Canaletto in London in 1746. He painted A View of the Thames from Lambeth Palace; the best of cities on a sparkling summer day. But what was really happening behind those walls and in those narrow streets on that sunny afternoon….
Above Westminster Bridge we get the faintest glimpse of the distant rich. There is the Privy Garden, the home of the Horse Guards and the Admiralty, Scotland yard- and just around the bend of the river are the new Northumberland House and Somerset House. At the extreme right of the picture is the great dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, standing in a neighborhood that then had streets named Bolt and Tin Alley, Leg Alley, and Dirty Lane. That was Canaletto’s London of his patrons- for he did not mix with them any more than he mixed with London’s literary set.
As many as 300 noble families had some sort of London establishment at one time or another during the eighteenth century, some modest, some grand, some designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, James Gibbs, and, later, by the Adam brothers. These houses were not meant for quiet family living, but, with their profusion of drawing rooms and dining rooms, designed as settings for the social whirl, and it was doubtless the most brilliant social whirl London has ever known.
The rich and the well-born live well in any age, but they have rarely lived quite as well as they did in eighteenth century London. It is from this remarkably small, literate, impeccably tasteful set of people that we have taken our idea of eighteenth century London. These are the people- followed in their fashions by some 3,000 to 4,000 “gentle” families- who bought the Chippendale furniture and the Wedgewood pottery, applauded David Garrick and Mrs. Cibber and Peg Woffington in the theatre, purchased the drawings and paintings of Gainsborough and Reynolds, read the books by Fielding, and Smollet and Richardson, and wore those magnificent silk coats with the hundreds of silver buttons and broad stiff cuffs and fine lace frills cascading…
…from their sleeves to touch the second knuckle and render even the handling of a quill pen an all but impossible labor. They strolled in Vauxhall and Ranelagh gardens and listened to the music of Handel and watched fireworks displays set off over the Thames. It was the best of all possible worlds, and even a man as remote from the enter of London society as Dr. Johnson could conclude, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”