In this week’s Country Life my friend Christopher Boyle chooses his favourite painting. It is a masterpiece of Georgian London, Canaletto’s London: The Thames from Somerset House towards the City c.1750/51 in the Royal Collection.
(c) Her Majesty the Queen
I will read the article when I go into town later, but it is easy to imagine the appeal of this painting to the Chairman of the Georgian Group. Canaletto’s radiant metropolis is so close that by an act of will, like getting off the ground in a dream, you could walk into it to the peel of a thousand bells. You can hear it today. This polite metropolis of red brick and white Portland stone is still there, playing hide-and-seek with 350 years of too-assertive newcomers. Again it takes an act of will to find it, which I’ve lost the knack of since I lived there. On my quick visits I seem to pass through it like a bolus through the gut. I must remember to come up for air. Instead of tubing from Embankment to Victoria I’ll walk back through Whitehall and St James’s Park, timing it to hear the country house stable-clock bell of Horseguards as I go, gently hypnotising myself back to the Eighteenth Century.
Canaletto New Horseguards from St James’s Park (c) Dorotheum Auctions, Vienna
Canaletto famously bathes London in Venetian light. In fact he painted the Somerset House view in Venice – which I hadn’t known til I read it in John McEwen’s superb Country Life essay. Seeing England through Italian eyes wasn’t just a fad. For those who made the trip, and by the mid-Eighteenth Century that was anyone of any influence and all artists who could earn, beg, or borrow the fare, Italy was a transformative experience, a trip that none of them came down from. Italy was more than a fashion or a statement. It was a sensory overlay to the rest of their lives, a stream of recollections triggered by the sudden strike of light against stone, a shout in the street, the taste of parmesan cheese. It was a world they inhabited in tandem with their own, and which they relived and recreated avidly. You’ll have your own versions of this, but it reminds me of looking up Montpelier Place from Bonham’s Knightsbridge to the dome of Brompton Oratory and feeling just for a moment that I was actually back in Rome.
British culture was driven throughout the Eighteenth Century, by the tastes that its painters and patrons had picked up on their gap year. And rather marvellously, these men, whose lives were easier, more comfortable and simply more fun than anyone’s since the height of the Roman Empire, weren’t content to keep their pleasures to themselves. They became cultural evangelists, determined to transform British painting and music, with the same zeal a later generation of travellers would transform British cooking. Thanks to the Dilettanti Society -a club in Horace Walpole’s famous line, ‘for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one being drunk’ – we had the first public art exhibition in this country and ultimately the Royal Academy.
George Knapton Sir Francis Dashwood Lord Le Despenser c.1736 (c) Dilettanti Society
These days it taxes the imagination to believe that a club of privileged hooray henries can also be men of taste and duty, but it made perfect sense to the Georgians.
Sir Joshua Reynolds The Society of Dilettanti a pair 1777/78 (Society of Dilettanti)
It’s no exaggeration to say that the liberal education of these Whig aristocrats kick-started the modern social conscience. The trendy philanthropy of the Foundling Hospital led these patrons in time to Catholic Emancipation and electoral reform, and together with painters, to campaign for the abolition of slavery; John Philip Simpson’s extraordinarily modern Captive Slave 1827 is as much a truly Georgian painting as any.
(c) Art Institute of Chicago