15 October 2023

‘Sparkle and sunshine’
on an afternoon with
Canaletto’s Venice in
the Wallace Collection

The Grand Canal seen from the Rialto Bridge … Venice today can be recognised in the paintings by Canaletto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Norwegian author and playwright Jon Fosse, is also one of the great living Christian writers. Writing on what is a good painting or a good work of art, he says: ‘What the picture is in reality is this spirit, that’s what a picture really is, neither matter nor soul but both parts at the same time and together they make up what I think of as spirit, and maybe that’s why my good paintings, yes, all good paintings, have something to do with what I, what Christians, call the Holy Spirit.’

Charlotte and I recently spent an afternoon visiting the Wallace Collection, a museum in Hertford House in Manchester Square, once the London townhouse of the branch of the Seymour family that held the title of Marquess of Hertford.

The Wallace Collection is named after Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), who built the extensive collection, along with the Marquesses of Hertford, in the 18th and 19th centuries. The collection includes fine and decorative arts from the 15th to the 19th centuries, many French 18th-century paintings, furniture, arms and armour, porcelain and Old Master paintings displayed in 25 galleries.

Richard Seymour-Conway (1800-1870), 4th Marquess of Hertford, left the house and his private collection to his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace, whose widow Julie Amelie Charlotte Castelnau then bequeathed the entire collection to the nation.

Wallace was said to be Britain’s 24th richest man and the 73rd largest landowner at the time he died. His houses and estates included Sudbourne Hall, Suffolk, Hertford House, London, vast estates in Lisburn, Co Antrim, and a house and a château in Paris. He also owned one of the greatest private art collections in the world, part of which now forms the Wallace Collection.

The Old Master paintings in the Wallace Collection are some of the most prominent in the world, and date from the 14th to the mid-19th centuries. The highlights include Dutch and Flemish paintings of the 17th century, 18th- and 19th-century French paintings, and works by English, Italian and Spanish artists. The collection includes five Rembrandts, nine works by Rubens, four Van Dycks, eight Canalettos, and works by Guardi, François Bouchers, Fragonard, Murillo, Tenier, Titian, Poussin, Velázquez and Watteaus.

But I was particularly interested in the collection of Canaletto paintings of Venice in the Wallace Collection. I have been at other exhibitions bringing together works by Canaletto, including one in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin in 2018. But this collection in London took me by surprise.

Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768), or Canaletto, is the best-known and most prolific of the painters of views of Venice. His paintings are familiar to many today through book covers, CD covers, decorative items and all manner of packaging.

His main market was the young English aristocrats who visited Venice in the 18th century, as part of the Grand Tour. In an age before ‘selfies’, reels, postcards or holiday snapshots and trinkets, these rich young aristocrats who wanted visual reminders of their Grand Tour to take home as souvenirs.

Canaletto’s views were essentially topographically accurate, but he used artistic licence to make his compositions more appealing to tourists. He idealised Venice to create prospects that sometimes surpassed reality and included as many tourist sites as possible.

Two large views are among Canaletto’s finest paintings. Both represent the Bacino di San Marco – Venice’s inner harbour of Saint Mark’s – from opposite vantage points. They were acquired by Francis Seymour-Conway (1718-1794), 1st Marquess of Hertford and one of the founders of the Wallace Collection. He was briefly British Ambassador to Paris twice (1755 and again in 1763-1765), and for eight months Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland (1765-1766). In his younger years, he travelled to Italy in 1738-1739 when Canaletto was at the height of his career.

The 28 Venetian paintings in the Wallace Collection were been fully restored during a major conservation project by the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge. The Venetian Views Conservation Project, launched in 2016, undertook the most up-to-date technical and scholarly research into each of these paintings, and cleaned and restored each picture to its original splendour. The removal of 1940s varnish revealed subtle blues in the skies and reflections in the water as more vivid.

The eight works definitively by Canaletto in the Wallace Collection are:

The Bacino di San Marco from San Giorgio Maggiore by Canaletto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

1, The Bacino di San Marco from San Giorgio Maggiore (ca 1735-1744), 129.2 x 188.9 cm, P497:

This is one of a pair of unusually large views, depicting the Bacino di San Marco from opposing vantage points. This painting, which complements P499, appears to be an exact view of the Bacino di San Marco with the church of Santa Maria della Salute, from the steps of the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. It is, however, a clever composite image of several viewpoints within the courtyard of that church, and includes several campanili or bell towers of churches that cannot be seen from that vantage point.

The figures in the foreground represent different levels of Venetian society; from the seated beggar on the left, the merchants in the centre, and the priest and lawyer engaged in conversation on the right. There is an assortment of sea vessels in the picture, including a burchiello or passenger boat, being towed in the middle ground.

This work exemplifies Canaletto’s attention to composition. The triangle of the foreground terrace – framed by the temporarily-docked burchiello with the detail of passengers embarking – is matched by the boat in the middle of the painting. Its two masts are in turn replicated in the vertical soar of the Campanile di San Marco and the dome of Santa Maria della Salute. The boats are gently balanced in the lagoon and the whole composition is again framed, on the left hand side, by the profile of a vessel with its sail blowing towards the city.

The bell tower of the church of Santa Maria della Carità is visible behind the golden globe of the Dogana at the centre left. The tower collapsed in March 1744, so the two pictures can be dated ca 1735-1744.

It is an attractive, clearly identifiable view of a type calculated to appeal to the Grand Tourist, with picturesque elements of local colour reinforcing the idea of Venice as an exciting cosmopolitan centre. It was acquired by the 1st Marquess of Hertford, who went on the Grand Tour and was in Rome in 1738 and Genoa in 1739).

The Bacino di San Marco from the Canale della Giudecca Carità by Canaletto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

2, The Bacino di San Marco from the Canale della Giudecca Carità, (ca 1735-1744), oil on canvas, 130.2 x 190.8 cm, P499:

The two paintings, P497 and P499, form a pair of two large views that show the Bacino di San Marco from opposite vantage points; Canaletto often depicted famous places in Venice from opposite views. P499 looks towards the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, in the distance on the right, with the Riva degli Schiavoni in the background.

The Dogana da Mar, the customs house, frames the composition on the left. Its low tower is crowned by a bronze sculpture of two male nudes supporting a gilded globe, topped by an allegorical figure of Fortune holding a sail reflecting Venice’s maritime trade.

Both P497 and P499 were acquired by the 1st Marquess of Hertford at an unknown date, probably as a reminder of his Grand Tour in 1738-1739. =

The Grand Canal from the Palazzo Flangini to San Marcuola by Canaletto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

3, The Grand Canal from the Palazzo Flangini to San Marcuola (ca 1740-1750), oil on canvas, 46.5 x 77.5 cm, P506:

This painting by Canaletto depicts the upper reaches of the Grand Canal, looking east, with the Palazzo Flangini on the extreme left. On the opposite side of the canal is the Riva di Biasio with the Palazzo Zen and the Palazzo Bembo.

The view was popular and exists in a number of versions by Canaletto and his studio: the prime version, engraved by Visentini in 1742, is in the Getty Museum. This painting is of almost the same dimensions as the Getty painting, although the boats and figures are different.

The Canale di Santa Chiara by Canaletto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

4, The Canale di Santa Chiara (ca 1740-1750), oil on canvas, 58.7 x 93 cm, P507:

This painting forms a pair with P511. It shows the Canale di Santa Chiara looking towards the south-east with the wall of the convent of Corpus Domini on the left, which was destroyed in 1861 to make way for the railway station. On the opposite side, towards the right edge of the canvas, a large first-floor balcony and an heraldic cartouche mark out the house of the British Secretary Resident.

Both views survive in numerous versions and were engraved with minor variations by Visentini in 1742. At first glance, the view of the Canale di Santa Chiara may seem a rather modest composition, yet the subtle tonal modulations and draughtsmanship of the painting of the buildings are of high quality.

The Doge’s Palace and the Riva degli Schiavoni by Canaletto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

5, The Doge’s Palace and the Riva degli Schiavoni (ca 1740-1745), oil on canvas, 58.2 x 93.5 cm, P509:

The promenade or Riva degli Schiavoni depicts a view that is still familiar today, with gondolas bobbing on the water before the Doge’s Palace, one of the best-known buildings in Venice, on the left.

The columns of San Todaro and of the Lion of Saint Mark stand on the Piazzetta in front of the Palace, with the Ponte della Paglia and the Prison beyond. This view, along with its pendant (P516), were very popular with Canaletto’s patrons. They were engraved in 1742 by Visentini, and at least five other sets are known.

The Grand Canal from the Palazzo Foscari to the Carità by Canaletto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

6, The Grand Canal from the Palazzo Foscari to the Carità (ca 1740-1750), oil on canvas, 46.2 x 77.3 cm, P510:

This painting looks south down the Grand Canal towards the gabled façade and bell-tower of the church of Santa Maria della Carità in the distance.

When the picture, together with P506, appeared in the sale of Sir Thomas Bernard at Christie’s in 1855, Lord Hertford described them as ‘very pretty and appear to me to be in a very good state. They are neither of them very good views of Venice but nevertheless I must say I should rather like to have one of them … – no.70 [now P510]. The other I have no fancy for … I shd. Think 250 to 300 at most for no. 70, certainly the best of the two, wd. be a good price.’

Lord Hertford was keen to conclude a successful purchase, and reminded his agent Samuel Mawson with his customary urgency, ‘They are sold tomorrow Saturday’, despite the fact that it was Mawson who had initiated discussion of the sale in the first place.

The Grand Canal from the Palazzo Dolfin-Manin to the Rialto Bridge by Canaletto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

7, The Grand Canal from the Palazzo Dolfin-Manin to the Rialto Bridge (ca 1740-1750), 58.5 x 93 cm , P511:

This is the second picture in the pair with P507 depicts a popular view of the Grand Canal looking north to the Rialto Bridge, with, on the left, the Fondamenta del Vin, and on the right, the Palazzo Dolfin-Manin. This area was the commercial heart of Venice at the time. Both views survive in numerous versions.

The Molo with Santa Maria della Salute from the Piazetta by Canaletto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

8, The Molo with Santa Maria della Salute from the Piazetta (ca 1740-1745), 57.7 x 93.5 cm, P516:

This view, framed by the Doge’s Palace on the right, looks across the Piazzetta, past the columns of San Todaro and the library, towards the mouth of the Grand Canal with the church of Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana or Customs House on the opposite bank. The Giudecca with the church of the Redentore are just visible on the left.

Together with its pendant (P509), this view was very popular with Canaletto’s patrons and was engraved in 1742 by Visentini for wider dissemination. At least five other sets are known.

The collection also holds a number of paintings of Venice from Canaletto’s contemporaries, Antonio Visentini (1688-1782) and Francesco Guardi (1712-1793), and from the studio or school of Canaletto.

Many of these views by Canaletto would have been familiar to visitors to Venice who followed in the 19th century, from Byron and Shelley to Turner and John Ruskin. I was taken aback by how many were familiar to from my visits to Venice in recent years. It sometimes seems Venice has remained unchanged for almost 300 years.

Ruskin was not too appreciative of Canaletto. In his criticism of Canaletto’s ripples, Ruskin points out how his ignorance of ‘optical laws’ represents an ‘inexcusable violation of the truth. Ruskin deplored Canaletto’s ‘servile and mindless imitation,’ comparing his output to the mechanical reproduction of nature offered by the newly popular daguerreotype. When Canaletto paints water, Ruskin suggested, the seas ‘hiss with shame.’ Canaletto’s contribution to art, he exclaimed, is ‘a numbness and darkness more without hope than the Grave itself.’

On the other hand, Jan Morris writes in her classic Venice: ‘And sometimes, in the Venetian spring, you awake to a Canaletto day, when the whole city is alive with sparkle and sunshine, and the sky is an ineffable baby-blue. An air of flags and freedom pervades Venice on such a morning, and all feels light, spacious, carefree, crystalline, as though the decorators of the city had mixed their paints in champagne, and the masons laced their mortar with lavender.’

The Wallace Collection is housed in Hertford House, Manchester Square, the former London townhouse of the Seymour family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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