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Detailed Drawing of London's Old St. Paul's Cathedral, to Be Sold at Sotheby's
Wenceslaus Hollar, East end of London’s Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. Estimate: £60,000-80,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- A remarkable previously undocumented drawing by the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar which provides a unique visual record of the appearance of the East end of London’s Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, has been brought, unannounced, into Sotheby’s Bond Street offices, and will be auctioned on Tuesday, July 6, 2010 (est. £60,000-80,000, illustrated above).

One of the most important buildings that the Great Fire of London destroyed in 1666 was the city’s Medieval Cathedral, St. Paul’s. The ruins of the old Cathedral were soon replaced by Sir Christopher Wren’s great London landmark, and relatively few people are today aware that the original cathedral, begun in 1083, stood on the site for nearly 600 years – almost twice as long as Wren’s architectural masterpiece has graced the London skyline. Even though Old St Paul’s stood for so long, our knowledge of how it actually looked is based almost entirely on the work of two men: the historian William Dugdale, who decided in 1656 to write a full account of the building’s history, and the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar, who was commissioned by Dugdale to make the illustrations for this book.

Dugdale embarked on the St. Paul's project thanks to his chance discovery that hampers full of documents from the Cathedral's early archives, many dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, were mouldering in the cellar of the man Oliver Cromwell had appointed to supervise property confiscated from the Deans and Chapters of England's Cathedrals (which included the building, contents and archives of St. Paul's). Dugdale was clearly moved to try to save these archives for posterity, and this, combined with the concern that he (and many others) felt regarding the future of the building itself, motivated him to undertake his great account of the Cathedral - one of the first detailed studies of a single building ever published.

By the early 17th century, the ancient Cathedral was in very poor condition. The original tall steeple had collapsed following a lightning strike in 1561, and other parts of the structure were unstable. The subsequent maltreatment of the building by the Parliamentarian authorities made things even worse. By 1656, the nave of the church had been converted for use as stabling for soldiers' horses, the choir stalls had been removed, monuments defaced and the pavement torn up, part of the crypt and a side chapel had been leased out to a wine merchant and a baker respectively, and the removal of protective scaffolding had resulted in the total collapse of the roof of the south transept. Given that various influential figures on the Parliamentarian side actually advocated the total destruction of all such grand places of worship, Dugdale's fear for the very survival of Old St. Paul's was totally justified. Yet although the text of his book describes exactly all these depredations, in Hollar's illustrations they are conspicuously absent, and the church is miraculously restored to its original condition. In effect, Dugdale's remarkable book is at once a precise account of the turbulent history of the Cathedral, a moving plea for its salvation, and a manifesto and blueprint for its careful restoration.

Hollar’s illustrations consisted of a series of fourteen highly detailed engraved views of the inside and outside of the Cathedral, as well as close-up images of the most important monuments and tombs. These prints must have been made on the basis of first-hand drawings executed on the spot, but until now only two drawings by Hollar of Old St. Paul’s were known, and one of those was just a small sketch of a detail of one of the choir screens. Apart from a single view of the Cathedral from the North-East, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, no full preparatory drawing for any of the prints in Dugdale’s great publication was known to have survived. At least not to scholars: the owner of the drawing now to be sold was perfectly well aware of what it was, as was the friend who gave it to her, and the dealer who sold it to that friend in 1956. Yet somehow the drawing managed to escape any other scholarly or public recognition before it was brought into Sotheby’s earlier this year.

Gregory Rubinstein, Head of Old Master Drawings at Sotheby’s, commented: “Being unexpectedly presented with this hugely important drawing at the valuations counter was one of the most astonishing moments in my entire 20 years at Sotheby’s. First-hand visual records of pre-Great Fire London are incredibly rare, and Hollar’s engravings of Old St. Paul’s are among the most important of all, as there are no other detailed images of this great building. To be shown, without any warning, an elaborate preparatory drawing by Hollarfor one of those prints, when only one other such first-hand drawing made on the spot was previously thought to have survived, was quite simply mindblowing.”

Less than a decade after Hollar made this drawing, the Cathedral was almost entirely destroyed in the Great Fire of London, so the discovery of this unique visual record of the building is of immense significance.

Sotheby's | Wenceslaus Hollar | St. Paul's Cathedral | Gregory Rubinstein |

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