Canaletto’s view of Greenwich Hospital and the Queen’s House

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.

Who was Canaletto?

Canaletto (real name Giovanni Antonio Canal) was born on 18 October 1697 in Venice. 

He became renowned in the 18th century for his highly detailed, often large-scale cityscapes of Venice, Rome and London. This genre of landscape known as vedute.

Canaletto also painted imaginary architectural views, referred to as capricci. He was a printmaker, using etching as a technique.

Canaletto was the son of Bernardo Canal, who was also a vedutista, hence the mononym Canaletto, which translates to English as ‘little Canal’. 

Canaletto in Greenwich 

Canaletto worked in England from 1746 to late 1755, where he painted Greenwich Hospital from the north bank of the Thames (c. 1750-52).

Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames
Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames

Smith was Canaletto’s patron from around 1729, and he collected nearly 50 paintings, 150 drawings and 15 rare etchings from the artist. He later sold these items in 1763 to King George III in 1763.

Queen Mary wanted the view from the Queen’s House to the river to remain unimpeded, and Canaletto's painting shows how Christopher Wren stuck to this when designing the hospital. 

If you go and look over the River 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, which was completed in 1712.

The painting is not completely 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 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.

Queen's House and Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

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. However Canaletto also uses the visual devices of his Venetian Grand Canal paintings, such as oars, poles and sticks. 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.