canaletto: sunny afternoon

Canaletto in London….

The picture is so pleasant, as a matter of fact,that only a tourist could believe it. The eighteenth-century was, above all, a time of wrenching contrast between rich and poor; of starvation, riots, soaring death rates; a time when workhouses took in abandoned infants and about ninety percent of their charges died; a time when a working man was lucky to have fourteen shillings a week income, and the young Charles James Fox casually lost 140,000 pounds gambling. We must, clearly, take a closer look at this charming view.

—For us now, however, the whole story — a tale of coming home — is symbolised by the return of the Canaletto to London, 264 years after it was bought as a souvenir by the rakish Ferdinand Philip. The historian David Starkey, who is a guest curator of the Royal River exhibition, points out that this return is not just of the painting, but also of the artist, because, in painting London, he was painting his home city, Venice.
“Before the Victorians built the Embankment, the Thames was a working river. The reason the Canaletto is so wonderful is that London worked in exactly the same way that Venice does. The Thames was our Grand Canal.”—Read More:

Directly across the river, at the extreme left of Canaletto’s picture, is the coal wharf, where a red coated man is standing idly in a boat. He can afford to stand there idly. He and his fellow coal heavers work irregularly; but when they do work they make good money, as much as ten shillings a day. If this man works two days a week, he can meet his budget for his wife and three children, living in one of the shacks nearby. His lodgings, coal, candle and soap only cost five shillings a week; the rest goes for food and clothing. He will not be able to afford beer, it is true, but he will drink it anyway, several pints a day at least, and hope to make up on the budget later. The pubs nearby boast that a man can get drunk for only a penny, so that is a mere seven pence a week.

—View of London with the Thames, detail, Canaletto—Read More and Image:

That we assume the coal heaver will be drunk seven days a week is not meant to cast aspersion on the laboring classes. Nearly everyone was drunk for the whole of the eighteenth-century. “As drunk as a lord” was a phrase coined in the eighteenth-century, and no less an authority than Dr. Samuel Johnson declared that “A man is never happy in the present unless he is drunk.” The rich drank claret- ten shillings a bottle-, the “middling people” beer, and the poor drank gin. For a population of 675,000 there were 15,188 inns, taverns, brandy houses, and beer dispensaries, or about one for every 44 men, women, and besotted schildren.

Henry Fielding was not spending all his time writing rollicking novels; his reformist tracts, and Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane, encouraged the passage of the Gin Acts that would soon help to curb the gin drinking. But at the time Canaletto was painting our picture, gin was the great escape for London’s poor, and the merchants and aristocrats make a good profit on the trade. The greatest fortunes in England were based on land; on the land grew grain; and from the grain gin was distilled. The more gin drunk the better.

And business was brisk. one out of eight deaths among adult males at that time has been attributed to gin. At the time Canaletto was painting this picture, one of the costs of gin drinking was reckoned as a loss to London of 9,323 children a year. A young woman named Judith Dufour dropped in at a workhouse at about this time to take her two year old daughter  for an afternoon outing; she strangled the child, left her in a ditch at Bethnal Green, sold the child’s clothes, and spent the money on gin…. ( to be continued)….

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