Much of the City of London was destroyed by fire between 3 and 6 September 1666, a major blow for the Czech artist Wencelaus Hollar, who had been hard at work on a large bird's-eye map of the whole of the City and Westminster.
Hollar, however, did find a way to profit from the disaster by creating these two panoramic views of London before and after the fire, satisfying the international thirst for information that it had aroused. In order to show the city as it had been before the Great Fire he copied part of a large panorama of London and Westminster that he had created in the early 1640s. It was easy for him to produce the view of the city after the Fire because he was closely involved in official efforts to estimate and map the damage that had been done.
The image that Hollar presents of the City appears to be completely realistic, as though taken from the tower of what is now Southwark Cathedral on the south bank of the Thames. In fact, this is a skilful blend of views take from different standpoints: some of Hollar's preliminary pencil sketches, proving that this was so, still survive.
The view belongs to a tradition stretching back to the 1540s when the Flemish artist Anthonis van der Wijngaerde created a long view of London seen from the south across the Thames. His preliminary drawing is now in the Ashmolean in Oxford. Prior to that the accepted view seems to have been from the east, looking up-river with Southwark and the City on either side of the Thames. The view from the south continued to be the standard view of London until the mid-19th century when the skyline was obscured by warehouses, factories and increasingly high office blocks and aerial views – initially as if from a balloon – became more popular.