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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Canaletto in England

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Canaletto, London Seen Through an Arch of Westminster Bridge, 1747, Collection of the Duke of Northumberland

Canaletto is well known for his images of Venice and its beautiful Grand Canal and it is difficult to link his name with the Thames river and England, even if he spent 10 years of his life in UK.

Antonio Canal, named Canaletto, was born in Venice in 1697, the son of Bernardo Canal, a theatrical scenic painter. Very little information we have about his early career but we know that he did a travel to Rome with his father to create the scenery for two operas by the composer Alessandro Scarlatti. In Rome, he was inspired by the famous vedutista "view painter" Giovanni Paolo Pannini, so he started to reproduce images of Venice and Venetians.

One of his first art collector was the Irish Owen McSwiny (or Swiny), who escaped to Venice to avoid his creditors in London.

MacSwiny had good contacts, great artistic taste, and commissioned to Canaletto a series of allegorical paintings that he sold partially to the Duke of Richmond in 1725.

Canaletto, in that period, was experimenting his first “vedute” city views, almost as touristic pictures, in which for the first time the city was the subject of the painting and not the background.

Canaletto used the camera obscura to help himself to recreate the famous and favourite views of Venice, giving that iconic aspect of the city that loved her beauty and history, but it is a memory of a glorious past in a present of decadent decline.

MacSwiny soon realised that there was a market for small and bright topographical pictures, that depicted the unique light of Venice of which the English tourists were enchanted and that Canaletto copied perfectly.

MacSwiny commissioned several works by Canaletto for collectors back in England as the Duke of Richmond and other English gentlemen.

In this period entered in the life of Canaletto another substantial figure, Joseph Smith, named by Horace Walpole the Merchant of Venice. He was a consul, banker, merchant, and one of the biggest patrons and art collectors of his time. Smith commissioned several paintings to Canaletto and became his agent transforming him by far to the most successful painters of Venice.

After twelve years of success, in the 1740s Canaletto's market was disrupted when the War of the Austrian Succession led to a reduction in the number of British visitors to Venice.

For this reason, Canaletto in 1746 decided to move to London as others Italian painters did before him as Ricci, Amigoni and Joli. He opened his studio in Silver Street (nowadays Beak street) in Soho close to Carnaby Street.

Canaletto, supposed Self-Portrait of Canaletto with St Paul’s in the Background at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Canaletto blue plaque in Beak street

Smith wrote to McSwiny to introduce the painter to the Duke of Richmond, one of his earliest patrons.

In London in 1746 was under construction the Westminster Bridge, the second bridge of London.

Canaletto did several drawings and pictures of the bridge. The first two paintings were for the Prince Lobkowicz, who wanted a memento of his visit to London to go back to Bohemia.

Canaletto, London and the River Thames looking towards Westminster, ca. 1746-7, Lobkowicz house, Prague

After his patron was Hugh Smithson, when is brother-in-law died, he become the Earl of Northumberland, and changed his name in Percy. He was one of the commissioners for the new Westminster Bridge. His first commission was a view of London seen through an arch of the bridge on 1747.

For the Earl of Northumberland, he painted also Windsor Castle and Syon House.

On the 29th October 1746, Canaletto recorded the arrival at Westminster of the Lord Mayor in his state barge to be sworn in office, the kind of ceremony Canaletto had been painting in Venice for many years (Ascension Day). It lacks the freshness of touch and sense of conviction he was able to convey even after painting dozen version of this celebrated annual event when the Doge was rowed in his state barge, the Bucintoro, to the Lido to mark the marriage between Venice and the sea. There was not the shining light of Venice but more smoke for the chimney of London.

Canaletto, The river Thames with St Paul's Cathedral on Lord Mayor's day, Lobkowicz house, Prague
Canaletto, The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day, (c.1738), Wells Next The Sea, The Earl of Leicester and Trustees of the Holkham Estate

In 1747, he was invited by the Duke of Richmond to do a drawing of Whitehall and the Thames from a window of Richmond house and another drawing showing the terrace.

The Thames painting is something said to show Canaletto seeing London through the eyes of a Venetian, which was of course inevitable.

In this painting the view shows the majestic width of the Thames, leading to a skyline dominated by Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the focal point of the painting. Canaletto has succeeded in creating an extraordinary sense of spaciousness: with the combination of calm water, bright clear morning light and an untroubled sky.

Canaletto, The Thames and the City of London from Richmond House, 1746, Private Collection

He has brought to the London scene some of that clarity of vision, and pleasure in celebrating the attractions of a great city that he had earlier applied to Venice.

The terraces in the foreground belong to Richmond House and, at the left, Montagu House. The figures on them parade, converse, and in a leisurely manner watch the spectacle of the river in the sunshine. While a number of smaller boats skull about on it, two larger decorated barges belonging to the City of London, make their way upstream. The vertical emphases of the church spires, chimneys at the left, and mooring posts in the foreground, all carefully anchor and balance the composition, which is principally ordered by the horizon and gentle diagonals of the river bank.

Between 1751-53 Canaletto did two voyages to Venice.

In those years there were some rumours that some of the paintings were not real Canaletto and about some frauds insinuated by some dealers who wanted to sell copy of his works and for that reason they wanted him out of the Market and back to Italy.

Canaletto’s reply to the rumours when he heard of them was to put an advertisement in one of the newspapers inviting anyone (any Gentleman) to go to his Studio in Silver Street, Golden Square to see a painting he had just finished of St. James’s Park.

In 1752, he painted another view of the Thames from Greenwich, focusing in the Greenwich Hospital, a permanent home for retired sailors of the Royal Navy, to mark the completion of the Hospital buildings in 1751.

Canaletto, Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames, c.1752, The Queen's house, Royal Museum Greenwich

However, some art historians think that he may have painted it earlier, before the hospital was finished. Canaletto is likely to have visited the site sometime after 1746, to see Thornhill’s celebrated painted ceiling, the Painting Hall, which was completed in 1712.

The foreground shows a lively river busy with several ships contrasted with the calm, the elegance and the majesty of the opposite buildings: the Hospital, the Queen's House by Inigo Jones's in the centre of the picture and the Royal Observatory on the hill in Greenwich Park above it.

The Greenwich painting gives an interesting demonstration of one of Canaletto’s favourite tricks and devices. He has taken as his viewpoint the tip of the Isle of Dogs which provides that marvellous view of the hospital buildings, but he has in fact used two vie-points some ten degrees apart so as to give the impression of a wide-angle view, in other words a view taken from a much closer point.

The last painting that we know Canaletto realised in England is The Old Walton Bridge in 1755, considered Canaletto’s most engaging English picture.

Canaletto, Old Walton Bridge,1754, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

The painting presents some singularity. Normally the figures populating his landscapes were anonymous, but his painting of the bridge is unusual because the identities of several of the figures are known. In the centre of the painting on the near bank, two figures can be seen standing together; to the left is Thomas Hollis who commissioned the painting from Canaletto, his friend Thomas Brand, Hollis' servant, Francesco Giovannini, and at the feet of Hollis is his dog, Malta.

Seated a little distance from the central group on the left is an artist thought to be Canaletto himself.

In the river a ship is lowering its sail in order to pass under the bridge. With the towering storm clouds forming above the bridge, Canaletto contrasts the forces of nature with the work of engineering below; the painting is the only one of his English works in which he attempts to capture the weather.

In 1760 we know that Canaletto went back to Venice as two young Englishmen, John Crewe and John Hinchliffe recognised him sketching in the Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square).

Times had changed for the man who was once astounding everybody in Venice.

In 1763 he was elected in the Venetian Academy and gave them a capriccio as his reception piece and not one of his famous vedute (city views).

Those ten years in England neither made his fortune nor enhanced the very great reputation he had had when he arrived. He left us some precious paintings and drawings which throw a shaft of light on the George III’s period, an important moment of change for the landscape of London with the construction of some monumental buildings, nothing compares to the majesty and the beauty of Venice.

Canaletto was an important inspiration for the Great school of Watercolour and influenced artists as Farington, Malton, Girtin, Bonington and even to Shotter Boys. He was the model for landscape paintings until impressionism hade made its appearance.

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