The Fisher Library at the University of Toronto is privileged to be one of the largest repositories for the artistic works of Wenceslaus Hollar, along with Windsor Castle and the National Gallery Collection of Prints and Drawings in the artist's native Prague. The library's Hollar collection was donated by Dr. Sidney Fisher of Montreal, who had begun assembling the etchings in order to reconstruct the London of Shakespeare's day. Along with Fisher's Shakespeare collection, which includes all four folios, the Hollar collection was one of the foundation collections which came to the Department of Special Collections upon the opening of the new library in 1972. A great strength of the Fisher Hollar collection is the presence of multiple states of many of the images, which provides a unique opportunity to study the alterations to the plates and the transmission and distribution of the etchings, both during and after Hollar's lifetime.
Hollar was born in Prague in 1607, and his earliest etchings date from 1625. Very little is known of his early life and artistic training, but in 1636 he came to the attention of a renowned art collector, the Earl of Arundel, who was making an official visit to the continent; Hollar subsequently became a part of the Arundel household, settling in England in 1637. He remained there during the beginning of the English Civil War period, but moved to Antwerp in 1642. Ten years later he returned to London, working on a number of major projects for the publisher John Ogilby and the antiquary Sir William Dugdale. Hollar died in London in 1677, one of the most skilled etchers of his or any other time.
Hollar's oeuvre is remarkable for its great range and for its sophisticated technique. The majority of Hollar's work was produced in and about his adopted England, and famously includes 45 plates detailing the interior of old St. Paul's Cathedral just before its destruction in the Great Fire of 1666, as well as general views of London before and after the fire. His artistic output also includes religious and historical prints, maps and views, portraits, costume studies, and natural history. Hollar exploited the technique of etching to its fullest, recording even the tiniest details with great economy and clarity. He was able to portray complicated and massive architectural compositions such as Strasbourg Cathedral as readily as the whorls in a seashell. He was a master at conveying the textural complexity of a lace collar, or the tactile qualities of a feather fan or a fur muff. Over the course of his lifetime he produced some 2,700 separate etchings, and he was still at work when he died at age 70.
The Hollar collection has been known and consulted since it came to the library. Individual works have often been exhibited in Toronto and elsewhere, and reproduced in scholarly articles as well as in their own right as works of art. This year, with support from the Delmas Foundation, the entire collection has been digitized and can now be freely consulted by users everywhere, in high resolution form and with supporting material on Hollar's life and work.
Collection Profile and Overview: Richard Landon
Illustrations: Jim Ingram