Canaletto in London at DPG

    Foreigners in Britain. They’re in the news. It’s a subject with which I have some familiarity. Over the years, various commentators have described my name as a “useful Scrabble hand”, each believing himself to be the first to deliver the quip. A particularly miserable Scottish artist called Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose worth I had questioned in a review, brought out a set of postcards demanding I be beheaded and repatriated. “WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK,” he spelt out on the wittiest of them. “Within this thicket there lurks a name.” 

    I gave up bothering about the endemic national Goodyism long ago, and learnt instead to enjoy the sight and the sound of more obvious natives than I struggling to make sense of my consonants. 

    It has proved particularly entertaining with cold callers. “Is that Mr … Ja … Ja … ” you hear them gulping. I always make them have a few goes before answering no and putting the phone down. Yes, it’s cruel and childish, but surely politeness and balance are never qualities we value in an art critic. 

    Certainly not to judge by the opinions on Canaletto held by the loudest of all British art critics, that habitually immoderate Victorian grouch John Ruskin. When Canaletto paints water, Ruskin spat, the seas “hiss with shame”. Canaletto’s contribution to art, he crescendoed, is “a numbness and darkness more without hope than the Grave itself”. Ruskin was just as intemperate in his support of Turner as he was in his criticism of Canaletto, and you’ll get no argument from me on that score, because Turner was a substantially greater artist. But I’m certain that underpinning Ruskin’s vicious denigration of Canaletto was the national antipathy to foreigners. Particularly those who come over and steal bread from the mouths of the natives. 

    Most of Canaletto’s 50-year career was, of course, spent in Venice, which he painted so famously and so enticingly. We tend to ignore the fact that nine years of Canaletto’s time was actually passed in England, where he lived and worked from 1746 to 1755. Nine years is a hefty chunk. The whole of van Gogh’s career as a painter lasted only nine years. So, one of the many intriguing questions asked sotto voce by Canaletto in England, an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, is why his English period has remained so unnoticed. 

    The show doesn’t set out to answer that by bringing together the largest assortment yet of English Canalettos. But answer it, it does. Canaletto’s produce from his English period is so varied that, unlike his unmistakable evocation of Venice, it refuses to form an obvious outline. Every visitor who completes this show’s circuit is sure to remain uncertain of the pattern underlying what they have seen. Because there isn’t one. 

    Canaletto arrived in London in 1746. The war of Austrian succession had put a temporary stop to the grand tour, and British clients were no longer queuing outside his studio in rich numbers. So the mountain came to Muhammad. He had been a celebrated painter of Venetian views for more than 20 years and was hardened in his ways. This show kicks off with a couple of vistas of Greenwich in which riverside London is duly made to resemble canalside Venice. Thames barges scud across the waves in front of the Royal Naval Hospital like nippy gondolas. Happy boatmen belt out cockney canzoni from midstream. 

    The actual water in Canaletto’s Thames scenes looks distinctly Venetian as well. Ruskin complained that when Canaletto painted water, he mistook it for a woman’s hair, and he was right. The incessant curliness is an irritating mannerism, a thoughtless nautical shorthand caused by his seeking the same Venetian effect over and over again, then importing it to London. What’s really striking here, however, is not how closely Canaletto mimics his Venetian approach, but how he begins departing from it once he has got to know his new location. 

    The Thames is wider and wilder than the grandest canal, and in a series of huge views of it, Canaletto begins to celebrate the enormous drama of London. A thunderous vista from the terrace of Somerset House, looking toward Westminster, makes something mighty out of the Thames and allows those few buildings that poke above the spiky two-storey sprawl – Westminster Abbey, the Banqueting House – to strike you as truly monumental. This great view comes from the Royal Collection and probably makes clear why Prince Charles, who grew up with it, turned into such a fierce critic of London developments. Who wouldn’t want this particular London to stay as it is? It was already the largest city in the world, and growing bigger by the day. Canaletto seems to have been enthralled by the constant shifting of the spectacle. His Venice may appear cryogenically preserved, but his London is a city of flux and change and vibration, whose architecture may no longer be familiar, but whose rhythm surely is. Almost every view here focuses on a new piece of architecture or a fresh urban development. Westminster Bridge, completed in 1750, is the focus of several dazzling topographies, including that seminal view through the arch with the builder’s bucket still hanging from it. An unusually tall and thin view of Westminster Abbey shows the towers recently added by Hawksmoor. And Andrew Lloyd Webber’s superb Canaletto of the Old Horse Guards, the one with the chaps peeing against the wall of Downing Street, was painted just as the New Horse Guards was due to be built. 

    Canaletto is often at his best in England when he isn’t painting water. Lloyd Webber’s view of the Horse Guards is a superb example. But the most impressive proof of his flowering as an artist in England is a set of views of Warwick Castle. As his patrons began inviting him to their country homes, Canaletto began encountering a type of landscape he could never have seen before. It’s difficult to imagine anything less Venetian than the flat green meadows surrounding Warwick Castle, with its crumbling battlements and its Arthurian air. Most of Canaletto’s English scenes are bathed in impossible sunlight. And while it’s fair to doubt he really encountered all that good weather while he was over here, it’s also true that he captures perfectly the feel of an English summer’s day as it exists in most of our imaginations. 

    I don’t think the show sets out to prove what a raging fantasist Canaletto was, rather than the dutiful recorder of legend, but prove it, it does. The last room is packed with hard-core make-believe. On one wall hangs a row of thoroughly convincing views of Venice that were actually painted in London. On the other wall is a crazy selection of imaginary vistas assembled from picturesque bits of famous cities. 

    So, the sojourn in England stretched him. It improved him. It widened his range and forced his imagination into a higher gear. Canaletto in England turned out to be a more substantial artist than we might have assumed from seeing Canaletto in Venice. n Last week, I reviewed Mark Wallinger’s installation at Tate Britain, in which he has rebuilt the protest wall maintained outside the Houses of Parliament by the antiwar protester Brian Haw. A key facet of the installation is that half of it falls inside the exclusion zone enforced by the police to hamper Haw’s protest. It has since been suggested that Wallinger has been cavalier with his geography. Using Google Earth, I did my own research, and can confirm that the 1km exclusion zone falls well short of Wallinger’s installation. I challenge Wallinger to prove that the line passes where he says it passes.