Text by Geoffrey Smith
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In October 1740, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI committed that most egregious dynastic sin and died without having produced a male heir. He had made provision for his daughter Maria Theresa to inherit the various Habsburg kingdoms and duchies spread over much of Europe but the question of the election of a new Holy Roman Emperor — a Habsburg title since the fifteenth century, but only open to male candidates — remained open. Prussia, a parvenu European military power saw its opportunity for expansion and in December 1740 invaded the Habsburg province of Silesia thereby igniting a sporadic conflict known as the War of the Austrian Succession.
One of the myriad consequences of this action was that the number of English gentlemen travelling to Europe on the Grand Tour diminished very considerably. And this in turn (an example perhaps of chaos theory in an historical context) led to a severe diminution in commissions for one Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, whose chief source of income had been the production of Venetian scenes for these gentlemen, who cherished them as up-market souvenirs of their travels. In 1746 Canaletto decided that he could wait no longer for the political situation to improve and, taking matters into his own hands, he moved to England where he was soon introduced to a number of aristocratic and other well-connected patrons. Towards the end of his stay in England, one such client, a Whig member of parliament, Thomas Hollis, commissioned this picture.
Old Walton Bridge was not so old in 1754, it had only been in place for four years and it appears in this beautiful little picture in all its gleaming novelty, its pristine white paint picked out against a threatening storm cloud by the waning evening light of an English summer. In the foreground, in a suitably central position and wearing a fetching primrose coat stands Thomas Hollis. Nearby, sitting on a stool we can see Canaletto presumably busy making preparatory sketches for this work.
When seen from a usual viewing distance the picture seems to sparkle: as one draws nearer it is clear how this has been achieved. At every opportunity, wherever the raking light within the picture falls on objects in its path, Canaletto has made liberal use of gold, silver and white highlights, animating the surface of the picture with a subtle richness and an enhanced sense of clarity. He has faithfully reproduced here the singular quality of northern light (so different from the hard brilliance of his Venetian views) which is perhaps at its best after rainfall and at either end of the day.
1752 Giambattista Tiepolo: The Marriage of Frederick Barbarossa and Beatrice of Burgundy, Würzburg, Residence
1755 François Boucher: Landscape with a Watermill, London, National Gallery
1756 Thomas Gainsborough: The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, London, National Gallery