The work of the renowned 18th-century Italian artist Canaletto, this beautiful painting of Greenwich Hospital and the Queen’s House may have been commissioned by British Consul Joseph Smith for his residence on the Venice Grand Canal, where he entertained many English Grand Tourists.
Canaletto’s painting (real name Giovanni Antonio Canal) shows how Christopher Wren designed the hospital to Queen Mary’s stipulation that the view from the Queen’s House to the river should remain unimpeded. If you go and look over the Thames from the Isle of Dogs today, you’ll see that comparatively little has changed from Canaletto’s image.
Canaletto probably painted this view in around 1752, to mark the completion of the Hospital buildings in 1751. However, some think that he may have painted it earlier, before the hospital was finished. Canaletto is likely to have visited the site sometime after 1746, to see Thornhill’s celebrated painted ceiling (completed in 1712).
The painting is not completely literally accurate, but does contain a number of details suggesting a personal knowledge of the site – unlike a more fanciful earlier painting he made of the same view, based on a 1736 print by Jacques Rigaud.
The painting shown here takes a realistic low viewpoint, with Inigo Jones's Queen's House in the centre of the picture and the Royal Observatory on the hill in Greenwich Park above it. Rysbrack's statue of George II (1735) is visible in the centre of the Grand Square of the Hospital, behind the central water-stairs, and figures parade the riverfront Five-Foot Walk, which opened to public use in 1731.
The painting contains other detailing typical of Canaletto's work. The symmetry of the classical façade is counterbalanced by the asymmetric lines of the shipping in the foreground. A variety of craft, including Thames skiffs, has been portrayed on the river but Canaletto also uses the visual devices of his Venetian Grand Canal paintings, such as oars, poles and sticks, while some of the shipping is fanciful and formulaic, such as the vessel heeled over in the right foreground. He has also opened up the central vista and darkened the foreground to accentuate the light on the building. Light and shade carefully articulate the details of brick, stone and foliage in this atmospheric image.
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