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Edwaert Collier
Letter Rack


Edwaert Collier was born around 1640 in Breda. He worked in Haarlem before moving to Leiden in 1667. Between 1673 and 1680 he was a member of the city’s Guild of St Luke. In 1686 he moved back to Haarlem. In around 1693 Collier moved to London where he painted Trompe L’Oeil paintings until 1707, the year of his death, though he did travel back and forth to Leiden where it is thought that he died.[1] Collier painted numerous Trompe L’Oeil with Letter Racks, few of which he dated. However, from those paintings that are dated it appears that most of his Letter Racks were painted whilst in London.




Apollo Anglicanus Detail

Newspaper Detail

King's Speech Detail

British Newspaper Date Detail

The Painting

The Hunterian Letter Rack (oil on canvas, 48.9 x 60.2 cm) depicts fifteen objects held in a rack by three red leather ribbons. Of the fifteen objects shown, three are documents with texts that can be used to help date the painting. The other twelve are vanitas objects and a sealed letter.

Apollo Anglicanus
The first document is a book entitled Apollo Anglicanus, compiled by Richard Saunders (1613-1675?), an English astronomer and physician. It is an almanac describing the movements of the earth and its revolutions around the sun and the moon, and the influence that these movements have on the calendar. From the painting the following can be read: ‘Apollo Anglicanus, The English Apollo: Assisting all persons in the right understanding of this years revolution as also of things past, present and to come: with necessary tables plain [and useful: a two fold Kalendar, viz. Julian or English, Gregorian or Forain computations. More plain and full] than any other [with the rising and setting] of the sun [the nightly rising and setting of the moon, and also her southing: exactly calculated for every day of general use for most men: being bissextile of leap-year: to which is added] the moons application’– (Square brackets show the text hidden by other objects in the painting).[2]

This almanac was published many times from 1654 onwards; the front page depicted in Collier’s work seems to be that of the 1675 edition. The book was published in London by M. Clark for Stationers.

The part of this otherwise clearly readable document causes confusion regards the date, which has been changed from 1696 to 1676. The possible reasons for this will be discussed later.

The Newspaper
The newspaper included is The Flying Post or The Post Maste[r]. Only the beginning of the date of publication can be read in the painting; ‘From Tuesday April 2…’-, the article date is April 29th. The year of publication is not visible on the newspaper, this makes it difficult to presume the significance of 29th April and the illegible article depicted. The words are not real, but exist of mixed up letters and shapes that could be based on a technique used by printers to test layouts with made up words and Greek texts and shapes, so-called greeking. Perhaps Collier used a similar method.

King’s Speech
The third document gives little information regarding the date or the purpose for which it is shown. It is a copy of the King’s speech: ‘His Majesti[es] most gracio[us] speec[h] to both houses [of] parliame[nt] on Tuesday the Twenty…’

Date Change

Below the text of the King’s speech the top of the British monarch’s crest with a lion and a unicorn can be seen, above their heads the initials W R shine through a thin layer of white paint. This may have a connection with the change of the date on the Apollo Anglicanus: 1696 has been repainted to read 1676. The white paint layer that covers all three areas has become more transparent over time rvealing these changes. Originally, the only date visible would have been the earlier date of 1676. Although Collier was active in both 1676 and 1696, the latter must have been the date of the work as it fits in with his stay in London where he made many works in a similar style such as A Trompe L’Oeil of 1703 where he depicted similar objects; the Apollo Anglicanus, another monarch’s speech, this time Queen Anne’s (her initials can be seen). The magnifying glass and the pocket watch are amongst the vanitas objects included in both.

Examining the various Letter Racks Collier made, it becomes clear that he reused many of the same objects, sometimes barely altering there positions. This is an efficient way of churning out an obviously popular genre. Prior to this period in London he generally worked in more typical vanitas still life paintings and portraits such as Painter in the studio (presumably his self portrait) now in the National Portrait Gallery, London.[3]

The monograph W R that has been whitewashed over, refers to King William III of Orange who ruled between 1689 and 1702. Collier could not have included these initials in 1676 as in 1676 the Monarch was Charles II [4]and the initials W R would not have been considered for the crest.

The inclusion of a British newspaper in the painting also hints that he was in Britain when he painted it (between 1693 and 1707). The Flying Post or Post Master began publication on the Twenty-second of February 1696. This negates any possibility of Collier painting it in 1676. Although Collier changed the date and the monogram he left the title of the newspaper, perhaps he did not realise his error, or perhaps it would have been too large a change to make. Looking at the stylistic elements and the newspaper included in the composition, the date of the painting is most likely 1696.



Potrait Detail



Below the King’s speech there is a miniature portrait of a man; he has long curling hair, rounded features, and is wearing a lace necktie. In many of Collier’s Trompe L’Oeil paintings he has included miniature portraits. The man in this portrait must be someone of importance. If the aforementioned date change is of some significance, perhaps some light can be shed on the identity of the man in the miniature portrait. There must have been a reason for Collier to change the date to 1676. Taking the date from the newspaper, 29th April, and combining this with the altered year, 1676, a date of significance is discovered: on the 29th April 1676 the Dutch Admiral Michiel Adriensz. De Ruyter died in the bay of Syracuse on board his flagship De Eendragt.[6] The small portrait however does not identify with the Ruyter who has been portrayed in several paintings and sculptures. Yet it would not be unlike Collier to portray a famous personage in his painting as for example in a vanitas still life of 1703 he included a miniature portrait of Johan de Witt. De Witt became Chancellor of the Dutch republic in 1653, the first time the Republic was without a ruler from the House of Orange. In that same year De Ruyter became the Vice Admiral of Holland and West Friesland, occupying the most important position in the Dutch navy. The Ruyter opposed the House of Orange and he and De Witt developed a strong friendship. De Witt resigned in 1672 after the invasion of the French, and was murdered in that same year. Possibly the miniature portrait portrays De Witt, whose features show a closer likeness to the portrait than De Ruyter’s, by which Collier added another historically interesting element to the iconography of this painting.


Vanitas Objects

Alongside the documents there are some vanitas objects such as a pocket watch, two combs, a quill pen, a letter that is sealed, a letter opener, a stick of sealing wax, sealing stamp and scissors. These objects fit into Bergstrom’s first grouping of vanitas objects including all the objects needed for participating in the arts and sciences.[7] They were included to emphasise the fleeting nature and emptiness of human life.[8] The pocket watch is one of the more obvious symbols that Collier includes in this work; this is the object that mostly visually raises the point of passing time. The Apollo Anglicanus is another item which conveys this idea, it is an almanac describing the rising and setting of the sun and moon and, therefore, the movement and passing of time. To the learned in the seventeenth century it would have been a familiar book and they would have known its meaning. The inclusion of the newspaper and sealed letter tells of the nature of life in the contemporary world. All the collected items reflect the fact that life is just a passing moment and, in the larger scale of things, all that we have to show for what has happened are the bits and pieces we gather as we go. After our death it is only these objects that tell of our existence.[9] This links well with the inclusion of historic figures: with the date of Michael De Ruyter’s death in the newspaper, and the presence of Johan de Witt. After their deaths, the only thing to tell of their existence are the written documents that have lasted, like the newspaper, and their portraits.


Vanitas Detail



Technical Survey

The general condition of the painting is good, the original canvas has been lined with a wax or resin lining which has slightly affected the detail on the surface of the painting as the brush strokes and paint layers have been flattened. Using a stereo microscope, but also with the naked eye it can be seen that the paint layer has an overall grainy texture. This could be caused by the use of a course, and therefore cheaper, lead white in the ground layer. The ground layer was presumably light coloured, though there is no evidence that the ground layer has been left uncovered in any section of the painting even in the lighter sections and objects. There has been some restoration carried out on this painting, which may account for the visibility of the lead white particles as the top layer of paint has suffered from slight abrasion presumably caused by cleaning.


Around the outlines of the individual painted objects differing shades of brown and ochre can be seen. It seems that Collier sketched in the objects with a brownish paint in order to position them correctly. He may have applied shadow areas and brighter areas in various hues of brown and ochre. Then the final paint layers were applied. This efficient way of painting obviously worked well for Collier, who was working to the demands of his market churning out many of these Trompe L’Oeil paintings, using similar elements. The method he used saved him time and money. It also meant that there was little chance of making expensive mistakes. The only section where we can see a reworking of position, a so-called pentimento, is in the blue bow used to attach the miniature portrait to the red ribbons; the brush strokes of the original bow continue under the red ribbon. It is difficult to see what was originally going to be painted but it seems the bow changed position in the final execution in blue paint. In the newspaper Collier’s way of forward-planning can also be seen; running along under the pale paint layer of the paper, faint black lines can be seen, these are used by Collier for ‘writing’, giving a clear layout for his text, and this helps to create the printed image Collier was aiming for. The changes in the dates and initials of the Royal crest can also be considered as pentimenti as they were made by the painter himself.


1. J. Turner ed., Groves Dictionary of Art, Vol. 7, (Sunderland, 1996), I. Bergstrom, Dutch Still-Life Painting: In the Seventeenth Century, (London, 1956).
2.,2602,1724_6717_35462,00.html, Texas A&M University Libraries, 15/02/03.
3. Portrait Gallery, 15/02/05
4., 09/01/05
5. Information supplied by Alison Bailey, Curator, Co-ordination and Interpretation, Early Printed Collection, British Library for which we thank her.
6. F. Vere, Salt in their Blood: The lives of the Famous Dutch Admirals, (London, 1955), 123, 191.
7. Bergstrom , 1956.
8. Turner 1996, Vol. 31.
9. K. Lippincett, The Story of Time, (London, 1999)