THE Holbourne Museum, Bath, hosted “Painting Venice: The Woburn Series” last summer. It was accompanied by an impressive book by Britain’s leading art historian of the painter, Charles Beddington. It highlighted 23 view paintings commissioned by Lord John Russell in 1731 from Giovanni Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768). The series (two dozen in total) hung at Bedford House in London until 1792, when they were transferred to Woburn Abbey, the family seat of the Dukes of Bedford.
The Holbourne touted the exhibition as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for “art-lovers to enjoy and study up-close” Canaletto’s pictures. Less than seven months later, the entire series turns up again, this time in Greenwich. Before another lifetime passes, the paintings will be shown in Worcester (1 October-7 January 2023), alongside his views of Warwick Castle (Birmingham Museums) and of Vauxhall Gardens (Compton Verney), to add a Venetian’s view of England.
As arbiters of 19th-century taste, few could be as self-opinionated as John Ruskin (1819-1900). When it came to all manner of things Venetian, his views informed the tastes of a generation of artists, architects, and gallerists. There was no disparagement that could make him once relent his first avowed intent to be a critic. Here he is dismissing one well-known painter.
His mannerism “is the most deplorable I know in all the world of art. Exercising the most servile and fatuous imitation, he imitates nothing but the vacuity of shadows, nor does he give form to individual architectural features, however exact they may seem. . . Neither myself nor anyone else would have dared speak a word against him: but in truth he is a small, bad painter. . . [This artist] does not possess any quality except that of being able to imitate the most ordinary effects of light and shadow.”
Writing that in Modern Painters (1843-60), Ruskin thus damned Canaletto with a view widely espoused at the time — not that many had championed him in his lifetime. It was not until long after his ten-year sojourn in London (1746 to 1756), when he was in his mid-sixties, that he was finally admitted, in 1763, to the Academy of St Luke in Venice, the city of his birth (28 October 1697).
© From the Woburn Abbey CollectionThe Piazzo San Marco looking towards the Basilica San Marco and the Campanile by Canaletto
The lack of fashion for view painting among Italians and the fact that he worked mainly for the tourist market, selling to the Grand Tourists, is reflected still in a striking imbalance.
The Italians of his own day still preferred paintings of religious and historical or classical scenes. Many disregarded view painting as a mere landscape genre, even though Canaletto — often slavishly — copied scenes from the popular engravings that Lucas Carlevarijs first published in 1703.
If we reckon that Canaletto completed some 350 paintings (of which two-thirds remain in private collections), more than 250 are found in the UK. Only five dozen are in Italy, half of them in private hands, with just three in Venice. Even in the 20th century, Ruskin’s excoriating criticism held. There were no major exhibitions of his paintings until one in Venice (1967), which first followed up on two monographs, in 1960 (Brandi) and by Constable (1962).
Seeing the extravagant and extraordinary display of these paintings, I paused to wonder at this change in taste. Much of their attractiveness for the foreign purchaser lay in the “domestic” scale of the works, which made them easier to transport and to display.
Of the Woburn series, 22 of these measure just 47 × 79cm, while only the two ceremonial scenes are larger (115.5 × 194cm). Other painters, such as Bernardo Bellotto (1722-80) and Francesco Guardi (1712-93), similarly kept to smaller formats with a rare exception.
Two massive paintings of the Bacino di San Marco painted by Guardi (c.1755-70), now in the east gallery at Waddesdon Manor, measure 2845 × 4238cm. It is not known who commissioned them, but it is said that Louis XVI presented them to Maréchal de Muy in 1774. Ferdinand Rothschild bought them from Colnaghi’s in 1859 at the time when Ruskin was slighting just such pictures.
Contemporaries criticised Canaletto for using a camera obscura to align his buildings that, pace Ruskin, do show a careful knowledge of architectural form, even when he played fast and loose with angles and perspectives along the Canalazzo, as he was no slave to any technical or scientific advance.
Lord John Russell had set out in 1730, as a younger son intending an extensive Grand Tour. He is seen in a miniature, standing confidently in front of a ruined Roman arch at the age of 20. He planned to visit Agra and Delhi, Samarkand and Astrakhan in the East, Marrakesh and Lisbon in the West, Inverness and Uppsala in the North and Makkah-al-Mukarramah and Medina in the South.
© Vela SpaThe Ascension Day Festival, 8 May 2016
He cut short his trip to return to marry the wealthy Lady Diana Spencer in October 1731; a little more than a year later, he inherited the dukedom on the death of his 24-year-old brother.
Unusually, he commissioned Canaletto directly (probably for just four pictures at first), as the artist usually kept a stock of completed paintings ready to sell to visitors. The first of three surviving invoices is shown here, dated 27 February 1733. Russell was encouraged to employ the artist by the English banker, bibliophile, and Venetian resident Joseph Smith (1673/74?-1770).
In 1723, Smith had met the young Canaletto, who had recently returned from collaborating with his father in Rome as a scene painter for the operas of Scarlatti; by 1729, he had become Canaletto’s middleman. Earlier, he had collected and sold works by Rosalba Carriera and by Sebastiano Ricci and his nephew Marco Ricci, who offered more conventional narrative paintings and portraits.
For six years until 1735, the commercially astute Consul Smith controlled the output of Canaletto’s studio and assembled his own collection, which he showed off in his home in the Palazzo Balbi; faced with bankruptcy after the collapse of banks at the end of the Seven Years War, he sold his paintings and his library to George III in 1762, raising £10,000 for each collection.
The first painting that we see is one of the most memorable. The Regatta on the Grand Canal depicts the annual ceremonial parade that took place on the first Sunday of September. It is a hectic scene, in which spectators crowd every available window with the colours of the competing teams flying from the balconies and stand on the gondolas and traghetti. The vanishing point to the north-east is the dome of Tintoretto’s church, the Madonna dell ’Orto, beyond the Rialto bridge.
At the Bowes Museum, in Barnard Castle, you can test your eyesight by looking at Canaletto’s first attempt for this busy composition (c.1730). It is in a slightly larger format than Bedford’s. Thomas Osborne, 4th Duke of Leeds, commissioned another version (c.1738), as part of a series of ten (two of which are in the National Gallery, thanks to the 1929 bequest of Lord Revelstoke, NG 4453 and 4454), having no doubt envied Russell. Probably the most successful version was painted for Consul Smith and is in the Royal Collection, the pride of George III’s collecting mania and his 1762 purchase.
Canaletto never tired of depicting his home city and rarely wanted for clients. He even managed to sneak in two views of the Palazzo Balbi in the Woburn series. His paintings recall parts of the city long lost, like the wall of the Corpus Domini convent and the church of Santa Lucia, demolished to accommodate the railway station that was built in 1861 for visitors arriving from the mainland, no doubt clutching their copies of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. Nowadays, it is the international visitors who have brought a slow death to the city with unchecked reckless maritime tourism.
“Canaletto’s Venice Revisited” is at the National Maritime Museum, Romney Road, Greenwich, London SE10, until 25 September. Phone 020 8312 6608. www.rmg.co.uk