Twas’ a sunny day. Canaletto in London. He painted, in 1746, his A View of the Thames from Lambeth Palce; the city of London as it looked on that sparkling summer day in the middle of the eighteenth century. We conclude the series with what was really happening behind those walls and in those narrow streets that particular afternoon.
If we draw back from Canaletto’s painting now, and look at it as a whole, surely its most surprising feature is that there are very few surprises in it. We detect no riots raging near the Thames, no one starving, no workmen heaving coal or stone onto the wharves, no merchant flogging his wares- nothing that William Hogarth would have recognized as the “real” London. But what makes an artist an artist is, of course, his powers of selection. And what did Caneletto choose to show us out of all the teeming, tumultuous life of London?
Canaletto gives us a sunny day, an utter absence of conflict, a pervading warmth and tranquility, a sense of solid, middle class prosperity, and overpowering feeling of peace and well-being. This, doubtless, was what his patrons wished to think London was, and because Canaletto was so superbly able to present them with the felicitous image that London itself did not, his patrons kept him constantly at work, asserting again and again that eighteenth-century London, was, in the broad, panoramic view, a remarkably pleasant place to live.
We have always regarded Canaletto, working with his camera obscura and meticulously recording every detail with the utmost accuracy, as a very realistic painter. But the tricks of light and shade that he had learned along the shimmering canals of Venice transformed London into a sunny creation entirely his own.
Canaletto gave us, then, a view of a most agreeable town on a very pleasant summer day. He gave us too, a little drama in the setting of the city scape. As we look at the picture, we stand with the artist atop Morton’s Tower of Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. We might well imagine that we are the guests of the archbishop. Directly below us in the courtyard of the palace, where we see a gardener leisurely pruning some vines, another workman looking aimlessly at a slender board, and several well dressed men standing about waiting, quite plausibly, for tea time.
We can be fairly certain that it is tea time by looking at the angle of sunlight falling on Lambeth Palace. Now, if we look out on the river, we see the main characters in Canaletto’s little drama: a gilded royal barge is making its way downriver, apparently towards Westminster Bridge. But if we look more closely, we see that the royal barge, is in fact, pointed directly toward the barge houses just above, and adjoining, Lambeth Palace.
Why the royal barge is not hauling up at the front door, as it were, to the stairs that are just at the base of Morton’s Tower, is hard to fathom. But there it is headed for the barge houses. A member of the royal family is coming to Lambeth Palace for tea, and we are fortunate enough to have been invited. Standing atop Morton’s Tower, we have just come out to see the company on its way. It is a fine way to end a visit to London, a beautiful summer day, a leisurely, lingering afternoon, all given a gratifying frisson by tea with the archbishop and a member of the royal family.