Canaletto & the Art of Venice at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace (19 May – 12 November) showcases one of the most important collections of 18th century Venetian art in the world.  More than 200 paintings, drawings and prints – all from the Royal Collection – explore how Antonio Canaletto (1697 – 1768) and his contemporaries captured the allure of this most evocative of cities.

As much as to any artist, the exhibition serves as testament to Joseph Smith, collector, dealer, artist’s patron-cum-agent, and (when he had time) British consul in Venice from 1744 to 1760. Smith’s collection was bought almost in its entirety by George III in 1762 to furnish the newly purchased Buckingham House (later Buckingham Palace).  In fact the paintings now on display were a £10,000 royal afterthought once the bibliophile King George had secured Smith’s magnificent Library.


The Porte Del Dolo c.1740, etching

The artists of this last great cultural flowering of the maritime Republic – before it was swallowed up into Napoleon’s European empire – shared a sense of theatre, and an appreciation of  the interplay of light and colour. The son of a leading theatrical scene painter, Canaletto elevated landscape painting while his peers concentrated on their more respectable ‘histories’, allegories and portraits. His market was foreigners, particularly the British – who (encouraged by Consul Smith) snapped up his glistening veduti of canals, palaces, churches and piazzas. Canaletto’s architecture is a glorious backdrop to the regular festivals, masques and ceremonies of the Venetian calendar.

With his nephew Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto started making etchings in the early 1740s, mostly real and semi-imaginary landscapes inspired by the Venetian mainland. The 31 plates resulting from a journey the two artists made along the Brenta canal were published as a set in 1744 – a kind of prospectus – with an engraved title page dedicated to Smith.


Title plate with a dedication to Joseph Smith 1744, etching

Almost inevitably, these black and white compositions are a little overshadowed by the larger, showy, brightly painted canvasses hanging in the adjacent rooms. After all, the prints were not originally intended for framing and display like pictures, but were bound in an album on Smith’s shelves. Nonetheless the true print lover cannot help but be impressed by the range of light and shade skilfully evoked by varying the space between sinuous etched parallel lines. There is very little of the sometimes rather crude cross-hatching employed by northern printmakers to produce tone.

Final word goes to Canaletto’s large canvasses showing Grand Tourists pottering about the classical ruins of Rome. Each little group has a dedicated guide, identifiable by his sober black attire, pointing out the arches and antiquities half-buried in silt.


The Arch of Septimius Severus 1742, oil on canvas

If you can get along to London’s Tate Britain before the 25th September, I recommend Painting with Light, an exhibition celebrating the links between early photography and art in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

It cannot be described as a glamorous blockbuster, and the images are generally small and intricate.  Not for the faint hearted, it nevertheless repays close attention (and, just, the entry price). The subject is overdue closer scrutiny, as very often painting and photography-as-art are treated in isolation.


Jane Morris (wife of William) posing for artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Doyens of the Pre-Raphaelite, aesthetic and impressionist movements used photographic images as inspiration, as an alternative to the preparatory sketch, or as aid to composition. Photography presented a new, revelatory way of seeing the world, and therefore seeing art. From the 1850s books and journals were illustrated with photographs instead of engravings and lithographs, and the publications of learned Victorian societies were the forums for this conversation.

Many who had trained as artists became photographers, especially portraitists. From the introduction in 1851 of the wet plate process, which produced sepia-tinted positive prints, the number of professional photographers increased from 51 to 2,534 by 1861.

The Lady of Shallot by Henry Peach Robinson, 1861

As technologies for the taking and developing of photographs improved, many artists saw landscape in new ways.  The beauty and ‘truth’ of wonderous mother nature – which Romantic artists like Constable and Turner sought to capture – was traditionally deemed to lie in the accurate rendering of detail, based on close observation. Now artists became more concerned with immersing the viewer in atmospheric effects of light, shade and colour.

Many photographers were, in turn, inspired by artists to push technical boundaries and experiment with lenses, exposures, chemical treatments etc.

I see photography in this period as essentially another form of printmaking. A couple of engravings from steel plates feature in the exhibition, demonstrating that traditional printmakers still had an important part to play in the creation, reproduction and dissemination of art.

Ultimately, this show goes to prove that whatever the chosen means of expression, art advances through the imagination and talent of the artist, and their impact on the viewer.


Between 15th April and 9th October The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace hosts what I believe to be the first major UK exhibition devoted to the German artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717).

Inspired by the natural history specimens in the cabinets of curiosities owned by her neighbours in Amsterdam, Maria and her daughter Dorothea set sail for Suriname, South America, in June 1699. From her base in the capital, Paramaribo, Merian set out with local guides into the surrounding forests to find caterpillars to rear and observe.  Her primary interest was insect metamorphosis, but she was also interested in the tropical plants and animals. She stayed until ill-heath forced her return to Amsterdam in June 1701.


Maria Merian’s Butterflies tells Merian’s story through her works in the Royal Collection, acquired by George III in c.1810.  Many are luxury versions of the plates of the magnum opus that resulted from her Suriname expedition, the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname). Usually known simply as the Metamorphosis, it was finally published in 1705.

Merian took partial impressions from the Metamorphosis plates and worked up and coloured the faint etched outlines herself (with the help of her daughters) to create unique works of art.  The only other known set with this special treatment is in the British Museum. They were probably created to raise money for publication of the standard editions.

Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

Branch of West Indian Cherry with Achilles Morpho Butterfly , 1702-03

The exhibition also includes exquisite watercolour and bodycolour drawings on vellum by Maria and her daughters.

As the daughter herself of a prominent Frankfurt printer and publisher (Matthäus Merian), and the step-daughter of a professional artist who taught her flower painting, Merian was uniquely suited to the formidable task.  With insider knowledge of the brush, the pen and the tools of the printmaker, she achieved perhaps the most harmonious marriage of art and science in the whole story of natural history illustration.

Integrity was important to Merian: her art was always rooted firmly in scientific observation. When some element of naturalism was sacrificed in the interests of aesthetics – such as introducing the juvenile Golden Tegu lizard onto the cassava plant below – she owns up to it in her text.

Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

Cassava with White Peacock Butterfly and young Golden Tegu, 1702-03

This pioneering female biologist made some genuine scientific breakthroughs:  she categorically demonstrated that the caterpillar, pupa and butterfly states were phases in the lifecycle of the same insect. The scientific consensus of the time was that one insect gave birth to another then died.

You too dear reader can own the work of this remarkable and indefatigable woman. Be aware that plates from the Metamorphosis are often found with modern colour (editions were originally sold both in black and white and hand-coloured).  The giveaway is often inaccuracy – Merian described in great detail the colours and patterns of the creatures she examined.

Merian was also fascinated by the reptiles that she encountered in Suriname and planned a lavishly illustrated follow-up on the subject, although she was unable to achieve this before her death in 1717.  Science and art are the poorer for it.

The Spirited Mr Rowlandson

November 20, 2015

A bloggers’ preview last week of not one but two new exhibitions at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.  A bijou selection of high-quality genre paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch art more than competed for attention with one of the most brilliant draughtsmen and printmakers England has ever produced: Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827).

The display of around 100 prints and drawings explores the life and art of one of this country’s most popular caricaturists. Social satires were his staple, but often the political intrigues of Parliament and the Court attracted the scrutiny of his quick-fire wit and flashing, free-spirited pen.

Rowlandson was a roving gun for hire, happy to direct his ridicule in whatever direction his patron or publisher of the time required – always with that arresting combination of invention and artistic flair. The exhibition includes satires against William Pitt and the Tories as well as against Pitt’s great rival Charles James Fox and his Whig acolytes.

It is perhaps surprising thIMG_2064at Rowlandson’s output was so popular with both George III and George IV, father and particularly son so often the butt of the joke. Queen Victoria apparently acquired more of his prints than either of her Hanoverian predecessors.

And pictorial satires of the Georgian and Victorian periods remain highly collectable to this day.  The market has been rejuvenated by a recent upsurge in scholarly research into this intriguingly fluid, hybrid medium that seems to straddle simultaneously the worlds of art, journalism, literature and politics.

Commanding the centre of the largest gallery is this c. 1806 four leaf screen (left), pasted with carefully arranged figures and scenes cut from satirical prints (the work of various artists, French and British).

This is a rare survival, the sort of thing I would love on my stand at a fair – think of the visitors it would attract.  These screens were popular adornments to the fashionable parlours of the Georgian and Regency periods, the ultimate statement of a trend for pasting prints onto everything from tea caddies to tables to the walls of billiard rooms (see my earlier post on this theme: Furniture Prints).

Printsellers’ catalogues and trade cards of the time offered selections of their wares intended for this very purpose.  Publishers too got in on the act – Isaac Cruikshank’s set of ‘Caricature Ornaments for screens’ was advertised in 1800.
Such screens could also be purchased ready-made.
Either way, they make for wonderful after-dinner conversation.

High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson showing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace with Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer13th November 2015 – 14th February 2016.

Painting Paradise

March 24, 2015

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden explores the many ways in which the garden has been celebrated in art through over 150 paintings, drawings, books, manuscripts and decorative arts from the Royal Collection.

The exhibition runs from 20th March to 11th October at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 1615

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 1615

The display is arranged chronologically – cleverly incorporating garden-feature props – and explores what gardens have meant to people over the centuries.

Biblical notions have permeated garden design from the outset – the word ‘paradise’ derives from the ancient Persian for an enclosed, protected space and through the book of Genesis has become intertwined with visions of the Garden of Eden.

The precedents of classical antiquity were, as one would expect, prominent in the minds of the Renaissance gardeners. A small c.1550 pen and ink and chalk drawing by an unidentified draughtsman (once attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci) is one of the first attempts in Italian Renaissance art to depict a garden accurately.  It probably shows part of a villa garden used for cultivating medicinal herbs, with regular rectangular beds.

That's me on the left!

That’s me on the left!

By way of total contrast, I particularly enjoyed the magnificently large and sweeping vista of Hampton Court rendered in oil by Leonard Knyff (1650 – 1722). The bird’s-eye prospect of the Palace perfectly exemplifies the Anglo-Dutch formality of patterned parterres and avenues fashionable at the time.

Leonard Knyff, A View of Hampton Court, c.1702-14

Leonard Knyff, A View of Hampton Court, c.1702-14

Knyff’s drawings were turned into etchings by Jan Kip, a fellow Dutchman born in Amsterdam. Kip’s series of plates known as ‘Britannia Illustrata’ were first issued in 1707 in a single volume of eighty. The distinctive views of country seats, instantly recognisable by their aerial perspective, are as much concerned with the formal landscape gardens as with the houses themselves. I myself have recently acquired the plate of Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire.

The freer style of landscaping that emerged in the 18th century, by such luminaries as William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown, is well represented. This incorporated formal structures and wilderness elements. The exhibition ends with some contemporary interpretations, via the age of Victoria, the first monarch to hold garden parties at Buckingham Palace.

Well worth a visit.

Mr Turner

November 28, 2014

I rather enjoyed Mike Leigh’s gently paced and whimsical meander through the latter years of the landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851).

Mr Turner

Mr Turner

Permeated with a profound sense of mortality (death was after all a constant companion in the 19th century), the film was illuminated by witty characterization and I think rendered a passable impression of the times in which the great artist lived.

Though I couldn’t help but notice the prints which adorned the walls of almost every interior in the film (Mr Turner’s own displayed Hogarth engravings), the film made no mention of our eponymous hero’s own ventures in printmaking.

This comes as little surprise. Turner’s major foray, his ‘Liber Studiorum’ of landscape compositions, is little known outside art history circles. The artist himself etched the outline of each image onto the copper plate, working from a drawing he had made for the purpose. He then closely supervised carefully selected printmakers such as Charles Turner, S.W. Reynolds and Thomas Lupton as they added their mezzotint and engraving (and, in a few cases, aquatint).

Ploughing, Eton / Liber Studiorum (etching)

Ploughing, Eton / Liber Studiorum (etching)

The project was ultimately a commercial failure that was abandoned after 71 plates had been published irregularly in parts between 1809 and 1817.

Aesthetically, the sepia impressions achieve mixed results. Some are quite atmospheric but on the whole rather staid and rarely do they capture the vitality of the artist’s pen.

The Hindoo Worshipper / Liber Studiorum

The Hindoo Worshipper / Liber Studiorum

JMW was not an innovative or creative printmaker, certainly compared with some of his contemporaries who achieved acclaim as painters (particularly on the Continent).

But he was acutely aware of the power of reproductive prints to spread his fame and (not least) enhance his fortune – though had he seen some of the many thousands of products of the “Turner print industry” he might have let out a particularly audible grunt of consternation.

In a previous post I featured George Scharf (1788-1860), a Bavarian-born watercolourist and lithographer of topographical views, natural history subjects and contemporary London life. He fought with the British Army at Waterloo and settled in London in 1816 (‘In appreciation of George Scharf‘, 29/04/2009).

I was delighted to acquire a c. 1817 lithograph by Scharf for my stock recently – more precisely, three lithographs on one sheet.

Two are views of the Maidenhead Inn which stood on Dyott Street, London WC1, in what was the notorious St. Giles slum; the third image (lower right) shows the remains of the Manor of Totten Hall, otherwise known as Tottenham Court. It stood at the present junction of Euston, Hampstead and Tottenham Court Roads, not far from Euston station.


According to Rowland Dobie’s ‘History of the United Parishes of St Giles in the Fields and St George Bloomsbury’ (1829) by the early nineteenth century the Maidenhead had become established as a “liquor-shop and public-house of the vilest description, and the haunt of beggars and desperate characters”. By the time Dobie was writing, the inn and its immediate surroundings had been demolished and the land turned into a stone yard under the control of the parish. It seems that the Totten Hall – this remaining building (once part of a larger complex) is identified as ‘King John’s Palace’ in some contemporary book plates – was also pulled down around this time.

So it seems that both buildings disappeared shortly after Scharf made this print, almost certainly from his own drawings. Social and architectural historians of London are in his debt.

Scharf’s prints always have their own, almost indefinable, idiosyncrasies. In this humble lithograph one senses the authenticity and immediacy of the original sketches that inspired it.

I really think that lithography, more than any other medium of printmaking, is suited to depicting architecture, and particularly stone structures. Something to do with the vaguely grainy quality of the image, reflecting the texture of most building stone? And after all, a lithograph was traditionally created from a block of limestone.

The first Georgians

April 8, 2014

Another “Bloggers’ Breakfast” this morning at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, this time to preview The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760 which runs from 11 April to 12 October 2014.  Our principal guide was Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, though by no means is this solely an exhibition of 2-D art. Portrait miniatures, sculpture, furniture, tableware, silverware and ceramics are all represented. All of the over 300 works are in the Royal Collection and come from royal residences across the UK.

George I and II are not exactly commemorated for their intellectual rigour nor cultural refinement, and ‘charismatic’ is one epithet seldom associated with these rather detached and remote sovereigns, German speakers who spent much of their time abroad.


The Hanoverian Succession – rich with symbolism – engraving by Wale after J.B. Muller

Similar exhibitions have in recent times been devoted to the reigns of Georges III and IV; the former who took a much more active interest in the cultural life of these islands (and in fact procured many of the works on view for the royal collection); the latter one of the greatest royal patrons of the arts this country has known.  The age of Victoria and Albert has received the same scrutiny.

The 300th anniversary of the beginning of the Georgian era, when in 1714 George I ascended the throne as the first British monarch of the House of Hanover, seems the appropriate time to embrace their predecessors.

“Consolidation of the gains of the Glorious Revolution” is hardly a strap-line to inspire, but outside the political sphere it is certainly true that some remarkable artists emerged in this period, both foreign and British-born.

In the front rank of the latter category is of course Londoner William Hogarth, to whose prints and drawings a room is properly devoted. What caught my eye was not the familiar series of what he called his “Modern Moral Subjects” (A Harlot’s Progress of 1732 in this case), but his preparatory chalk sketches of ‘history’ scenes and his remarkably intimate pen and ink studies that appear to be portraits of contemporaries.


A 1720 trade card both advertises Hogarth’s services as a jobbing engraver and also shows off his considerable talent with a burin (engraver’s tool) – in lettering, figures and decorative devices.

Hogarth could not rely on any royal patronage – indeed his oil sketch for a group portrait of the royal family that was never commissioned hangs in the show (he was overlooked in favour of his great rival William Kent). Indeed, royal patronage of artists (in the broadest sense of the term) appears rather haphazard and incoherent through the reigns of the first two Hanoverians – only in 1768 was the Royal Academy of Arts founded through a personal act of George III.

Cartographers will love the section on the Jacobite Rising, which spawned a multitude of printed and manuscript maps and battle plans, and was the prime catalyst for the establishment of the Ordnance Survey. I particularly liked the anonymously-published map of the Young Pretender’s progress around Scotland and northern England (below). It had first been published in France by James Alexander Grante, who had served as Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Colonel of Artillery.


Foreign-born artists were still in this period generally more fashionable, none more so than Italians. It is always uplifting to gaze upon Canaletto’s panorama of London from Somerset House Terrace; such a dignified treatment of our rough-and-ready capital city, it hints at the slightly theatrical atmosphere of his native Venice.


This exhibition is of interest for the sheer variety of artistic and aesthetic responses to a new, foreign dynasty ruling Britain.  If it appears to lack a single cohesive narrative purely as a display of art, that perhaps reflects the ambivalent relationship of George I and his son towards the cultural life of a nation itself still searching for a distinctive artistic identity.

Australasian Odyssey

January 17, 2014

Please forgive the extended break between posts dear reader, I have been travelling in the Antipodes over the festive season. The dual purpose was a family wedding in Sydney and to lend my support to England’s cricketers; the less said about the exploits of our flannelled fools on the field the better.

Naturally I found some consolation in the company of a few select antiquarian printsellers.

A four day stop-over in Singapore yielded ample opportunity to visit that island nation’s sole ABA representative: Antiques of the Orient, in Tanglin Shopping Centre. Owner Ms. Julie Yeo was on hand to introduce me to an impressive stock of early views of the former British East India company trading post. Her company has published a number of scholarly reference works which have become indispensable collector’s guides to historical images of South East Asia.

No visit to Sydney would be complete for the bibliophile without a trip to Hordern House. Their impressive and wholly-suitable 19th century townhouse premises on Victoria Street was undergoing redecoration when I rang the doorbell on spec, and, though closed, Derek McDonnell kindly allowed me a peek at the main showrooms. Highlights in a high-calibre stock included an aquatint of Sydney Cove published a few years after the then British penal colony on the edge of the world was founded.

My eye was drawn to a cricket print I’d almost kill to own, hanging in a stairwell: a lithograph of the second-ever (more successful) English touring side playing on the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground, published in 1864 in Melbourne by Charles Troedel.

In the suburb of Kensington, to the south of the Sydney Cricket Ground, is situated the large and airy showroom of Josef Lebovic. His eclectic stock showcases a range of printmaking, both European and Australian, and encompases caricatures, Victorian genre, twentieth century etchings, elegant inter-war travel posters, and early photographs of Australian Aborigines and settlers.

On my way home to Blightly I stopped at Hong Kong. I simply had to potter down Hollywood Road, past dozens of antique shops, to the emporium of Jonathan Wattis. Over a coffee Jonathan and his charming wife showed me their fascinating display of early photographs of this one-time British outpost in Asia.

“They might as well be photographs of the moon”, quipped Jonathan. And he’s right. The sepia images I inspected, landscapes of lush vegetation dotted with pleasant-looking European-style villas, bore no resemblance to the overcrowded high-rise ‘entrepôt’ that confronts the modern visitor.

All four of the businesses featured have over a period of many years established reputations of integrity and expertise among the more enquiring minds within their respective communities. At a time of rapid development and change in all their territories, when a sense of place and identity are arguably more important than ever, let us hope that they – and others striving to engage people with their heritage – continue to thrive.

May I wish all my loyal subscribers a very happy and prosperous 2014.

Castiglione: Lost Genius

November 3, 2013

The Genoese artist Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-64) deserves a more prominent place in the art historian’s consciousness. That is the view of Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings at the Royal Collection Trust.

He believes that Castiglione was one of the most innovative and technically brilliant Italian draftsmen of the Baroque, and has curated the first UK public exhibition dedicated to his drawings and prints at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

Castiglione’s sketches on paper in earthy red and brown oils produced vibrant compositions, inspired early in his career by the pastoral Mannerism of his provincial Italian roots, and later by interpretations of the Bible and mythology. According to Clayton, it is not entirely clear why they were produced; they do not seem to be preparatory work for his finished paintings, but may have served as ‘samples’ with which to tender for business from Roman and Genoese art patrons.

Certainly they are hugely impressive demonstrations of Castiglione’s virtuosity – working in oil in this way, on the absorbent stock artist’s paper of the day, demands a light touch, and the surest and quickest of hands. Remarkably, there is no evidence of underdrawing in pencil when these often complex compositions are examined closely.

But it is Castiglione’s contribution to printmaking that most concerns this correspondent. He clearly mastered the art of etching, and was particularly influenced by the chiaroscuro effects of Rembrandt, without perhaps exhibiting the same depth of feeling for the medium (but who in history has??). Giovanni Benedetto’s glowering self-portrait with a turban that adorns the exhibition’s publicity consciously echoes the Dutch master’s own self-portraits “in oriental dress” of the 1640s and 1650s.

The modestly-titled ‘The Genius of Castiglione’ (below) is a wonderfully ebullient piece of self-advertising, the almost-nude artist putting himself at the centre of an allegorical composition stuffed full of symbolism alluding to his versatility, accomplishment and immortality. It puts me in mind of those fancy frontispieces to 18th century learned tomes on the arts – with considerable added flourish!

20131103-193750.jpgHis work with the needle and copper plate made a big impression (pardon the pun) on the great Italian etcher of the 18th century, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Castiglione is credited with the invention of the technique of monotype. Monotype sits somewhere between printmaking, drawing and painting, and was revived in the 19th century, most notably by Degas and Gauguin. A design is painted in ink on to an unworked metal plate and printed onto paper; as the name implies, usually only one decent impression results.

But the ink remaining on the plate after printing can also produce a second pull, as witnessed in ‘The Nativity with Angels and God the Father’ below.
The effect is almost more remarkable – the weaker tones and consequently exaggerated light effects lend an appropriately ethereal quality to the composition. Clayton is right to suggest that work like this anticipates the likes of Edvard Munch centuries later.

During his violent and turbulent life, Castiglione produced works on paper which were highly esteemed for a century after his death. But he unaccountably fell from fame in the modern era, and the Royal Collection – which thanks to an 18th century bequest holds the finest surviving group of his works – aims to put that right.

Castiglione: Lost Genius runs until 16 March 2014. The same ticket gets you into Gifted: From the Royal Academy to The Queen, an eclectic display of works on paper by current Academicians presented to Her Majesty for her Diamond Jubilee last year.