The Dulwich Picture Gallery has an exhibition of the great Venetian artist Canaletto’s portraits of England, where he lived for nine years from 1746.
The best ones are of London. This is a brand spanking new London, built by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire. St Paul’s is gleaming and clean. There is scaffolding on Westminster Bridge.
In fact, the scaffolding is a truer symbol of London than the bridge itself. Nobody can paint a picture of ‘London’. It moves too quickly. All you can do is take a snapshot of a moment in its evolution. London is a constantly regenerating monster. It’s like one of those speeded up nature films of blooming fields of flowers. Or possibly, mouldering corpses.
Martin Gayford writes: “[This is the] difference between Canaletto's Venetian work and his images of London. Already in the 18th century, Venice was a tourist destination. People went to view it as a curiosity. Similarly, travellers went to Rome - another much-painted place - to admire the ruins of antiquity. But in London, Canaletto was painting the present…It's always been like that with London. Nothing stays the same for very long. As Peter Ackroyd has pointed out, London buildings tend to be ugly, inelegant and vandalised. The best often disappear. "It's a constant flux. You can walk down a street after six months and it's completely changed its character. There's too much power and wealth here for it to stand still." Nonetheless, somehow it does remain the same.”
Canaletto’s painting The City from the Terrace of Somerset House is like looking at some weird fairytale version of London – familiar and unfamiliar. It’s as if each new generation of buildings since Londinium was founded had been painted on transparent film and superimposed on the last, and then Canaletto peeled them all off again until he got to the most beautiful one.
But it isn't merely that London’s constant evolution desecrated Canaletto’s version with the graffiti of car parks and modernism and office blocks. We can also blame the Hun, as Richard Dorment reveals:
When you look at his panoramic The City from the Terrace of Somerset House it breaks your heart to see scores of steeples dotting the skyline like minarets, making London look as exotic as Istanbul.
All belong to Wren churches destroyed in the Blitz.