London: The Thames from Somerset House Terrace towards the City Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Clare Finn

This exhibition is small in size but national in reach. Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, (1697-1798), is associated mainly with architectural views of Venice popular with 18th century British Grand tourists. It may be a surprise to many that, following his clientele to Britain as war spread across Europe from 1747 impeding travel for pleasure. The move was at the behest of one of his client commissioners, Sir Hugh Smithson, later 1st Duke of Northumberland, so that the artist could depict the ongoing construction of Westminster Bridge, begun in 1739.

Canaletto would spend nine years in Britain from 1746 to 1755. During that time he painted not just scenes and landmarks, in his somewhat formulaic method of painting, but documented the changing skyline, many of his paintings were specifically designed to celebrate the latest achievements of British architecture and engineering, and by one remove, celebrate the success and wealth of the rising British nation. This was a decade that saw William Shakespeare’s reputation rise to be that of a British hero; Handel’s Messiah and Arne’s patriotic ‘Rule Britannia’ were composed and the spread of nationalistic cults of the Saxon King Arthur and, in Bath, King Baldud. Such was the level of patriotism the British architect John Wood, sort to attribute British classicism to Baldud, rather than Aristotle, Vitruvius, Brunelleschi or Palladio.

Canaletto’s views of London have been criticised for bathing the city in Mediterranean light, something we could perhaps do with when dark rain clouds are all too familiar at the present time. But it is social and architectural change that is emphasised in this exhibition. Canaletto’s views of Old Horse Guard’s Parade show a city in change; those from Somerset House Terrace depict a city bubbling with trade and industry with barges, boats, timber yards, seen through the arches of his Westminster Bridge. New monuments of a proud city busy and confident eching today’s changing city skyline.

But we also see Georgian England at play in the views of pleasure gardens, The Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh, and The Grand Walk at Vauxhall. Travelling beyond London Canaletto depicted the first bridge at Walton-on-Thames, Eton College and Warwick Castle. But errors included in his view of the newly completed Greenwich Hospital point to his source being Jacqueline Rigaud’s 1736 engraving, Prospect of Greenwich Hospital from the River thus made before Canaletto even reaching Britain.

The final room shows Canaletto’s influence on British art with paintings by William Marlow (1740 – 1814), whose Capriccio, St Paul’s Cathedral and a Venice Canal  rather aptly given the recent flooding represents London as Venice with canals instead of streets, the water coming right up to St Paul’s steps. The accompanying publication discusses Canaletto’s British legacy more thoroughly.

The exhibition’s curator, Steven Parissien, director at Compton Verney, tells his story through carefully chosen exhibits and concise labelling; loans include delicate wash and ink drawings from Her Majesty the Queen and rarely paintings from private collections. The exhibition will not, however, be seen in London but Cumbria, in Kendal’s commendable Abbot Hall Art Gallery, having already been seen at Compton Verney and Bath’s Holburne Museum. It is heartening to see such a well prepared exhibition reserved travel for more to see it.

It is accompanied by a publication: Celebrating Britain, Canaletto, Hogarth and Patriotism, Steven Parissien (ed.), Paul Holberton, London, 2015, with essays by Parissien, Pat Hardy, Jacqueline Riding and Oliver Cox.

Despite recent flooding Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, remains open maintaining its reputation for excellence and the exhibition can be seen there until 13 February 2016.