Friday 29 May 2015

Guardi (and Canaletto) at the Wallace Collection

Having recently made arrangements for a trip to Venice later this year in November, I found myself distracted by thoughts of things Venetian, and the painters who depicted the city. 

Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697 - 1768), better known as Canaletto, is the best known and most prolific of the painters of views of Venice, and his pictures will be familiar to many from book covers, CD covers, decorative items and all manner of packaging.

Canaletto (1697 -1768). Venice: the Riva degli Schiavoni. c 1740 - 1745. Oil on canvas. 58.2 x 93.5 cm. Wallace Collection

His main market were the young English aristocrats who visited Venice as part of the Grand Tour, that 18th century equivalent of the gap year undertaken by the young toffs of the period as part of their education, in which, accompanied by a tutor, they visited the great European capitals and centres of culture to round off their education as gentlemen and have a bit of fun as well, before returning to England to do the things that aristos of the period did.

In an age before photography and holiday snaps, if you wanted a visual reminder of your once-in-a-lifetime tour of the continent, then you needed a painting, and if it was Venice, then Canaletto was your man. There were other Venetian view painters, of course, many of whom were extremely accomplished, but none of them were as successful.

Which brings us to Francesco Guardi (1712 - 1793), the last of the great view painters of the Venetian Republic. The son of a painter, and one of three brothers who were also painters, he became a view painter and no doubt sought to emulate Canaletto's commercial success, but despite some major commissions, he never really made it big, partly due to a decline in foreign tourism, and partly due to changing artistic tastes. He developed a style quite distinct from Canaletto, with architecture  less precisely delineated, and a rather sketchy manner.

Francesco Guardi (1712 - 1793). Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore with the Guiudecca. c.1770s. Oil on canvas. 35.2 x 54.7 cm. Wallace Collection

Although unfashionable during his own time, he became highly regarded from around the middle of the nineteenth century, coinciding with a change in artistic sensibilities, and new developments in art with the emergence of painters like Turner, and later the Impressionists. Perhaps the invention of photography also made a difference to the value placed on strict realism.

I do like and admire Canaletto's pictures, but in many respects Guardi is more more to my taste. Although less polished than Canaletto, his pictures have a sense of movement and vitality which makes many Canalettos seem a bit unexpressive by comparison.

If you want to see paintings by Canaletto and Guardi, you could do worse than to visit the Wallace Collection in London where, in West Gallery I, views of the same locations in Venice by the two artists are displayed together, a rare opportunity to compare works by the two masters.

Here are just two examples, the same scene depicted by Guardi and Canaletto.

Francesco Guardi (1712 - 1793). Venice: the Grand Canal with the Riva del Vin and the Rialto Bridge c. 1770. Oil on canvas. 68.5 x 91.5 cm. Wallace Collection

Canaletto (1697 - 1768). Venice: the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Dolfin- Manin to the Rialto Bridge. c. 1740 – 1750. Oil on Canvas. 58.5 x 93 cm. Wallace Collection

A magnificent Guardi, one of his few large canvases, measuring 115 cm x 119.5 cm was sold at Sotheby's in 2011 to an anonymous foreign buyer for £26,697,250,  setting a world record for a Venetian view painting.

I went down to see it prior to the auction. Afterwards, it left these shores for an anonymous location abroad, despite a temporary export bar. It's a lovely painting and it's sad that we won't be able to see it again. You can watch the auction in this video.

Francesco Guardi died in 1793. Four years later, on 12 May 1797,  the 1100 year old Venetian Republic came to an end when it surrendered to Napoleon. His son Giacomo was a view painter as well, although less talented than his father, and in subsequent years, other great artists would come to Venice to paint the city, but Francesco Guardi was the last great view painter of the Republic.

I wonder whether, in this rather gloomy age of ours, with the threat of rising sea levels, global warming and general uncertainty about the future of our civilisation, the pictures of Guardi with their rather wistful feeling might have a renewed appeal to contemporary viewers.

The Wallace Collection
Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN

P.H Lee. MA dissertation 2011, Open University
What is the place of Francesco Guardi in the tradition of Venetian view painting, and how does his changing reputation relate to social, economic and cultural factors in Venice and Europe? (unpublished)

Friday 15 May 2015

From Hackney to the Walthamstow Wetlands

Last Saturday I joined a sponsored walk organised by the Hackney Society to raise funds for a book they are planning to publish. It took us from Hackney, via the Olympic Park, to the Walthamstow reservoirs. We covered, I believe, about 20 kilometres.

Arriving in good time, I saw this shellfish stall by Hackney Central Station, with its semicircular brick base and golden roof topped with fish scales, and surmounted by a fish tail. 

They were just setting up when I arrived but I could see that they had an impressive range of shellfish, including oysters and mussels. I returned a little later to pick up some crab for breakfast, which was a very enjoyable start to the day. 

They only open at Hackney on Saturdays, according to the owner, but can be found at Dagenham market on Sundays. The business was set up by the owner's grandfather operating from a barrow. In the 1970s, the railway company tried to get rid of them, but ruts in the pavement proved that they had been there long enough to have squatter's rights, so they stayed put.

We met up at St Augustine's Tower, the oldest building in Hackney, and looked after by the Hackney Preservation Society. It's currently managed by the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust, and normally only open on the last Sunday of each month but it was open for the group, so I took the opportunity to climb up, where I got to see the historical clock mechanism, as well as the view from the top.

The route took us along a canal with tantalising views of cafes on the other side, which I resolved to explore in future.


We didn't linger at the Olympic Park, and I only got to see bits of it, but was impressed by the way it had been laid out, by the buildings, and by the way the gardens had been planted to blend in with the natural landscape of the Lea valley.

Our final destination was the Walthamstow Wetlands. This is an area occupied by 10 reservoirs that supply tap water to about 1.5 million people in London, operated by London Water. At the same time it is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and home to many species of migrating birds and other wildlife. It's very close to the centre of London, and the largest urban wildlife reserve in Europe. At present it's only open to anglers and birdwatchers with permits, but is being developed as a nature reserve and wetland centre that will be open to the public in about two years' time. Currently it's open to groups by arrangement. We were in fact the first group to visit and were shown around the site by their community engagement officer. It's a spectacular place with large bodies of water, and lots of birds and waterfowl.

If you like pylons, as I do, this is a good place to see them, and to get close up. Recently, as you may be aware, a new design was adopted after a competition. I'm not sure that I like it, but only time will tell, I suppose. Incidentally, if you are a real enthusiast, you might wish to join the Pylon Appreciation Society.

What I particularly liked was the juxtaposition of wildlife and the urban environment, of the natural and the man made: the buildings and warehouses by the edge of the water, the views of Canary Wharf in the distance, and the geese wandering amongst the electricity pylons, and the trains passing regularly nearby.

Within the site, there are two significant buildings, the Victorian Marine Engine House, which will be used as a visitor centre:

and the old Coppermill building, which as it's name indicates, was once a copper mill.

It's going to be amazing when it opens to the public, and I'll be following their progress with interest.

Friday 8 May 2015


On the May Bank Holiday Sunday, we visited the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow for the first time. The Gallery, in the house where William Morris used to live, was delightful. It has displays relating to the life and work of William Morris, as well as space for temporary exhibitions.

The house itself is Georgian, built in 1798. It's a nice example of the type, although I think it would have been better without the semicircular bays on the south front (the main entrance) which were added some thirty to forty years later.

The house is at one end of Lloyd Park, which is delightful, and worth exploring.

What came as a pleasant surprise, was Walthamstow itself, which I had never visited. We had initially thought of going by car, but the website warned that parking spaces in the vicinity were very limited, so we went by train, as they advised.

On the way to the gallery from the station, we walked came across a rather striking early modern building, with a clock tower, shops on the ground floor with a wavy roof over the shopfronts and flats on the three floors above. The from of the clock tower was decorated with a wavy red pattern. Above what looked like the main entrance were coats of arms.

I later discovered that this was Hoe Street Central Parade built in 1958 -1964, and the work of the borough architect F.G. Southgate.

Walthamstow turned out to be a rather pleasant place. The bits we walked through were low rise, but properly urban, with a wide variety of shops, and culturally diverse. We encountered Albanian, Turkish, Polish, West African, Chinese and Romanian cafes, restaurants and supermarkets.

The High Street is a long, straight, pedestrianised avenue, oriented so that the sun shines straight along it. On the day we were there, the sun was shining brightly and tables spilled out into the pavement and the high street from several cafes.

The overall effect was very pleasant indeed, and strangely reminiscent of the some of the traffic-free streets we had encountered in Venice, like the via Garibaldi.

I think it's the scale of the buildings, the cafes, the shops selling day-to-day goods, and the absence of that ugly, curvy, visually undisciplined patterned tiling which defaces so many pedestrianised quarters in Britain.

There were various quirky things we encountered, like this rather surreal shop front,

and this old advert on the wall above the side of a chicken shop.

We were also delighted to find a branch of Manze's, one of the East End's famous pie, mash and eel shops. This historic shop is Grade II listed. It was closed, but the interior looked wonderful, and we have resolved to come back when it's open.

We ended up at an excellent pub, The Chequers, an establishment with an emphasis on good beer and good food. We would have liked to have the special of the day, smoked underblade (the subscapularis muscle of some animal, apparently), but it was all gone, so we had a very fine roast pork, with deep fried gherkins and jalapeño mayonnaise (delicious), accompanied by some very fine beer (Truman's Bud Burst and Hackney Brewery's American Pale Ale).

The pub has a low key, unpretentious exterior, several rooms each with a different character, good music that's not too loud (so that you can have a chat), friendly staff, and welcoming to humans and dogs alike.

We're definitely coming back.

William Morris Gallery
Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London E17 4 PP
020 8496 4390

Hugh Pearman on Walthamstow and Hoe Street Central Parade
Walthamstow Carnivalesque, RIBA Journal 12/09/2012

76 High Street, Walthamstow, London E17 7LD
020 8520 2855
article from The Guardian 30/10/2013
article by Bill Bayliss

The Chequers
145 High Street, Walthamstow, London E17 7BX
020 8503 6401