Canaletto, Warwick Castle and the County Record Office

The Voucher written in Italian | Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR1886/Box 490
Receipt from Canaletto
Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR1886/Box 490
Grassy lawn with bank and trees behind | Rob Eyre
The parterre behind the County Record Office
Rob Eyre
Warwick Castle from the bridge. Trees in front of the river. | Photo by Richard Neale.
Warwick Castle from the bridge.
Photo by Richard Neale.
Canaletto, 1697–1768, Venetian, active in Britain (1746–55). Warwick Castle, 1748 to 1749, Oil on canvas. | Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Canaletto, 1697–1768, Venetian, active in Britain (1746–55). Warwick Castle, 1748 to 1749, Oil on canvas.
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

You may not be aware that Warwick was visited on at least two occasions by one of the most famous painters of the 18th century. Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768) was better known as Canaletto meaning ‘Little Canal’ to distinguish him from his father, a painter of stage and opera sets.

Canaletto is of course most famous for his paintings of Venice, he made a good living providing landscapes of Venice’s famous skyline for young British aristocrats visiting the city as part of the ‘Grand Tour’. However The War of the Austrian Succession which began in 1741 drew this period to a close once the conflict spilled over into the Italian states. This is thought to be one of the reasons why Canaletto relocated to England in 1744. The artist had a number of British patrons including the British Consul at Venice, Joseph Smith. This contact helped Canaletto to secure a commission to provide a series of paintings of the newly constructed Westminster Bridge, his patron was Sir Hugh Smithson, Duke of Northumberland. Within two years he was in Warwick.

Canaletto’s links to Warwick Castle

Francis Greville, Lord Brooke, had set out on his Grand Tour in 1735; we know that he visited several Italian cities though there is no record of a trip to Venice. The fragile future Earl of Warwick spent much of his Italian trip feeling unwell by all accounts. Orphaned at only eight years of age he was raised by his Aunt, Frances Seymour, wife of the Earl of Hertford, and he became close friends with their daughter, Elizabeth. The adult Elizabeth married a certain Sir Hugh Smithson, Duke of Northumberland and it may be this connection that lead to the commission. Lord Brooke had recently undertaken a project of improvement to both Warwick Castle and the newly landscaped grounds designed by ‘Capability’ Brown. It is thought that the commission, which eventually amounted to five oil paintings and three pen and ink drawings, was originally to furnish Lord Booke’s London home to allow him to present the newly improved Castle to his London associates.

Where are the Warwick Castle works now?

Today two of the paintings from the east front, showing the courtyard and outer court are owned by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery but you would need a plane ticket if you wanted to view the others in person. So what evidence remains for this commission? Lord Brooke was a customer of the private deposit bank C.Hoare & Co, the company archive still contains account books that record payments to Canaletto for the five oil paintings and two of the drawings. The larger of the paintings each cost a bit more than £30: in modern terms around £2600, a mere snip of the real present day value one would suspect.

Receipt for a Canaletto drawing

But what of the other drawing? The evidence for this remains in Warwick at the County Record Office.  Hidden amongst the bundles of vouchers in the Warwick Castle collection can be found the receipt shown in this article. It is believed to have been written by the artist and is signed by him on the reverse. A modern translation of the receipt could be:

As of 28 July 1748 London Received I Giovanni Antonio Canal from the doer [agent] of the most excellent My Lord Brooke, ten guineas, and this for the price of a small painting by me painted, with the view of the castle of the said My Lord.

Lord Brooke’s agent for his estates in London, Middlesex, Bucks and Essex was a Samuel Dixon; records in the Warwick Castle archive show that he worked for Brooke for more than forty years. He will have required the receipt from Canaletto as proof of transaction and further evidence is subsequently recorded in the accounts series WCRO ref: CR1886/TN129. The description of a small painting “un quadreto” could equally refer to a drawing, and the price certainly indicates that it was not referring to a painting when compared to the prices mentioned earlier. David Buttery, a former curator at Warwick castle has written an excellent book that analyses the chronology and payments of the various pictures produced by Canaletto during his Warwick visits. All of the works are reproduced in his book ‘Canaletto and Warwick Castle’.

Canaletto’s drawing of Warwick town

One further connection to the record office can be found in another drawing produced by Canaletto on one of his visits. At some stage he found his way to the formal gardens created by Matthew Wise as part of the grounds of his family’s estate, now Priory Park. The drawing shows a panoramic view of Warwick town centre, many of its most identifiable buildings can clearly be seen, including the churches of St. Nicholas and St. Mary, the Eastgate and Warwick Castle. So it appears that the great artist was working from a position at the back of the parterre somewhere in the undergrowth behind the record office a few feet from where I am writing this piece! References: Buttery, David, Canaletto and Warwick Castle, Phillmore, 1992; Buttery, David, ‘Canaletto at Warwick’, Burlington Magazine, vol 129, no 1012, July 1987, pp. 437-40.

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