Wenceslaus Hollar, one of the most famous of 17th century printmakers, died in 1677. His work, while brilliant and vast, could hardly be interpreted as contemporary. Yet it is the very same Hollar who has inspired a young Thai artist, Praphan Rakarin, to produce a daring, complex, enormous, imaginative, passionate and highly original painting. The painting is called London 1, a plain name for an anything but plain piece of work.
Wenceslaus Hollar was born in Prague in 1607. Over the course of his long life he meandered across Europe, including two spells in England, both before and then after the English Civil War.
Printmaking was its peak of popularity in the 17th century and Hollar an acknowledged master. His output was prolific, more than 2,700 etchings covering a vast range of subjects.
He is perhaps mosts famous for his maps. The map to the right is one of his best works — London in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666.
The plain white area in the center of the map represents the area of London destroyed by the fire. Hollar convincingly conveys the enormous scale of destruction.
Here you see an excerpt of another Hollar print, detailing London both before and after the fire.The detail is exceptionally fine.
In both prints, the River Thames is used as the anchoring viewpoint.
Hollar combines an excellent eye for detail with magnificent technical skills. His work remains celebrated and very collectable.
Let’s turn now to Praphan Rakarin, or Tom as he is better known.
I wrote about Tom not long ago, in “Praphan Rakarin: a monochromed Turner?”
There I discussed the different influences on Tom’s work, especially that of J.W. Turner. On the right, you see one of his London series. The technical skill of the Houses of Parliament — very Turner-esque in my opinion — is matched by the wonderful shading and tones of the monochrome spectrum.
The detail of the Parliament has certain echoes of Hollar for sure, but there is little obvious resemblance.
If you look at this Hollar print you see that his style, typical of the period, was much more architectural and precise than anything that Tom has produced.
In fact you only really capture the influence of Hollar in one of Tom’s paintings, named London 1.
It is a plain title for what is an anything but plain painting.
Painted in 2005, shortly after Tom arrived in London, it is the masterpiece of the London series.
It is a vast work — 2.5 meters wide and 1.5 meters high. It’s scale is such that it almost overwhelms you.
Here it is. I first saw it in Tom’s studio, where he also lives.
It is an area of Bangkok known by local residents as Ghost City. It consists of numberless residential towers, abandoned and left empty in the aftermath of the 1998 Asian economic crisis.
Slowly people are beginning to move back there but the name Ghost City is apt. It is an eerie, rather soulless place. The quiet is disturbing amidst the normal Bangkok background of noise, pollution and chaos.
I walked into Tom’s appartment to be confronted with canvas upon canvas, stacked anywhere and everywhere. Reaching the living area was like scaling a mountain peak.
In the kitchen there was no food at all, just water, coffee, wine, beer and bottle upon bottle of whisky, each opened, some empty, some half full. Ashtrays are everywhere, overflowing with cigarette butts.
Sit anywhere and you are likely to find black ink on your clothes. In many ways it is a typical artist’s studio!
I wandered into the bedroom which is surprisingly neat. There was just one painting there, London 1, hung in the center of the wall, the first thing he sees when he wakes each day.
I looked at it, issued an expletive and just stared and stared and stared.
You know, even without knowing, that this is the work that Tom is most proud of and you can feel the love and emotion that has gone into it.
It was when Tom began to show me books of Hollar’s work that I understand the genesis of the painting, which is the set of maps that I showed at the beginning of this post.
Incredibly, he has gone back to Hollar’s and reinterpreted them into the modern day London skyline.
You have Battersea Power Station at the far left, all the way past London Bridge, to the “new” St. Paul’s of Christopher Wren, the Post Office Tower and Canary Wharf at the far right.
As with Hollar, the anchorpoint is the river, though Tom’s perspective is more interesting. As with Hollar you find incredible detail all over the painting.
It is an almost unbelievable piece of work. I can think of nothing else like it, other than Hollar. The monochromatic effect is magnificent. You just know that it would not work in color.
The shades and tones capture the mood of the city and the immensity of the river. London Bridge as a centerpoint provides an unusual but very effective perspective.
As I look at it I imagine the artist walking the streets of London, often in the rain, mainly in the gray, always in the cold. I imagine him sitting on the South Bank gazing across the river, his eyes tracing the arc from Battersea to Canary Wharf.
I see him studying in the libraries and galleries of the city, sketching manically day-after-day, conceiving the idea, planning the work and then slowly beginning to put it all together.
I see him working in his tiny London bedsit, paints and inks everwhere, the canvas almost the length of the wall, sleeping almost never, just painting, painting, painting.
It is, of course, a summary of all the 26 pictures of the London series but it is also much more than that. It is a testament to vision, skill, imagination, daring and idiosyncracy.
It is an immense work for one so young. A photograph does it an injustice. This is a painting that has to be seen to be believed.