city dwellers, merchants, scholars — to avoid being forcibly converted to Catholicism. Bohemia was flooded with Catholic colonists — Germans, Italians, Irish and even Portuguese. Czech language was gradually deposed by German, first from worship, then from official documentation, then from «high culture,» finally from the towns to the villages. By the early 19th century, it had almost lost its written form, and the figures of the «Czech Renaissance» (many of whom borne German names) had to compose a new grammar of the old-new language. Under the waving banners of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits came to Bohemia; curiously enough, it was they who built up Prague with the very Baroque churches and conventions that tens of millions of visitors from around the world now come to admire.

Wenceslaus Hollar was among the quarter that left. He preferred Germany, drenched in the blood of the Thirty Years’ War, to the Prague squashed under the Jesuit thumb. Hollar was twenty years old, and by then had become quite a good engraver and draftsman. Nine years of wandering through German towns honed his talent and made him one of the finest engravers in Europe. He studied and worked in the engraving workshops of Stuttgart, Strasbourg, Frankfurt, and Cologne. He made views and panoramas of cities, transferred on paper landscapes, types of burghers, and once went to the Netherlands, where for the first time in his life he saw the sea and the delightful graphic perfection of the sailing equipment of ships. This he would never forget and until his death he would draw and engrave rivers, ports, shipyards, and naval battles. Hollar and his colleagues’ work sold well and at a time when there were no cameras or documentaries, prints were the only way to see the world from home. From the sixteenth century onward, Europe saw the emergence of gigantic projects to visually describe the continent. These projects combined the functions of atlases, travelogues, military maps, and were intended for the most diverse categories of people — from travelers to generals, from pilgrims to scholars. To name but a few of these colossal works: the six-volume Civitates Orbis Terrarum, published from 1572 to 1617 by Georg Braun with engravings by Franz Hohenberg, and Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abram Ortelius a century later. Curiously, the authors and printers openly stated the military use of this kind of publication — albeit only for use by the most Christian armies. In the foreground of any great panorama of any European town a group of people was always depicted: ladies, cavaliers, soldiers, peasants, artisans, depending on the type of landscape and the mood of the artist. This was done out of the deepest conviction that the Mohammedan Turks, who were then considered (and in part were indeed) the main threat to the Christian world, would discard these venerable volumes in disgust when they discovered the images of people which was strictly forbidden by Islam. It would be interesting to read a study by a modern historian as to whether that trickery worked…. Come to think of it, the Turkish pashas could simply tear off the pieces from the strategically valuable maps and panoramas populated by infidels (or pour ink on the unseemly parts), and then quietly compare it with the Vienna view (the work, say, of Franz Hohenberg), placing cannons where necessary and ordering trenches to be dug for janissaries here and there.

Hollar’s uncannily accurate city panoramas and views also feature people. Two examples come to mind: the famous panorama of Prague in 1649, which he made when he visited his hometown (as it later turned out, for the last time), or his even more famous panorama of London in 1647, perhaps the most remarkable image of the city ever made. Hollar came to London after he entered the service of the English diplomat Sir Thomas Howard, 14th Lord Arundel, who had come to Germany in the late 1630s to save the remains of the estate that belonged to the «Winter King”. The Winter King died 12 years after the disaster at White Mountain (the Winter King’s widow, Elizabeth Stuart, was the sister of the then English King Charles I). The Earl of Arundel was famous in Europe as a patron of the arts and a connoisseur for a good reason — Hollar showed him his panorama of Cologne and was immediately hired. He was commissioned to make an inventory of the diplomat’s pictorial treasures and, most importantly, to copy his collection of paintings into engravings. Hollar travelled with Lord Arundel along the Rhine, making, it seems, his best landscape works, and then (at the end of an unsuccessful diplomatic mission) he accompanied Earl of Arundel to London. Here he became, if not the most famous, then one of the most famous English engravers, and certainly the best. A lightness, unusual for a thoroughbred Bohemian reign in his Types of Englishwomen and Costume Series; these ingeniously draped women (hands in fur muffs, faces covered with half-masks) inflame passions even today. Then revolution broke out in England and, in the end, Earl of Arundel, one of the chief ministers of Charles I, fled to Antwerp with his entourage. Here the patron and the artist parted ways — Howard goes to Italy, Hollar remains in Antwerp, trying to make a living from engravings and book illustrations. Apparently, his business was not good, and in the early fifties, he would return to the still Cromwellian England, where he again would draw, engrave, print, publish. Ladies in fur muffs were not very relevant in a country of victorious Puritans, but soon Fortune changed again for Hollar and for the country where he dwelt — Cromwell died and his generals restored the Stuarts. The era of Charles II and his merry court was more conducive to the fine arts, and some of the events of that reign begged to be printed on paper or cardboard — say, the «great fire» of London in 1666, the naval battles with the Dutch and even the sudden acquisition by the Crown of the African port of Tangier. Hollar portrayed all this with great care and skill; of particular note is his London Before and After the Great Fire, a paired panorama in which, with a magnifying glass in hand, one can reconstruct in detail almost everything that burned then — and that which miraculously survived. Or his collaborative History of St. Paul’s Cathedral with antiquarian William Dugdale, completed a few years before the fire that destroyed that cathedral. Before going today to view St. Paul’s by Sir Christopher Wren, it is worth leafing through Dugdale-Hollar’s work; it is an amazing experience to look at one miracle embodied in stone, with the memory of another that no longer exists, but is no less real — the engraved one.

Hollar was doing well; he was still working very hard, publishing engravings, illustrating books, sailing on an expedition to Tangier, and even receiving from the King the title of «Royal Scenographer» plus the sum of fifty pounds, which was not insignificant at the time. But, as you know, no good deed… (see the beginning of this text).

But let us return to the people, their deeds, and to the way the former and the latter are portrayed. In Peter Greenaway’s arguably best film, “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, Hollar’s colleague (and, like him, a stranger in England, albeit an Irishman), some twenty years after our Bohemian’s death, is hired by an aristocratic family to make a series of drawings detailing the family country estate complete with a park and other English rural delights. Both the contract and its terms are peculiar to the English way; the lady and her daughter provide the painter with various services (including sexual ones), while he draws, shouting at the gentlemen and servants around him, who (with varying degrees of obedience) carry out his orders. We all sense a terrible mystery and, indeed, the master of the manor has disappeared; some suspect he has run away; others suspect he has been murdered. In addition, it is absolutely unclear why this epic painting was started in the first place. However, if we think like a detective with a profound knowledge of Michel Foucault’s works, the essence of what is going on is clear: to «draw» (as well as to «describe») means to «appropriate». If the lady who hired the painter killed her husband, she tries (metaphysically, so to speak) to take possession of his estate through drawings. She puts her body at the mercy of the brash Irishman for a time, forever gaining, through his craft, the estate of her disappeared spouse. And this is where the most mysterious thing begins. Someone is secretly trying to leave their mark on the immaculate and classically serene drawings by changing, so to speak, their nature: hanging up the drying laundry, putting a ladder to the window, and so on. Someone (and who — is it not the murdered spouse?) tries — through the artist’s pencil — to put on paper a sign of trouble, a sign of a crime being committed. The images become evidence, the artist a witness; hence the drawings are burned at the end of the film, and the artist is blinded and murdered.

Hollar has seen much evil in his life, perhaps even too much for the average man. He witnessed the rebellion and catastrophe his people lived through. For nearly twenty years he took refuge in German cities from armies that plundered and killed every living thing in the territory between the Oder and the Rhine. He witnessed the revolution on the island to which he had fled from the continental carnage. He fled from that revolution to the same continent. Returning then to the island, he witnessed the restoration of the dynasty overthrown fifteen years before, the great fire that destroyed the city where he lived, the plague that took the life of his only child, the war with the country where he had previously found refuge, and much more. History, like the mysterious estate owner from “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, kept trying to creep into his works, but Wenceslaus Hollar, like a true master, for the most part left on paper the barest hints of the seventeenth-century European woes. Only a few times did he allow himself a direct reference — and then, doing it, as his time demanded, symbolically, even allegorically. In 1659 he created an engraving entitled “Comparison of the English and Bohemian Civil Wars”. The sheet of paper is divided diagonally — according to the geographical location of both countries. Above and to the left is an island with microscopic squads of pikemen, musketeers, and cavalrymen sprawled across it. This is a war of «cavaliers» and «round-heads.» Below and to the right is a hilly terrain, adorned by a monastery on a mountain. On the slopes are the same pikemen, musketeers and cavalrymen, lined up in neat boxes of battle orders. This is the White Mountain. The large images are framed by small pictures in squares; there are historical and allegorical contexts of the troubles that have occurred: one, for example, shows three men thrown from the window of a tall building, and another shows a savage soldier doing what a savage soldier normally does in an invaded town. At the bottom are neat lists of keys to the pictures. Finally, in the centre below, in an oval, is another image: a cow tipping over a bucket of fresh milk. This is an allegory of the senselessness of what was going on, understood by every educated person of the time.

And yet it is not «A Comparison of the English and Bohemian Civil Wars» or «Prospects of London before and after the Great Fire» that give us the strongest image of war and death, the most piercing depiction of the misery of seventeenth-century Europe. In the mid-thirties Hollar creates a view of the German town of Mainz. This is one of his most (if we can say so about city panoramas) lyrical, warm and serene graphic works. The peaceful town is depicted somewhere in the background, across the river; in the foreground there is a deserted riverbank, overgrown here and there with bushes. On the left is a a bastion with earthen escarpments, counterscarpments, flanks and other fortifications of the era when artillery made the thick and high stone walls of medieval castles redundant. At the bottom of the drawing, on a knoll, are three figures: two women and one man. On the right are two mighty trees: one broken, but still holding in the ground, the other uprooted and lying helplessly beside. Let’s look at the History of the Thirty Years’ War. The German town of Mainz was taken by the Swedish army and turned into one of its strongholds in the early thirties. In 1633 the Swedes erected a fort here, Gustavsburg, named after their King Gustavus Adolphus. The man in the military cloak, camisole and hat is probably a Swedish officer. What are two well-to-do German townswomen from Mainz, which the Swedes had captured, doing in his company? At first glance they look serene, but the whole composition is somewhat tense: the officer and one townswoman are looking at us, the other woman is looking somewhere to the left, past the Swede, in the direction of Gustavsburg. What symbol, what allegory is hidden in this group? What drama is playing out before us, against the backdrop of a peaceful landscape? What happened here in 1633, and what is happening at this very moment when the artist captures the view of Mainz and its inhabitants? How does this city live side by side with a foreign fortress and foreign soldiers of a foreign king? Are these women not afraid of their companion? Why is there not a single Mainz burgher in the drawing? We will never know the answers to these questions. But, as in the works of the Greenaway draughtsman, Hollar has left a clue — for those who will understand, who will read the artistic code of the seventeenth century. The broken and uprooted tree in the foreground is an emblem of futility, the malady of death and destruction, the horror of what the German town of Mainz (along with dozens of other European towns and cities) experienced in the monstrous 17th century. The painter, etcher, refugee Wenceslas Hollar has honestly fulfilled his contract — he does not insult the viewer with the cheap obviousness of pictorial horrors, he only hints: evil — here it is, among these smart people and beautiful views, it pretends that nothing happens, that everything is fine. And we, for a moment, see something very important in its nature.

Original Russian version of the essay was published in the book: Кирилл Кобрин. Пять эссе о войне и болезни». Babel books, 2024: