15 September 2020

Looking Over Canaletto's Shoulder on the Isle of Dogs

Around about this time last year, my brother and I went for a wander from Bow down to Poplar and onto the Isle of Dogs, looking for the places where our grandparents and great grandparents and even great, great grandparents used to live. Reconnecting with a personal past which we know very little about beyond the names, dates and addresses found on census records. Even though so much has changed in that century or more, there were old churches, pubs and a library which helped us feel we’d got a little closer to those long gone forbears of ours. And so, feeling quite contented, we ended the long day’s walk in the sunshine with a pint in a pub near Island Gardens. But it was just before resting our weary legs that I managed to do something else I’d been wanting to do for a while.

If you’ve been following this blog for any reasonable length of time you’ll know well by now that I have a particular penchant for “then and now” photography – which is to say, when you find an old photo of a place, you seek it out by going there and finding the spot where the old snap was taken, and try to take the same photo now. It can be a lot of fun and it is a great way to reconnect with the past. It doesn’t have to be all that far back in the past either. I’ve even done it with photos I’ve taken myself – there’s a blog post I wrote about a trip to a small town in Switzerland where I managed to retrace my own footsteps and take shots of the same views in summer as I’d taken in winter, just to see how the place could look different from itself in two seasons.

Similarly, ten years ago I tried doing these “then and now” photos in another small town, but this time on the edge of Tibet, to see how much it had changed in just over a century (see here). It’s not always easy to do. Sometimes it can be very difficult to find the exact spot from which a photo was taken. It might no longer be accessible, or if it is there might now be a hulking great apartment block literally blocking the view, which is really annoying – you’re so close, yet still so far. Or another problem might be your own camera equipment, your lens might be wider than the one used by the original photographer, and so it kind of throws the perspective of your photo slightly off balance, consequently the two shots don’t always compare as well as perhaps you’d wish they did. But these are just things you have to live with. Sometimes simply seeing the place for yourself is sufficient enough.

Canaletto's View of Greenwich Hospital, c.1750 (Tate Gallery)

Anyway, this particular “then and now” shot is a bit different because mine is a photo, and the original ‘then’ view I’m replicating ‘now’ is actually a painting. A very famous painting, painted in the eighteenth century. It’s Canaletto’s view of Greenwich Hospital, which he painted from the opposite bank of the River Thames at what is now Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs. It’s thought Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768) painted this view around 1750-1752, and given its accuracy it’s also thought he must have been familiar with the view from first-hand. However, there is a bit of artistic licence involved, and there are two schools of thought as to why – the first, as with any use of ‘artistic licence’, is perhaps purely due to aesthetic choices made by the artist in order to create a better painting, with a more harmonious sense of composition, or to suit the whims of whoever commissioned the painting, etc., etc. The second thought, is that maybe when he’d seen the view the Hospital was still under construction (as it wasn’t completed until 1753), so he may have had to envisage how it would look when it was eventually finished. With this in mind, it is interesting to compare it to another view, which he may have painted several years earlier (now in the Tate Gallery, see above). Both paintings, however, are quite fanciful in a different way; and that’s the way he has depicted the river traffic on the Thames. There’s a curious mix of typical Thames-going craft and also boats whose more natural setting would be the canals of Venice, which are perhaps the views Canaletto is better known for painting. There are some gorgeous Canaletto paintings of Venice housed a little further upstream in the National Gallery. But from 1746 to 1755 Canaletto was working in England, and although it’s been said the quality of his work suffered during this period, I think both his paintings of Greenwich Hospital are wonderful.


Inigo Jones
The view of Greenwich Hospital which I like best is this one showing the view from the north bank of the Thames, which can be found in the National Maritime Museum (see below). When I first saw it the painting was hanging in the Queen’s House, which is actually the little building shown in the very centre of the painting. According to the NMM’s website, “Queen Mary wanted the view from the Queen’s House to the river to remain unimpeded, and Canaletto's painting shows how Christopher Wren stuck to this when designing the hospital.” The Queen’s House was designed by the architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), and contains the very beautiful ‘Tulip Staircase,’ the first geometric self-supporting spiral staircase to be built in Britain. “The Queen’s House was completed around 1636 and is considered remarkable for its break with the traditional, red-brick Tudor style of building, and for its elegant proportions and the high quality of its interiors. It was the first fully Classical building in England.” It is a lovely building to wander around inside as well; and it’s usually filled with wonderful paintings. 

Canaletto's View of Greenwich Hospital, c.1750 (National Maritime Museum)

In 1966 a Canadian clergyman, the Reverend Hardy, took a photograph of the Tulip Stairs, which when it was later developed was supposed to have shown some ghostly figures ascending the stairs which the Reverend Hardy and his wife swore were empty at the time when the photograph was taken. However, no ghosts appeared when I took my own photo of the famous staircase a few years ago. Not surprisingly, there are a number of other ghost stories attached to the Queen’s House, as with almost all old buildings in Britain, so make of them what you will.

The Tulip Stairs, The Queen's House, Greenwich

But the thing that confounded me, when I last visited the Queen’s House, was a different sort of echo passing through time. Not so much a ghost, but rather a direct connection of place, painting and painter. The thought that I was standing in a building depicted in a painting, looking at that very painting which had been painted in the eighteenth century, and yet here it was – in a sense looking back, or rather looking forwards, from that time to me here and now. As I stood alone in that room and stared at this beautifully painted canvas, I couldn’t help imagining that somehow I was there inside that building, inside that painting, as it once was back then, given that this view has essentially changed very little in all that time. Looking out of the window, and gazing down past the beautiful old Hospital to the Thames, I decided that I’d find the exact spot where Canaletto had stood and recreate the image for myself. 

My version of Canaletto's view of Greenwich Hospital, 2019

When I eventually did so, this time last year, it was rather wonderful lining up the Queen’s House exactly between the two wings of Wren’s Hospital, framing the vista in the viewfinder and pressing the shutter-release. I’m sure the riverbank on which I was standing wasn’t exactly the same, it’s highly likely that the embankment has since been raised. In Canaletto’s time it could well have been lower as well as reaching either further forward or further back, but either way it is still essentially the same spot, the same view. And whilst it wasn’t as much effort for me to click the shutter as it must have been for Canaletto to sketch and then later work-up in oils on the canvas in his studio, it was still a way to reconnect with both him and that original moment of befuddled awe which I’d felt when I stood before his painting for that first time, standing inside the painting I was looking into, looking back out at myself again over the distance of some 270 or so years. Especially to think that my ancestors might have been living not too far from that very spot at that very time. If I imagined hard enough, I thought, perhaps I might catch a glimpse of the ghost of one of them standing on the self-same spot, looking over Canaletto’s shoulder as he sketched this genuinely timeless view of London.

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