Exhibition Review

Canaletto. London

NO VISITOR TO Canaletto & the Art of Venice at The Queen’s Gallery, London (to 12th November), will be disappointed. The Queen’s Gallery could have been designed to display this generous selection from the collection of Joseph Smith, Consul at Venice, which was acquired in 1762 for the young George III by his ‘advisors’ – it seems rather ungenerous that the King’s mentor, the 3rd Earl of Bute, is denied specific credit in the catalogue: as he subsequently wrote, he ‘was permitted to act as for [him]self ’.

The exhibition begins with Canaletto’s sparkling pictures of ceremonial highpoints of Venetian life, the return of the Doge after the Ascension Day celebrations and the regatta on the Grand Canal. There follows a splendid selection of the unrivalled collection of drawings by Canaletto that the consul acquired, ranging from early studies for compositions he commissioned to mature presentation drawings. The gulls seen in several of the earlier sheets remind us that Canaletto’s Venice was not a place of silence. Pride of place must, however, go to the two almost miraculously economical views of the island church of S. Elena (c.1740; cat. nos. 115 and 116; Fig.54) that are the closest visual precedents for Guardi’s early views of the Lagoon.

There follows a selection of drawings by Canaletto’s Venetian contemporaries, among whom Marco Ricci shines. Fortunately, because his drawings were less highly prized in the past, these remain on their original mounts, unlike the Canalettos, which were lifted from theirs, presumably at the time of K.T. Parker’s pioneering catalogue of Canaletto’s drawings in the Royal Collection (1948). Beyond is a section of prints, including splendid impressions of Canaletto’s own etchings and books. Smith himself backed the printer Giovanni Battista Pasquali, whose edition of Palladio was published in 1768 and so was not part of the library acquired with the consul’s collection in 1762, although he may have owned it. One book that Smith cannot have possessed, since he died in 1770, is the 1772 edition of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. It is suggested that this was ‘probably intended for the British market in particular’: it was in fact subsidised by Lord Bute, who envisaged an edition of his favourite Italian poetry, and presumably sent the book either to the King or to Queen Charlotte, to whom he would dedicate his Botanical Tables in 1784.

As is well known, Smith took no consistent interest in two of the great Venetian painters of his time, G.B. Piazzetta and G.B. Tiepolo. His taste for their contemporaries, Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Rosalba Carriera and Francesco Zuccarelli, is impressively demonstrated in the first of the two large galleries. Sebastiano Ricci’s Adoration of the Kings (1726; no.9), a direct homage to Veronese, dominates. But for posterity the pastels of Rosalba and the gouaches of Marco Ricci are more seductive. The three pictures by the latter are of fine quality, but his classical capriccio (c.1727–29; no.34) reminds us that, perhaps on account of their size, the King allowed the two masterpieces of this genre that he had bought from Smith to be disposed of. Marco’s capriccio is tellingly juxtaposed with the sparkling pair by Canaletto (nos.143 and 144), the dating of which is still not absolutely clear.

Canaletto is inevitably the hero of the exhibition. In the small room that follows, the two subtle interiors of St Mark’s (c.1725–30 and c.1755–56; nos.72 and 73; Fig.55) call for close inspection, as does the equally refined Campo di Santi Giovanni e Paolo that they flank (c.1735–38; no.74). The final room is a worthy climax. Ahead are the six large canvases of the Piazza and the Piazzetta, a vertical quartet and a horizontal pair, surely commissioned for a single room, which show that Smith was among the first to recognise Canaletto’s emergence as a view-painter in 1723–24. To the left is the wondrous sequence of twelve canvases of the later 1720s (nos.58–69) that lead the viewer down the Grand Canal, happily hung in their proper sequence. Opposite these are the five upright Roman views of 1742 (nos.76–80), bravura statements based on drawings that Canaletto had made in 1720: these too must have been intended for a specific interior. The star on the entrance wall is the large Grand Canal with S. Maria della Salute, towards the Bacino, which is dated 1744 (no.75; Fig.53). That Smith acquired this majestic restatement of a subject Canaletto had already realised for him implies that he fully understood that the artist might repeat a view but was never prepared to supply precise replicas. Altogether less happy are pictures of the Piazza and the Piazzetta of the same year, which make one suspect that the artist suffered something of what might now be termed a mid-life crisis – either because of a fall-off in commissions or because of an uncomfortable awareness that his nephew Bellotto could work more quickly and thus efficiently. Bellotto progressed by leaving Venice, and Canaletto himself was galvanised by his move to London in 1746.

The very handsome catalogue opens with an excellent essay by Lucy Whitaker, ‘Venice in the Eighteenth Century’.1 Rosie Razall’s ‘Consul Smith and his Circle’ offers a survey of what is known about Smith, drawing inevitably upon the pioneering work of Frances Vivian. Smith had, of course, been associated with Canaletto for over twenty years before the Duke of Richmond secured the consulship for him in the teeth of the Duke of Newcastle’s support for a rival. His appointment must thus be seen in the context of political patronage. It might have been appropriate to refer to the revealing passages about Smith in the correspondence of Andrea Memmo, published in Andrea di Robilant’s A Venetian Affair (2004). Although much has been authoritatively written about Canaletto in recent years some errors are repeated from earlier literature: Sir Robert Harvey was not a patron of Canaletto – his family acquired their celebrated set of pictures en bloc with Langley Park in 1788 from the 4th Duke of Marlborough, as this reviewer first suggested in this Magazine in 1999;2 and it is not true that the consul’s hold on the painter meant that Marshal Schulenburg ‘was unable to obtain paintings by Canaletto himself ’, as in 1736 he secured the great view of the Riva degli Schiavoni now in Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, which surely outshines any of the pictures by the artist that Smith himself owned.

The Queen’s Gallery does not borrow works from other collections. In the context of the exhibition, however, it might have been appropriate to have included at least one of the volumes of measured drawings of Venetian palazzi made for Smith that passed to the British Museum with the gift of the King’s Library. These drawings testify to the deep appreciation of Venetian architecture that clearly also informed Smith’s championship and personal patronage of Canaletto.  

1 Catalogue: Canaletto and the Art of Venice. By Rosie Razall and Lucy Whitaker. 392 pp. incl. over 380 col. ills. (Royal Collection Trust, London, 2017), £45. ISBN 978–1–90974–414–09.

2 F. Russell, in his review of J.G. Links: A Supplement to W.G. Constable’s Canaletto, Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697–1768, London 1998, the burlington magazine 141 (1999), pp.180–81.