his book is largely unknown. It consists of 19 — not particularly good — copies of Holbein's dance of death. The print run has been exceptionally low: Apparently the artist himself gave them away to noblemen of Dutch extraction at the English court.(1)
Later on, the prints were sold separately, and the first of them had added title and subtitle (picture to the right).
The scene with the senator lacks the little devil; and the scene with the peddler lacks one of the cadavers. The pictures are copies of Holbein and not — as might be assumed — of Hollar. This can partly be seen from the fact that Death attacks the soldier with a bone instead of an arrow, and partly because the 19 prints include four scenes, which Hollar didn't make: ossuary, lawyer, fool and blind man.
The prints are in the words of Francis Douce: »nineteen very indifferent etchings«. The only reason they are worth mentioning is the importance Douce gave to the book's preface, and the extensive discussion it has caused, and which I will try to summarize.
In the handwritten preface — which is different for each copy — the author seems to claim that Holbein had painted the dance of death on the walls of Henry VIII's palace in Whitehall, which burned down in 1698.
In the 1794-edition of Hollar Douce writes in his anonymous preface, how this book has escaped the notice of all biographers:
But it has entirely escaped the knowledge of all the biographers of Holbein,
that he painted a Dance of Death in fresco, upon the walls of the palace of Whitehall,
which was consumed by fire in 1697.(2)
This curious fact is ascertained from two sets of nineteen very indifferent etchings from the wooden cuts, by one Nieuhoff;
they were never published, but copies of them presented to the artist's friends, with manuscript dedications in the Dutch language,
in which he speaks of the abovementioned paintings at Whitehall.
The book has the following title engraved in a border:
"Imagines Mortis, or the Dead Dance of Hans Holbeyn, Painter of King Henry the VIIIth."
The author, in one of these dedications, addressed to the Right Honourable William Benting, informs him, that "he had met with the scarce little work of H. Holbeyn in wood, which he had himself painted as large as life in fresco, on the walls of Whitehall; that he had followed the original as nearly as possible, and had presumed to lay his copy before him as being born in the same palace; that he considered the partiality which every one has for the place of his nativity, and that therefore an account of what was curious and remarkable therein, and of what was then no more, as being destroyed by a fatal fire, must of course prove acceptable, particularly as there were hardly any more remains of the palace left than his own dwelling." He then states, that the design of the painter resembled that of the founder of the Greek monarchy, who ordered these words to be written to remind him of his mortality: "Remember, Philip, that thou art a man!" and proceeds to describe in a very quaint manner the different subjects of his work.
The dedication to the other copy is nearly in similar words, and addressed to Mynheer Heymans, who appears, in consideration of his singular merits, to have had a dwelling assigned him in the palace at Whitehall.
From the hand-writing and Dutch names in this work, it is evidently of the time of William III but of the artist no memorial is preserved; however, the importance of the fact which he has recorded, will render him a valuable personage in the opinion of the lovers of the arts.
After what has been said then, it is to be hoped that no additional evidence will be requisite to shew that Holbein did not invent the subjects, nor execute the cuts belonging to the Dance of Death, which is usually ascribed to him; that he painted it, however, and most assuredly more than once, seems to be beyond the possibility of doubt.
(The dance of death by Hans Holbein and engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1794, pages 30-33. Line breaks and italics added.)
So Douce has seen two copies of this book, in which Nieuhoff writes that Holbein had painted the dance of death, life-sized, on the walls of Whitehall.
This book is the last exhibit in Douce's evidence for his favorite theory, viz. that Holbein is not the originator of the famous woodcuts: »it is to be hoped that no additional evidence will be requisite to shew that Holbein did not invent the subjects, nor execute the cuts belonging to the Dance of Death, which is usually ascribed to him«.
Other scholars were less impressed. Hegner criticized Douce in his book about the life of Holbein:
Hier darf auch ein vermeintlicher Beitrag zu Holbeins Kunstgeschichte, der sich in dem mehrmals erwähnten kleinen Werke:
the dance of death, painted by Holbein, engraved by Hollar, findet, nicht übergangen werden.
Der Herausgeber bemerkt:
»es sey allen Biographen Holbeins entgangen, daß er einen Todtentanz in Fresco in dem Pallaste zu Whitehall, der
1697(2) vom Feuer verzehrt worden, gemahlt habe.
Er beruft sich auf ein Buch Imagines mortis, or the Death-dance of Hans Holbeyn, Painter of King Henry VIII mit neunzehn sehr mittelmäßigen (very indifferent) nach den Holzschnitten geätzten Blättern von einem gewissen Nieuhoff; das Werkchen sey zwar nie in den Buchhandel gekommen, sondern nur des Verfassers Freunden mitgetheilt worden, mit handschriftlichen holländischen Dedicationen, in welchen der Verfasser berichte, Holbein habe den Todtentanz, welchen er in Holz geschnitten, vorher in lebensgroßen Figuren auf die Mauern zu Whitehall gemalt. Dieß sey zur Zeit Willhelms III., zwar nach dem Brande des Pallastes geschrieben worden, habe aber dem Schreiber noch wohl bekannt seyn können, übrigens finde man sonst nirgends Nachricht von diesem Nieuhoff.«
- Das wäre allerdings eine bedeutende Entdeckung, wenn man ihr einigen Glauben beimessen könnte. Allein weder van Mander, noch Sandrart, noch Patin, die alle in England gewesen, und Whitehall noch gesehen haben, melden ein Wort von diesem gemalten Todtentanz, auch Vertue nicht, und Niemand, als dieser unbedeutende und unbekannte holländische Kupferstecher Neuhof, und blos in handschriftlicher Mittheilung. - Es wäre auch hier dieser Fabel keine Meldung geschehen, hätte nicht Douce ein unverdientes Gewicht darauf gelegt, und fänden seine oberflächlichen Kunstforschungen nicht unverdienten Glauben bei Englischen und andern Compilatoren.
Diese Warnung vor unbegründeten Nachrichten möge für hundert Andre gehen; denn es würde ein eignes Buch erfordert, alles Halbwahre und Falsche und Irreleitende, was über den Todtentanz, und seinen Urheber überhaupt, geschrieben worden, anzuführen und zu widerlegen.
(Ulrich Hegner, Hans Holbein der Jüngere, 1827, pages 336-338. Line breaks and italics added.)
Hegner calls the story "a fable", which he mentions only because of the undeserved weight Douce has attributed to it, and the undeserved confidence that Douce's superficial art research had found among English and other compilers. Hegner uses the story as a general warning against baseless information. It would require a separate book to describe all of the half-true, false and misleading things written about dances of death.
In 1833 Douce published his famous book, The Dance of Death Exhibited in Elegant Engravings on Wood. Nieuhoff's book is described briefly on page 130, and on page 140 Douce returns to the handwritten prefaces.
Very soon after the calamitous fire at Whitehall in 1697,(2) which consumed nearly the whole of that palace, a person calling himself T. Nieuhoff Piccard, probably belonging to the household of William the Third, and a man who appears to have been an amateur artist, made the etchings in the article IX. already described in p. 130. Copies of them were presented to some of his friends, with manuscript dedications to them. Three of these copies have been seen by the author of this Dissertation, and as the dedications differ from each other, and are of very considerable importance on the present occasion, the following extracts from them are here translated and transcribed:
To Mynheer Heymans.
"Sir, — The costly palace of Whitehall, erected by Cardinal Wolsey, and the residence of King Henry VIII. contains, among other performances of art, a Dance of Death, painted by Holbein in its galleries, which, through an unfortunate conflagration, has been reduced to ashes; and even the little work which he has engraved with his own hand, and which I have copied as near as possible, is so scarce, that it is known only to a few lovers of art. And since the court has thought proper, in consideration of your singular deserts, to cause a dwelling to be built for you at Whitehall, I imagined it would not be disagreeable to you to be made acquainted with the former decorations of that palace. It will not appear strange that the artist should have chosen the above subject for ornamenting the royal walls, if we consider that the founder of the Greek monarchy directed that he should be daily reminded of the admonition, 'Remember, Philip, that thou art a man.' In like manner did Holbein with his pencil give tongues to these walls to impress not only the king and his court, but every one who viewed them with the same reflection."
He then proceeds to describe each of the subjects, and concludes with some moral observations.
In another copy of these etchings the dedication is to
"The high, noble, and wellborn Lord William Benting, Lord of Rhoon, Pendreght, &c."
"Sir, — In the course of my constant love and pursuit of works of art, it has been my good fortune to meet with that scarce little work of Hans Holbein neatly engraved on wood, and which he himself had painted as large as life in fresco on the walls of Whitehall. In the copy which I presume to lay before you, as being born in the same palace, I have followed the original as nearly as possible, and considering the partiality which every one has for the place of his birth, a description of what is remarkable and curious therein and now no longer existing on account of its destruction by a fatal fire, must needs prove acceptable, as no other remains whatever have been left of that once so famous court of King Henry VIII. built by Cardinal Wolsey, than your own dwelling."
He then repeats the story of Philip of Macedon, and the account of the subjects of his etchings.
At the end of this dedication there is a fragment of another, the beginning of which is lost. The following passages only in it are worthy of notice. "The residence of King William." "I flatter myself with a familiar acquaintance with Death, since I have already lived long enough to seem to be buried alive, &c." In other respects, the same, in substance, as the preceding.
It is almost needless to advert to M. Nieuhoff Piccard's mistake in asserting that Holbein made the engravings which he copied; but it would have been of some importance if, instead of his pious ejaculations, he had described all the subjects that Holbein painted on the walls of the galleries at Whitehall. He must have used some edition of the wood-cuts posterior to that of 1545, which did not contain the subjects of the German soldier, the fool, and the blind man, all of which he has introduced. It is possible, however, that he has given us all the subjects that were then remaining, the rest having become decayed or obliterated from dampness and neglect, and even those which then existed would soon afterwards perish when the remains of the old palace were removed. His copies are by no means faithful, and seem to be rather the production of an amateur than of a regular artist. For his greater convenience, he appears to have preferred using the wood engravings instead of the paintings; and it is greatly to be regretted that we have no better or further account of them, especially of the time at which they were executed. […]
(Francis Douce, The Dance of Death Exhibited in Elegant Engravings on Wood, pages 140-144.)
Now Nieuhoff has acquired one more name: Piccard, and Douce has now seen three copies of the book. However he still describes only two of them.
Here in 1833 Douce gives an actual quote from Nieuhoff, and as one can see Nieuhoff doesn't claim to have copied the dance from the walls of Whitehall. On the contrary he says — more or less — that he has simply copied a printed version of Holbein's woodcuts: »the little work which he has engraved with his own hand, and which I have copied as near as possible«. Douce himself had come to a similar realization: »For his greater convenience, he appears to have preferred using the wood engravings instead of the paintings«.
The 19 engravings then cannot be used as evidence. The only information about the alleged painting is what Nieuhoff writes in the preface, and nobody knows, who he was, when he lived, or whether he had seen the painting.
At the end of the book (page 240 ff) Douce informs us that he has recently read the book by Hegner, and he is not pleased. Douce refers to Hegner as "the above gentleman" with "gentleman" in italics; Douce uses several pages on lambasting Hegner's book, which is, »greatly abounding in error and false conceit«, while Hegner himself is, »wholly unqualified, and with much unseemly arrogance, and its usual concomitant, ignorance«.
In the middle of his five-pages broadside against Hegner, Douce gives a sort of admission: »The identification of William Benting must be left to the sagacity of others«. Benting was the man to whom Nieuhoff had dedicated one of the books, and Douce would naturally have been expected to inquire the current owner about the provenance of the book — i.e. who had owned the book previously, and from whence it came.
This was one of the points William Chatto criticised Douce for in 1839:
Mr. Douce next proceeds in his search after the "painting," and he is
not long in finding what he wishes for. According to his statement,
"very soon after the calamitous fire at Whitehall, 1697, which
consumed nearly the whole of that palace, a person, calling himself
T. Nieuhoff Piccard, probably belonging to the household of William
III, and a man who appears to have been an amateur artist," made
etchings after nineteen of the cuts in the Lyons Dance of Death.
Impressions of those etchings, accompanied with manuscript dedications,
appear to have been presented by this T. Nieuhoff Piccard to his
friends or patrons, and among others to a Mynheer Heymans, and to "the
high, noble, and well-born Lord William Denting, Lord of Rhoon,
Pendraght," &c. The address to Mynheer Heymans contains the
following important piece of information respecting a work of Holbein's,
which appears most singularly to have escaped the notice of every other
writer, whether English or foreign. "Sir, — The costly palace of
Whitehall, erected by Cardinal Wolsey, and the residence of King Henry
VIII, contains, among other performances of art, a Dance of Death,
painted by Holbein, in its galleries, which, through an
unfortunate conflagration, has been reduced to ashes."
dedication to the "high, noble, and well-born Lord William Benting," the
information respecting this curious work of art, — all memory of
which would have perished had it not been for the said T. Nieuhoff
Piccard, — is rather more precise. "Sir, [not My Lord,] — In the
course of my constant love and pursuit of works of art, it has been my
good fortune to meet with that scarce little work of Hans Holbein,
neatly engraved on wood, and which he himself had painted as large as
life, in fresco, on the walls of Whitehall." Who Mynheer Heymans was
will probably never be discovered, but he seems to have been a person of
some consequence in his day, though unfortunately never mentioned in any
history or memoirs of the period, for it appears that the court thought
proper, in consideration of his singular deserts, to
cause a dwelling to be built for him at Whitehall. My Lord William
Benting, — though from his name and titles he might be
mistaken for a member of the Bentinck family, — appears to have been
actually born in the palace. It is, however, very unfortunate that his
name does not occur in the peerage of that time; and as neither Rhoon
nor Pendraght are to be found in Flanders or Holland, it is not unlikely
that these may be the names of two of his lordship's castles in
T. Nieuhoff Piccard's express testimony of Holbein having painted a Dance of Death in fresco, at Whitehall, is, in Mr. Douce's opinion, further corroborated by the following circumstances: […]
With respect to T. Nieuhoff Piccard, whose manuscript addresses to "Mynheer Heymans" and "Lord William Benting" are cited to prove that Bourbon's verses must relate to a painting of the Dance of Death by Holbein in the old palace of Whitehall, nothing whatever is known; and there is not the slightest reason to believe that a Lord William Benting, born in the old palace of Whitehall, "Lord of Rhoon, Pendraght," &c. ever existed. I am of opinion that the addresses of the person calling himself T. Nieuhoff Piccard are a clumsy attempt at imposition. Though Mr. Douce had seen both those addresses, and also another of the same kind, he does not appear to have made any attempt to trace their former owners, nor does he mention the names of the parties in whose possession they were at the time that he saw them. He had seen the address to "Lord William Benting" previous to the publication of his observations on the Dance of Death in 1794, when, if he had felt inclined, he might have ascertained from whom the then possessor had received it, and thus obtained a clue to guide him in his inquiries respecting the personal identity of the Lord of Rhoon and Pendraght. But this would not have suited his purpose; for he seems to have been conscious that any inquiry respecting such a person would only have tended to confirm the doubts respecting the paper addressed to him by Piccard. It is also uncertain at what time those pretended addresses were written, but there are impressions of the etchings which accompanied them with the date 1720; and I am inclined to think that if the paper and handwriting were closely examined, it would be found that those pretended presentation addresses were manufactured about the same, or perhaps at a later period. Whoever the person calling himself T. Nieuhoff Piccard may have been, or at whatever time the addresses to Mynheer Heymans and others may have been written, the only evidence of there having been a painting of the Dance by Holbein at Whitehall rests on his unsupported statement. Such a painting is not mentioned by any foreign traveller who had visited this country, nor is it noticed by any English writer prior to 1697; it is not alluded to in any tragedy, comedy, farce, or masque, in which we might expect that such a painting would have been incidentally mentioned had it ever existed. Evelyn, who must have frequently been in the old palace of Whitehall, says not a word of such a painting, though he mentions the Lyons Dance of Death under the title of Mortis Imago, and ascribes the cuts to Holbein; and not the slightest notice of it is to be found in Vertue or Walpole.
(William Andrew Chatto, A treatise on wood engraving, historical and practical, 1839, pages 431-433)
Chatto doesn't pull his punches. He doesn't believe that Benting (the owner of one of the books), ever existed: »and there is not the slightest reason to believe that a Lord William Benting, born in the old palace of Whitehall, "Lord of Rhoon, Pendraght," &c. ever existed«, and the same thing goes for his two villages: »neither Rhoon nor Pendraght are to be found in Flanders or Holland«. In the index Benting is even called "a fictitious character": »Benting, William, Lord of Rhoon and Pendraght, a fictitious character, mentioned by T. Nieuhoff Piccard«.
Chatto thinks the prefaces are a clumsy attempt to swindle: »I am of opinion that the addresses of the person calling himself T. Nieuhoff Piccard are a clumsy attempt at imposition«, and Douce is criticized for his blind faith in a man who might not even exist: »he believes, on the sole authority of one T. Nieuhoff Piccard, whose existence is as doubtful as Macaber's, that Holbein painted a Dance of Death as large as life, in fresco, in the old palace at Whitehall« (page 406).
ome parts of the discussion are easy to settle. It might be that neither Douce nor Chatto were able to identify the William Benting, who was born at Whitehall, but today it doesn't take many split seconds for Google to find Willem Count Bentinck, born at Whitehall in London, 1704, dead in 1774, Lord of Rhoon and Pendrecht.
Chatto criticizes Douce for not telling in what language the two dedications were written: »It appears that these addresses of Piccard were written in a foreign language, though, whether Dutch, French, German, or Latin, Mr. Douce most unaccountably neglects to say: he merely mentions that his extracts are translated«. But this is wrong: Douce wrote in 1794 that the text was written in Dutch: »with manuscript dedications in the Dutch language«.
And the book does indeed exist, for a copy was put up for sale on the Internet in March 2012. In this copy a former owner has written an extract of Douce's article from 1794: »It has entirely escaped the knowledge of all the biographers of Holbien [sic] that he painted a Dance of Death in fresco upon the walls of the palace of Whitehall which was consumed by fire in 1697. This curious fact is ascertained from 2 sets of nineteen etchings from the wooden cuts by one Nieuhoff«. The owner has discreetly omitted two words, for Douce had written, »nineteen very indifferent etchings«.
The owner further informs us that this copy was dedicated to »Mynheer Kousemaker, a man of great wealth who came over with King William the 3(rd), and settled in Surrey«.
When all is said, Chatto is still right in much of his criticism. It ought to have been a small task for Douce to identify William Benting simply by asking the owner of the book, from whence he had the book. At the same time the identification of William Benting weakens Douce's case: It is true that Benting was born at Whitehall, but this was in 1704, six years after most of the palace had burned down. Thus Benting had never seen the painting in question.
Both Chatto and Hegner also point out that lots of art experts had visited the palace: Mander, Sandrart, Patin and Vertue, and none of them mention such a painting. For comparison the mural in Basel was 60 meters long and thus it would have been hard to miss.
Finally it must (again) be remembered that when Douce so furiously defends this description of the painting in Whitehall, is it is chiefly because he believes it is helping to prove that Holbein didn't design the famous woodcuts: »it is to be hoped that no additional evidence will be requisite to shew that Holbein did not invent the subjects, nor execute the cuts belonging to the Dance of Death, which is usually ascribed to him«.
Douce's logic is presumably that if it can be proved that Holbein had painted a dance of death in Whitehall, then it would explain much of the praise he was given by his contemporaries. This praise would then not be on account of the famous woodcuts, but the painting in Whitehall.
There is something seriously wrong with this logic: He himself admits that Nieuhoff has copied one of the printed versions of Imagines Mortis, and Nieuhoff obviously did this because he knew (or guessed), that the two dances looked the same. If Douce's only witness, Nieuhoff, had in fact seen the alleged painting, this would just be further proof that Holbein had designed the woodcuts.
But as a matter of fact, Nieuhoff doesn't write anywhere that he has seen it himself: »It has been my good fortune to meet with that scarce little work of Hans Holbein neatly engraved on wood, and which he himself had painted as large as life in fresco on the walls of Whitehall«. Nieuhoff has seen Holbein's woodcuts: »neatly engraved on wood«, and he knows/believes that Holbein had also painted such a dance at Whitehall. But he doesn't write that he has seen it.
Nieuhoff had no doubts that Holbein was the originator of Imagines Mortis: »a Dance of Death, painted by Holbein in its galleries, […] and even the little work which he has engraved with his own hand, and which I have copied as near as possible« and »that scarce little work of Hans Holbein neatly engraved on wood«.
Footnotes: (1) (2)
King William III of England (1650 - 1702) was born in Holland. He was prince of Orange under the name Willem III until becoming English king in 1689 (it's a coincidence that he was the third Willem/William in both Orange and England).
England introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Between 1155 and 1751 the new year started 25 March.