The extraordinary abundance with which Canaletto's work is represented at Windsor is one of the most remarkable features of the Royal Collection. Even by the very exceptional standards obtaining in the Castle Library--where it is really nothing out of the common to find drawings by a single artist amounting to a substantial proportion of his whole known output-- even by Windsor standards the Canaletto series is outstanding. It is not merely an accumulation, such as is frankly the case with certain other Italian artists; it combines variety and balance with the weight of numbers. If the collection were confined to drawings alone, its importance would still be of a very high order; but including, as it does, series equally remarkable of the artist's work as an etcher and painter, there is none to rival it. Here, within the compass of a single collection, the whole range of Canaletto's production, the full measure of his genius, are revealed.
It is obvious that such a concentration of material could only come about as the result of special circumstances; and it will be well to start by describing these circumstances in some detail, familiar though they may be already in general outline. The reader will hardly need to be reminded that the Windsor Canaletto collection as we know it to-day was (with the exception of two pictures) purchased entire by George III. What is far more significant, however, is that the vendor, the original maker of the collection, was a man who lived in close and constant touch with the artist, and acquired it from him, piece by piece. It is perhaps common knowledge that Joseph Smith and Canaletto were long and intimately associated. But just as the details of the transaction, by which the collection became the property of the Crown, have been very inaccurately and inconsistently recorded, so also has the relationship between the two men given rise to frequent misunderstanding.
Of the many writers who have referred to their connexion, practically no two have represented it in quite the same light, and it will be observed that they are often completely at variance. At first mere shades of difference in the interpretation of Smith may become noticeable: to one he is the friend and admirer of the artist, to another, the generous and benevolent patron. But in other accounts a very different conception appears: such terms as 'business manager', 'agent', or 'virtual director' of the artist's output, strike a new note altogether; the suggestion of a commercial relationship is introduced, and in some versions, even, there is the assumption of a recognized business partnership. Finally, at the opposite end of the scale, we find the noble benefactor of the first picture transformed into nothing better than the unscrupulous retailer of an underpaid artist.
The truth seems to lie somewhere midway between the two extremes. There is certainly no reason to believe that the two men ever fell out; the fact that Smith is known to have solicited certain letters of introduction on the artist's behalf disposes of the assertion that Canaletto's journey to England was a pretext for escaping from an irksome bond. But from what we know or can infer of their respective characters, it is by no means improbable that their relationship was to some extent a matter of business, that what really united them was the common interest of gain. By all accounts, Canaletto was of a whimsical and capricious disposition, exacting in his prices and unreliable in the delivery of promised work. But neither was Smith quite the man to relish the blessedness of giving . . .