Canaletto’s British Period

Canaletto arrived in London in 1746 and stayed for 10 years. What was London like at this time? I wonder if Canaletto was aware that the Industrial Revolution was about to start. He would have known there was a war going on, in fact several wars in different parts of Europe, which in one way or another seem to have been related to the Austrian Succession. Possibly Canaletto left Venice because of this but more likely it was because the British aristocrats were not inclined to take holidays away from home anymore. This meant that the market for Canaletto’s paintings started to dry up, a market that had been managed back in Venice by Joseph Smith.

Even though there was a huge gulf between the poor and the rich in England at this time, there was a great amount of construction work going on- houses, castles, bridges, churches. And much of this work showed the influence of Mediterranean styles so much so that London became known as the New Venice. Canaletto was able to capture this changing landscape as shown in London Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames.

In fact Westminster Bridge was completed during Canaletto’s time in England. Here is his painting of this new structure: London Westminster Bridge from the North on Lord Mayors Day. In fact some art historians believe the completion of the Westminster Bridge was the reason Canaletto went to England.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

And in this work Canaletto has created London seen through an Arch of Westminster Bridge, 1746.

We know a lot about Canaletto’s reception in England because the English art critic George Vertue was recording in detail happenings in the art world. Unfortunately Vertue decided Canaletto was an impostor which created considerable argument about the authenticity of Canaletto’s paintings: many patrons felt his English works weren’t up to the standard of those produced in Venice. Was he an impostor? Did he paint the Venitian canvases or had he employed someone to paint them for him? It became so bad that poor Canaletto had to give a public exhibition to prove the paintings were from his hand. I don't know which painting was produced under the glare of the public eye but this one of Eton Collage Chapel (c1754) no doubt attracted a crowd!
And to prove he was there at the conception, Canaletto painted himself into the Old Walton Bridge. I think that's him in the blue coat and red breeches.

And after all he was painting the family estates and castles owned by his patrons so they knew the truth. This one is Badminton House, Gloucestershire.

What we do now however is that like all artists Canaletto was constantly experimenting with his techniques, trying to improve them, trying out new ideas. And we do know now that the English paintings were different. So let’s see what he was up to. For this information I have relied on the research done by the British Art Studies. For those of you interested in the techinical side of painting I recommend this excellent site to further your knowledge. (

Canaletto changed his choice of Ground which is the primer used for the background surface for the painting such as the raw canvas. For his Venetian paintings he used warm red or orange and for those done in England cool grey. The reason for this is probably related to the light coloured grounds being more easily available in England. You can see in The Thames from the Terrace of Somerset House, Looking toward Westminster the soft grey under painting coming through as you can in most of Canaletto's English paintings. And this undertone is also typical of the works of the English artists of the time.
(Source: Royal Trust Collection)

In England Canaletto also used a light ground which allowed him to capture a diffuse light that surpasses that of his Venetian works. (British Art Studies). Look at the soft light in London The Old Horse Guards and Banqueting Hall from St James Park.

When Canaletto came to England, he was faced with a different landscape. The lush green hillsides illuminated by diffuse light stood in sharp contrast to the bright sun and dusty streets of Venice. As a response, Canaletto changed his palette to accommodate the new scenes. This was particularly so in his approaches to painting water and foliage. Canaletto began using the copper-containing blue verditer as a replacement for the vibrant green earth pigments that were not readily available in England. We can note the tones of his greens in Old Somerset House from the River Thames.

There was one Englishman however who lived nearly 100 years later than Canaletto but didn’t doubt his authenticity. If you look very carefully at this painting of Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom-House, Venice: Canaletti Painting You will find Canaletto in the lower left hand corner painting at his easel!!
Turner revered the works of Canaletto so much that it is thought his trip to Italy to paint Venice was inspired by Canaletto not the poet Byron as argued by other.(Plant, Margaret, Venice: Fragile City, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002).

I love Canaletto’s paintings but I do feel compelled to expose one little foible he had which became one of his strengths. He liked to move architectural features from their established positions and paint them into a new landscape! More on this after I have a day off to do some research. If you are using a Canaletto painting of Venice to find your way round you might find yourself slightly confused when some of the buildings just aren't there. Did they fall down? No they were never there in the first place.

Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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