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  • Robert Walpole's Magnificent Canaletto at Sotheby's
    April 9, 2005 LONDON, UK.

    Canaletto, Le Grand Canal (detail).

    Sotheby’s summer sale of Old Master Paintings, to be held on Thursday, July 7, 2005, includes the most important selection of view paintings to have come to auction in many years. Among these is a painting that was one of the first works ever to adorn the walls of the Prime Minister's residence at 10 Downing Street. Once part of the celebrated collection of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first Prime Minister, Canaletto's View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto (est: £6,000,000 - £8,000,000) was one of the first of the artist's works ever to find its way into an English collection. Purchased by Walpole for his London residence (which was, following his death, to become the official residence of England's Prime Minister), the painting can hardly have found a more illustrious home.

    In the early 18th century there was no Government Art Collection (this came into being in 1898, though a budget for purchases was not granted until 19073), so ministers had to decorate their residences with their own paintings. For Sir Robert Walpole, this was hardly a problem: in addition to having one of the most astute political and financial minds of his day, he also possessed one of the greatest collections of works of art in England.

    As the first Prime Minister to reside at No. 10 Downing Street, Walpole took pleasure in furnishing his London home with works that were sure to impress, and Canaletto's View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto was placed in a suitably prominent position in the "First Floor Parlour", where it would have achieved maximum impact. This magnificent example of Canaletto's work was painted in the early 1730s, and must have been acquired for Walpole's collection shortly thereafter, as it is recorded as hanging at Downing Street in an inventory of 1736. It hung there together with its pendant, Venice, the Bucintoro returning to the Molo on Ascension Day, and the two pictures subsequently shared the same provenance until the pendant was sold in Paris in 1993 4.

    The fact that Sir Robert owned one of the first Canalettos to come to England illustrates that he was at the forefront of the rapidly developing "Grand Tour Taste", although he never actually went to Italy himself, and relied on his youngest son, Horace, to make acquisitions there on his behalf. (Though a man of great energy and vitality, long-distance travel was more or less ruled out by Walpole's gargantuan physique: he is said to have weighed over 20 stone, and contemporary references to him as "the Great Man" were often deliberately ambiguous).

    Walpole was a man of great paradoxes: a statesman of enormous integrity who nevertheless lined his own pockets in a shameless manner, and a Chancellor of the Exchequer who handled the finances of the nation brilliantly, yet left his own in chaos for his heirs to unravel as best they could. As a direct result of the debts that Walpole left on his death in 1745, much of his collection was sold, first by way of various auctions and then through the famous, and highly controversial, sale in 1779 to Catherine the Great of Russia of the core of the magnificent collection of Old Masters, including works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Poussin, Claude, and Veronese, among others.

    Canaletto's View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto was included in one of the first auction sales from Walpole's collection, in 17515. It was one of a number of pictures bought at that sale by the wealthy stockbroker Sampson Gideon, in whose family it remained for almost two centuries. It was subsequently acquired by a French private collector, the father of the present owner, more than 30 years ago. The sale at Sotheby's on July 7 is therefore the first time the painting has appeared at auction for almost 250 years. The early provenance of the picture, and its association with Robert Walpole, has only come to light in the last 10 years.

    July's sale also includes another highly important Canaletto: Venice, The Grand Canal from the Palazzo Flangini to S. Marcuola (estimate: £5,000,000-8,000,000), which is being sold on behalf of a private collector. This painting has traditionally been considered one of a series of Venetian views known as the 'Harvey group', which were either commissioned from the artist or acquired at a very early date by Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, and sold in 1788 to Sir Robert Harvey. The painting must pre-date 1742, the date that Visentini's engraving after the picture was published. The crystalline clarity and cool silver tonality are characteristic of the artist's work in the brief period from 1738-1742 and a date of circa 1742 therefore seems likely.

    An earlier generation of artists is represented by a monumental masterpiece by Luca Carlevarijs, who is generally recognised as the father of the Venetian School of view painting. Venice, View of the Molo, looking West (estimate: £2,000,000-3,000,000) is one of four pictures by Carlevarijs traditionally thought to have been acquired by Christopher Crowe, British Consul in Leghorn (Livorno) from 1705 to 1716. The painting was displayed since the early 18th century in Crowe's residence in at Kiplin Hall, North Yorkshire, and latterly at the York City Art Gallery and the National Museum of Wales. It has never before appeared on the open market.

    Great view paintings were, of course, also made outside Venice, and the sale includes a rare Roman view by Canaletto's nephew, Bernardo Bellotto (Rome, Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, estimate: £1,500,000-2,000,000). The picture was formerly in the Lovelace collection, where it was considered to be by Canaletto, but the cool, austere light and distinctive shades of green and brown are all typical of his nephew's work.

    Complementing this Roman view is a pair of superbly well-preserved paintings by Giovanni Paolo Panini, which have not been seen on the market for many years. Depicting the city's two most important squares, Saint Peter's Square and The Quirinale, the pair is estimated at £2,000,000-3,000,000.

    Together these exceptional works represent the most important group of view paintings to come to auction in a generation.