Canaletto is the focus of a new exhibition at Buckingham Palace that is based on the collection of one of the artist's most important patrons. Huon Mallalieu delights at the artist's imaginative reality.
Joseph Smith was an ideal consul: both the country he represented and that to which he was accredited benefited greatly by his activities. Having arrived in Venice at the very start of the 18th century, aged 19, he rose to be senior partner of a trading and merchant-banking house and, from 1743/4 to 1760, British Consul.
Horace Walpole sneeringly referred to him as ‘the merchant of Venice’, who knew only the title pages of the lavish limited-edition books he had printed, but the sneer was unjustified. His beautiful and accurate edition of Palladio’s Quattro Libri so pleased Goethe that he visited the Lido to pay tribute at Smith’s grave, and his patronage of the painters Canaletto (aka Giovanni Antonio Canal) and Zuccarelli can be said to have created the 18th-century British country-house interior.
As well as building up his own collection of paintings, drawings and prints and amassing a formidable library, Smith acted as agent for his favoured artists – particularly Canaletto – introducing Grand Tourists to them and arranging commissions.
Canaletto (1697–1768) was the son of a scene painter and the training shows in his work. He was also taught by Luca Carlevarijs, the principal vedute (or view painter) of the day, whom he soon surpassed.
“This show delivers a heart-raising burst of Venetian sun without the need to go on a Grand Tour”
Already, in 1725, another agent urged a client to consider Canaletto’s work, as ‘it is like Carlevarijs, but you can see the sun shining in it’. Smith discovered him soon after and all who called on business, especially after he became Consul, would find themselves in a showroom of his art.
It was also Smith who encouraged Canaletto to go to England when the Seven Years’ War cut off the supply of Grand Tourists, providing him with introductions and suggesting profitable subjects such as capriccio paintings of British Palladian houses.
George III bought Smith’s collections en bloc in 1762. The books are now the essence of the King’s Library in the British Museum, but the wealth of paintings and drawings remain in the Royal Collection – and the new exhibition of Canalettos at The Queen’s Gallery in London puts those paintings in the spotlight.
Coming directly from Smith, the Canalettos on show in this dazzling exhibition are of particularly high quality. They are hung in pairs or groups as they would probably have been seen on the Grand Canal in the Palazzo Balbi (now Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana), with its Palladian façade added for Smith by the architect-painter Visentini.
Six large Venetian canvases are grouped in pairs on one wall, another has a run of 12 smaller views constituting a conducted tour of the Grand Canal and a third is hung with large Roman views for variety. There are also capricci, in which the artist plays with disparate, but actual, buildings, combining them to artistic effect.
The next gallery is hung with Canaletto’s Venetian contemporaries, including Carlevarijs, Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Piazzetta, Longhi, Visentini and Zuccarelli, and Rosalba Carriera’s lovely, if very sweet, pastels of the Four Seasons.
Thanks to Smith, Canaletto remains one of Britain’s favourite artists. We hardly notice that, when in England, he gives the Thames an Italian light, nor that his precise views of La Serenissima are not quite the exact portraits of his native city that they seem.
His training in theatrical painting lofts should not be forgotten, as it is not just in capricci that he readjusts views and details to suit his composition. That, however, is perhaps why he is much less highly regarded in Venice itself. It surprises many first-time visitors to find that, for much of its length, the Grand Canal is much narrower than he portrayed it.
The city was in irreversible decline by the time his career was at its zenith, especially after the Seven Years’ War, but Canaletto uses all his scene-painter’s skills to convey wealth and busyness. Bustle and urgency are suggested by the way that so many gondole, sandole and bragozze are cut off on the canvas edge as they dart into and out of shot, as it were. Figures are staffage, posed in repetitive, but effective groups and, especially in later works for which his studio was often partly responsible, rippled water is rendered by formulaic white squiggles.
None of these quibbles matters a jot. No matter what the summer holds for us, this show delivers a heart-raising burst of Venetian sun without the need to go on a Grand Tour.
- ‘Canaletto and the Art of Venice’ is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1, until November 12 – see www.royalcollection.org.uk for more details
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