When Giovanni Antonio Canal, popularly known as Canaletto, arrived in London in May 1746 his fame as a topographical artist had preceded him. Wealthy English aristocrats on the Grand Tour had returned in the 1720s and 30s with capriccios and views to hang in their great houses. The fourth Duke of Bedford bought twenty-four Venetian paintings for his Covent Garden house (today they are in Woburn Abbey), and the Duke of Leeds and the earls of Fitzwilliam and Carlisle had also acquired paintings. But the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740 saw a decline in Canaletto's fortunes. Military operations prevented the young English milordi who had been his best clients from travelling to Italy.
It may well have been Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice and Canaletto's greatest patron, who suggested that the forty-eight year-old artist should try his luck in England, and he facilitated an introduction to the second Duke of Richmond who, twenty years earlier, had bought a number of Canaletto's oils through an agent.
London may not have basked in the brilliant light of Venice, but it had a river framed with Wren churches and an annual pageant that bore a resemblance to the great ducal regattas on the Grand Canal. Almost the first view that Canaletto painted in England was of the Thames looking towards the City from the terrace of Richmond House and he also painted the Lord Mayor's procession with the Livery Company barges in full regalia. Both views will be among some forty paintings and more than a dozen drawings in 'Canaletto in England', an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London from January 24th to April 15th. The painting of the procession, one of several versions, features Westminster Bridge, then in the final stages of construction. He was to paint the bridge some twenty times. Two of his patrons, the dukes of Richmond and Bedford, were Commissioners of the Bridge and it may be that he sought to ingratiate himself with them, though, oddly, only Sir Hugh Smithson, another Commissioner, appears to have bought one. He acquired the well-known view of the City seen through an arch of the bridge, the wooden scaffolding still in place and a workman's bucket hanging from the parapet.
Although Canaletto painted some thirty-five views of London, little is known about his nine-year stay in England. His studio and lodgings were in Silver Street (now Beak Street, off Golden Square). Vertue wrote that he advertised for commissions and that a large view of Chelsea College [the Royal Hospital], Ranelagh Gardens, with a value of 60 [pounds sterling] or 70 [pounds sterling]--expensive for the time--could be viewed at the studio. He also noted that the Duke of Beaufort had employed him to paint views of Badminton, which he visited.
Canaletto also went to Warwick on three occasions to paint views of the castle and town for Lord Brooke, later Earl of Warwick, but it is doubtful that he ventured farther north. …