Canaletto’s paintings of Britain beguile with their ability to both document and idealise
It started with a bridge. Westminster Bridge, begun in 1739 and only the second to cross the River Thames in central London, was seen as a great engineering feat throughout Europe. Hugh Smithson, later the first Duke of Northumberland and one of the bridge commissioners, was proud enough of it to invite artist Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, to paint the masterpiece.
Canaletto was established in Venice and his paintings of the city, its lagoon and churches had made him a favourite of British collectors on their European grand tours. This exhibition in Compton Verney, Warwickshire, shows paintings and drawings from Canaletto’s time in Britain. Many of his views are of Thames vistas, but he also set up his easel outside Warwick Castle and in the town there – the pictures are of course here, though one held in the Yale Centre for British Art is presented in reproduction only, stuck straight on the deep blue wall.
Compton Verney itself was remodelled by Robert Adam and Capability Brown in the 1760s, so the period when Canaletto was painting grand narratives of a Britain resurgent is a close contemporary to what visitors will have seen around them as they entered the grounds of the gallery. But curator Dr Steven Parissien is at pains to point out that what Canaletto portrayed was not just the Italian-influenced Palladianism of William Kent, Colen Campbell and Lord Burlington (all dead and buried by the time Canaletto arrived on these shores) but also the ‘eclectic’ architecture of a confident nation of baroque and gothick mixed with engineering. The building boom was Canaletto’s subject, asserts Parissien. Most striking is the newness of the landmarks in Canaletto’s day. Westminster Bridge, obviously; the double western towers of Westminster Abbey were painted in 1749, shortly after they were completed. Even St Paul’s Cathedral and the Monument had been built in living memory.
The most dramatic scenes are the least familiar. Westminster Bridge is a subject of detailed study and, as with say Whistler’s Nocturne images 100 years later, these pieces make you sit up. This is not part of history – the gilt-edged frames recede. It feels modern. That arch massively framing the view along the river is a device you might recognise now; those close-up studies of the stone work have a completely different urgency and materiality to the grand city scenes. The collapsed fifth bridge pier being repaired, in another painting, is a fascinating documentary insight.
For many, Canaletto’s river scenes will be familiar, displayed at the great institutions of London and reproduced no doubt thousands of times since they were painted, not least as 1000-piece jigsaws – where does that bit of sky go? As documents they are not entirely reliable. Parissien points out some things you might not have noticed. Picture that famous painting of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich. This incorporates an extra layer of colonnade and incorrect flags, showing its antecedent in an earlier 1736 engraving. The educated guess is that Canaletto had not even been to London at the time it was painted.
Further study pays off. One room is devoted to the river views. Looking towards St Paul’s Cathedral from Somerset House the dome stretches, noble, elongated towards the sky. Surely it is rounder, squatter? Sure enough: in Canaletto’s sketch alongside, the dimensions are closer to the real thing. The myriad of bauble-laced steeples scattered on the skyline are unrecognisable, while appearing in both painting and sketch. We are well clear of the Great Fire of London – look, there is the Monument erected in its memory – so were all the churches lost in the Blitz or is there an element of reality giving way to composition there?
Certainly there is a mystery to the double appearance of carpet beaters in front of the Treasury, both when the old Horse Guards Building is still holding on and when it has been replaced with the shell of the new army headquarters to designs by William Kent (right). But for all the life such details bring, it is the buildings and architectural lines that Canaletto dwells on. These are imbued with certainty and clarity, whereas figures are suggestive of actions – they add colour but are never quite convincing. If you have the privilege of seeing these paintings close up faces attract barely a touch of the brush. That is even the case where Canaletto portrays his own patrons: the yellow coated gentleman at the centre of the painting The Bridge at Walton is the antiquarian Thomas Hollis, the man who bought the painting.
The exhibition starts in Venice so we can understand the blue skies Canaletto paints with. They support the thesis that he saw London as the new Venice, the new cultural capital. Here the skies are blue too in his paintings, the water lightly rippling rather than slapping grey wash. But there are no quotes to back this up in either the exhibition or the book that accompanies it, and the only explicit reference is in contemporary William Marlow’s Capriccio: St Paul’s and a Venetian Canal, which ends the show with a note of deliberate defiance of topography showing a Venetian canal and St Paul’s glowering in the background – as Venice’s glory sinks under Napoleonic invasion in the 1790s. If the confident Britain coloured by Canaletto was to be of the new, the curious postscript to the exhibition mystifies more than explains. Here are hints of the twin strands of the cult King Alfred and Bath architect John Wood’s fascination with ancient Christian precedents to classicism (leading to the Stonehenge-dimensioned Circus in Bath). It is interesting, but makes for a muddling end to what is otherwise a clear sighted show.
Canaletto: Celebrating Britain, to 7 June, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, CV35 9HZ.
Then at The Holburne Museum, Bath 27 June-14 October;
Abbot Hall, Kendal, 22 October-13 February 2016