Canaletto and his postcard from London. A little too picure perfect. What was really happening behind those walls and in those narrow streets on that sunny afternoon…
On the whole, London was lucky in that the town’s best source of wealth has always been wealth itself in the form of insurance policies, bank deposits, and various kinds of commercial paper. The English have always had a passion for banks if nothing else; Adam Smith said that “the stability of the Bank of England is equal to that of the British Government”- and, as it turned out, Smith overestimated the government. In Canaletto’s day London was about to become the world’s financial center, and, while it would soon lose its American colonies, it never lost its banks.
Canaletto’s inventory of the houses and wharves and chimney pots of London is astonishingly precise. Moving along from the engine maker’s factory, he set down with painstaking care the brick wharf, the timber wharf, the stone wharf, the bricklayer’s yard, the largish Brewer’s House and another stone wharf. And then he came to a relatively imposing two-story red brick building with white window sashes anda fine front door. This, a superb example of Georgian architecture, evidently belongs to a more prosperous merchant than any to be found on Smith’s Square.
If we could see inside this commodious house, we would doubtless find floors of highly polished wood, curtains of damask, paneled walls of highly carved moldings painted buff and white. The doors are of heavy mahogany, with solid brass fittings that make a barely audible “kerchunk” as they are closed. In the drawing room is a carved marble architrave around the fireplace, and the ornate frieze and cornice above the doors have a touch of gilding. Prosperous as this household is, Thomas Chippendale’s furniture, “calculated to improve and refine the Present taste,” was probably too expensive.
The family had to make do with some old Queen Anne chairs, English bone china is a few years in the future, and so is Wedgewood’s pottery. The tea service is doubtless Chelsea Ware. The gentleman of the house, being a workingman of sorts, does not have the cumbersome lace cuffs of the aristocracy, but he wears a silk coat with a great many buttons, silk waistcoat and breeches, and a wig. His wife can afford to ape the fashions of the rich, and she wears a fan shaped skirt, tight-fitting bodice with a modest neckline, hair piled on top of her head, vast quantities of perfume to disguise the fragrance of eighteenth-century hygiene, and “white paint” makeup that contained lead and would eventually ruin her skin, make her hair fall out, give her the shakes, and at last cause her death. “Vanity” was a word much in vogue in the eighteenth century.