canaletto and London: a bit too postcard perfect

The best of cities, in the best of seasons. But what was really happening behind those walls and in those narrow streets on that sunny afternoon. After all, the picture is just too pleasant. Only a tourist could believe it. The eighteenth-century was, above all, a time of wrenching contrasts…

…But we have forgotten about the red coated man standing quietly, perhaps tipsily in his boat. He looks very much like a beer drinker, and so he stands considerably above the more than 100,000 wretched, destitute,gin drinking, diseased thieves, whores, pimps, pilferers, pickpockets and other wrecks. He may have a silver watch and silver buckles on his shoes, and he doubtless dines on roast beef and good wheat bread- which is better fare than the fast food, transformed, the working classes gobble up today. We cannot rate his prospects too highly, but he does manage to survive, and in eighteenth-century London that in itself, is an accomplishment.

Back on the shore behind him we might find bricklayers and carpenters- some of the roughly 100,000 skilled journeymen who rank above him- and masons, the building contractors of the day. They live quite remarkably well. A mason who went out to dinner at the King’s Arms at about this time returned home to find that he had been robbed of a silk gown, five cravats, a silk waistcoat, a silk coat, a gold-embroidered hat, a snuffbox, and two gold rings.

— London, as Canaletto saw it, had more than a few things in common with his home city, including majestic buildings, spectacular water views and picturesque skies. His great forte was architecture and its settings, and he spent time outside the city limning the stately homes of his clientele, like his peaceful view of Syon House, a castellated edifice in Middlesex that since the 16th century has been home to the Dukes of Northumberland.
But he was at his best working with large panoramic views, which he carried out according to the rules of Renaissance perspective and with a fine eye for detail, probably using a camera obscura to guide him. He often tweaked his subject matter to enhance his compositions, emphasizing or eliminating elements, so his pictures were not necessarily faithful reproductions.
The most arresting of his….Read More:

For a skilled journeyman, the pay was good and fairly reliable- as much as 15 shillings a week for a mere 12 to 14 hours, with his all day Sunday off. Not all of the journeymen appreciated their good state of course. A member of Parliament was heard to complain to the Duke of Newcastle about the “impudence” of tailors who said they could not make ends meet on two shillings and seven pence per day. To the Duke, whose own income could not have been more than 150 times greater, this must have been shocking talk indeed.

When the fortunate chap in the red coat works, he heaves his coal up onto the dock behind him, and it is carried away from the riverbank to Smith’s Square. In the middle of the square stands Saint John’s Church, which Dickens said resembled “some petrified moster, frightened and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air.” Smoke curls up from several chimneys, near Smith’s Square, so the locksmiths, stove smiths, coach carvers, gate smiths, and sign painters appear to be at work.

—London: Westminster Bridge from the North on Lord Mayor’s Day
Oil on canvas, 96 x 137,5 cm
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven—Read More:

Since it is summer, the chimney sweeps-seven year-old boys seemed to be about the right size- are out of work and begging or stealing. In another forty years, reform will touch even these unfortunates, and the boys will enjoy all sorts of heady privileges: they will not be given to masters before the age of eight, they will have to be bathed once a week- formerly they went four or five years without a bath-, and they will not be sent up a chimney that is actually on fire. ( to be continued)….

—The Old Horse Guards building at the centre of this work was demolished shortly after Canaletto painted it, and replaced by the New Horse Guards, which was completed in 1753. It has convincingly been suggested that part of Canaletto’s motivation in producing the picture was to record the view of a historic site prior to its alteration. He was to display similar instincts on other occasions.
This is, however, far from simply being a work of antiquarian interest. The painter has filled the scene with a variety of figures ranging from the regiment of the King’s Life Guard’s who drill in the background to the footmen at the right who beat a carpet, near to the entrance to Downing Street.—Read More:

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