The River Thames

NEW YORK, NY -- In 1746, the Venetian view-painter Giovanni Antonio Canal (1696-1768), better known today as Canaletto, traveled to London in the hope of reviving his flagging business. For more than twenty years he had enjoyed enormous success painting views of Venice's Basilica of San Marco, the Grand Canal and the Doge's Palace for Englishmen on the Grand Tour. Now, however, the War of the Austrian Succession -- the 18th century's Great War, which by this time had drawn in all the great powers of Europe -- had almost completely disrupted private travel between Great Britain and Italy. For Canaletto, the only way to reach his primary market was to move to England.

Until Canaletto's arrival in London, views of the Thames had been few and prosaic. In fact, these earlier images were not actually pictures of the river as such, but London cityscapes and portrayals of fine houses, bridges, or other places of interest in which the river simply happened to be part of the scene. An example of a work of this type is The 'St. Albans' Floated out at Deptford, by William Pratt, painted in 1750, not long after Canaletto's arrival in London. This imposing painting is in effect a ship portrait, showing the launch of a 60-gun man-of-war from the Royal Dockyard at Deptford in 1747. While the details of the vessel, the nearby buildings, and various quayside activities are lovingly recorded, the water on which the ship is being launched seems to have suggested little to the artist; here it remains an almost incidental part of the dockyard's setting.

When Canaletto arrived in London he set to work at once with an eye on the Thames. An experienced professional painter of a city rising from the water, London must have seemed to him another Venice, with the Thames its Grand Canal. As in his images of his native city, his views of the English capital include wide swaths of the river enlivened with ceaselessly moving wavelets and sparkling lights, mirrored by a sweeping expanse of sky. Here water and air have become poetic features of the place, so full of movement and reflection that they seem almost to breathe. Moreover, the river banks are alive with human activity, a variety of anecdotal incidents that convey a scintillating atmosphere of urban excitement. Looking at these views, one truly feels, in the famous words of Samuel Johnson, that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."

The clarity, vitality and sweeping perspectives of Canaletto's London views immediately captured the imagination of English artists and their patrons. Not surprisingly, the popularity of these pictures soon gave rise to a new school of English painters specializing in Thames river landscapes. Most prominent among these was Samuel Scott (1702-1772), but he was only the best known of a number of artists working in Canaletto's innovative manner.

Two charming examples of these new river scenes by an artist from Scott's circle are The Thames at Lambeth and London: The Thames from Somerset House Towards Westminster. Here we see not only the great river, but 18th-century London in all its busy fascination, humming with activity on a sunny afternoon. One might well be reminded of another, less famous, aphorism from Samuel Johnson, who loved this city fervently: "The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it."

These two London views convey admirably what it must have been like, in Johnson's time, to be "in it."


Old Master Paintings

Auction Wednesday, May 23
Exhibition May 19 - 21

Lot 31
William Pratt
English, active mid-18th Century
The 'St. Albans' Floated out at Deptford, after John Cleveley the Elder 
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Lot 39
School of Samuel Scott
The Thames at Lambeth
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Lot 40
School of Samuel Scott
London: The Thames from Somerset House Terrace towards Westminster 
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Old Master Paintings
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