Westminster Paints Itself

Just before it locked down, Westminster Abbey installed a painting of itself by Canaletto in its medieval vaults. It told a story of a nation identifying its culture with the architecture of power.

In March 2020, with some fanfare and for the first time, the Venetian cityscape artist Canaletto’s painting of Westminster Abbey was unveiled inside Westminster Abbey.

It was the British Consul Joseph Smith who peddled thirty-eight works by Canaletto to King George III in 1762, consolidating what had already become a fervent English market for the Venetian painter’s postcard-style city views. Walpole sneeringly nicknamed Smith ‘The Merchant of Venice’ for his shrewd and entirely mercantile activity, but the epithet could easily be extended to the painter himself. Canaletto was a careerist picture maker of a weirdly modern kind, disassembling his native Venice with flatpack neatness and shipping it in multiples over to England. The success of his work here in the UK might be said to mark one of the country’s cultural low-points, a time of enthusiasm for unchallenging art – and a booming art market – which operated as a worrying litmus test of the nation’s sense of itself and its relation to the arts at large.

George III’s patronage of Canaletto could be looked back on as a form of ‘culture washing’. George was well aware of his burgeoning image as a ‘farmer king’ and a ‘man of the people’ thanks to his interest in agricultural science. He was also aware of the declining power of the monarchy, and fought on two fronts to both establish the Crown as a figurehead of morality and Englishness, while also trying to retain acting political influence. His patronage of the arts was perhaps designed to further boost his popular image amongst the people while he embarked on colonialist expansion, trampled over the democratic process by installing Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister in contravention of the House of Commons, and attempted to squash progressive revolutionary activity in France and America. It’s entirely apt that this twinned populism and anti-radicalism was abetted by circulating the bland serenity and mechanical pomp of Canaletto’s cityscapes. Art of this kind, marketable and flat, very often decorates tyranny. The start of this year was an apt time to put one of his unashamedly capitalistic and businesslike  paintings at the heart of British power.

In the weeks since, of course, things have changed. Oddly, locked-down cities worldwide, from London to Venice, have ended up looking a little like eighteenth century versions of themselves, or rather, like Canalettos of themselves; no traffic, scattered people, the sky a little cleaner and the outlines of the architecture more crisp because untroubled by that disturbance of light which accompanies the movement-within-movement, the rising, living heat, of a crowd.

But, though the abbey’s doors are now shut to all but the clergy, it’s still of great importance to pay attention to what the unveiling of Canaletto’s Westminster Abbey with a procession of the Knights of the Bath (c.1749), within the very building it depicts, says about the present and future of the UK’s cultural self. Perhaps it’s now of even greater importance. Culture and the arts are the means by which a human collective creates and expresses its idea of its own character. Art is how we download ourselves into the future. When we re-emerge post-virus, what form will this creation and expression take? What ‘self’ will we choose to save and send?

The announcement of the painting’s unveiling at the start of March came hot on the heels of a “soft news” story in late February detailing the discovery of a “secret passage” between the Palace of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. An extra little piquant detail of the story was a surviving bit of pencilled graffiti left by one of the stone masons who’d worked in the tunnel. “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale,” it read; another piece of graffiti in the passage read ”These masons were employed refacing these groines, August 11th 1851 Real Democrats” – a reference to Chartism.

It’s obviously hard to argue with a fondness for ale, and a relatable connection to an ordinary man who lived 169 years ago undeniably has a kind of vast, quiet magic. But the story functions symbolically to embed a particular image – a working man deep underground, happily soused in booze, while literally over his head there rears two behemoth institutions of power. The “secret passage” holds its own historical intrigue, as does the idea of Tom Porter the Chartist reformer bricking it up and therefore severing the link between a parliament which was moving steadily towards an inclusion of the working-class voice and an institution (the Abbey) which operated as nothing more than a symbol of Divine sovereign power.

But such a news story appearing at such a time as ours perversely helps establish the status quo, the historic fascination of linking tunnel in fact reforging the bonds between institutions of control and moreover making them seem somehow endearing. British cultural narratives are often so easily co-opted by an oppressive form of nostalgia, culture-washing to cover up regressive and oppressive projects like privatisation of public services and xenophobic foreign policies. 

Canaletto’s Westminster painting operates in a similar way, as does displaying it within Westminster, London’s seat of power giving a kind of double-statement of itself. The painting, made during Canaletto’s 10-year sojourn in England, is at pains to align the British populace with its potentates. It’s the first picture of the abbey to include the new Western Towers, and its celebration of pomp and glory is witnessed, within the frame, by clusters of ordinary people in the streets, and mercantile-class families applauding from their windows, as the Bishops walk by.

Canaletto almost always painted buildings head-on in an utterly simplistic declaration of form. He chooses his favourite aspect again here, but inadvertently poses himself an unusual perspectival challenge in painting the procession of clergy, who walk towards the frame then veer away at an oblique angle. The result is almost a ‘beckoning’ to the viewer, a come-hither vibe inviting us to join in pandering to power. 

In 1746, Consul Smith convinced Canaletto to follow the money and come to England. The painter’s business was drying up because the War of the Austrian Secession had reduced the number of British tourists in Venice. The economy in England was booming, but Canaletto’s tap of the money-flow had closed. He arrived, ready to court his patrons first hand. Things went well for a while, but then came an interesting episode. A flurry of forgeries and imitators flooded Canaletto’s market, and his views of Warwick Castle and the homes of  wealthy patrons plummeted in value.

Word about town was that the man making and selling pictures under the name ‘Canaletto’ in England was an imposter. In a desperate attempt to prove his authenticity and re-establish his market, the Italian opened up his studio on Silver Street just off Golden Square and invited people to watch Canaletto paint a Canaletto. Despite these efforts, his reputation never fully recovered. Is it too much to imagine that the public consciousness had tired of the ‘rhetoric’ of such paintings, aligned as it was with the accruing of capital and the culture-washing of tyranny, as an age of revolution gripped Europe and North America?

By the end of his life, Canaletto got better at doing scale, framing his views within foregrounded arches or doorways, showing only the bulky foot of the Campanile or the Palazzo, more effectively suggesting their vastness and power by letting it happen offstage, as if from indoors – the view from the quarantine. The clear and flat ‘declarative-statements’ of his uncannily complete city views give way to a more artful form of suggestion and expression. Instead of simply aligning his pictures with the commodity-fetish of architecture, he shifts perspective to interrogate the relationship of real human beings to such symbols of power and politics. Too late, the painter realised what career-politicians instinctively know and use to powerful effect: speaking with “totality” makes for great propaganda, leaving no room in its sheen for question or inquiry.

An art which performs this function is a despot’s dream. If you can locate a nation’s sense of its cultural self within or alongside its massy architecture of power, it functions as a potent vehicle for control. Especially if, as the Tories have been doing since 2010, you combine this with a vacuuming of funding for regional and grass-roots art projects, centralising both power and art in Westminster. Canaletto, the great homogeniser, has been reactivated to perform this exact function once more as the powers that be reaffirm an inward-looking, regressive identity for Modern Britain.

About the Author

Adam Heardman is a poet and art writer from Newcastle upon Tyne. His poems have appeared in PN Review, Belleville Park Pages, and elsewhere. They have also been exhibited at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and at Berwick Visual Arts, and were awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship in the US.