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Piazza of St Mark from the Canal, Venice

Piazza of St Mark from the Canal, Venice
signed, inscribed and dated 'David Roberts. R.A. 1860.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
27 x 45 ¼ in. (68.7 x 114.8 cm.)
Commissioned by Ernest Gambart, 1860 (210 gns.), as a pair with Record Book no. 221, from whom purchased by
Louis Victor Flatou, as a pair, until 31 October 1860, from whom purchased for £735 by
Thomas Agnew & Sons, Liverpool, until 5 September 1861, where purchased by
John Farnworth of Woolton (†); Christie’s, London, 19 May 1874, lot 90 as St Mark’s Place, Venice (859 gns. to Agnew).
Andrew George Kurtz, 1 June 1874 (†); Christie’s, London, 9 May 1891, lot 84 as St Mark’s Place, incorrectly described as 'From the Hooton Hall Collection’.
with William Vokins, London.
Sir Thomas Lane Devitt (†); Christie’s, London, 16 May 1924, lot 155 as The Doge’s Palace, Venice, with gondolas and figures (55 gns. to Leggatt Bros.)
Howson Devitt, and by descent to the present owner.
David Roberts’ Record Books, 1860, no. 222, Piazza of St Mark from the Canal, illustrated.
J. Ballantine, The Life of David Roberts RA, London, 1866, pp. 203, 253, no. 245 as Piazza of St Mark, Venice, from the Canal (incorrectly described as exhibited at the Royal Academy).
‘Munificent Legacies’, Liverpool Mercury, 8 April 1874.
Liverpool, Thomas Agnew & Sons, Exchange Fine Art Gallery, Collection of the late Mr John Farnworth, April 1874, unnumbered.

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Alastair Plumb
Alastair Plumb Specialist, Head of Sale, European Art

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Lot Essay

Scottish artist David Roberts was renowned for his evocative imagery of places he visited in Britain, Europe and the Middle East. However, it was not until summer 1851 that he began thinking of going to Italy, having hitherto considered it thoroughly depicted by other artists. He was probably encouraged to visit Italy by the new President of the Royal Academy, Sir Charles Eastlake, with whom Roberts had become better acquainted when serving on the RA Council in 1851. Eastlake had spent fourteen years in Italy as an artist-scholar, mostly in Rome but also visiting Venice. In autumn 1851 Roberts travelled to Venice from Dover via Brussels, Frankfurt, Switzerland, Milan and Verona, arriving on 26 September and staying a month before returning to England through Austria, Berlin, Hanover and Brussels. He made countless pencil, watercolour and oil sketches that served as raw material for creating oil paintings back at his London studio for exhibition and sale from 1852 until his death in 1864.

Roberts found ‘Venice, her canals, bridges, palaces & churches . . . unlike anything else’, he wrote to his daughter, Mrs Christine Bicknell: ‘here is a combination of architectural beauty with statuary, boats, water & effects combined as impress upon the mind at once’ (28 September 1851, Private collection). A week later, in a letter to his son-in-law, Henry Sanford Bicknell, Roberts said: ‘I am industrious here as I well can be, at work from 9 o’clock until 4 or 5 in the afternoon; I find a Gondola the most convenient as well as agreeable, as I can get all my trap[ping]s around me . . . The sun is rather hot, but on the whole not inconveniently so. . . . I have made two or three [sketches] of the Doge’s Palace from the water, which, although it has been so often done, yet I think can bear repainting; besides Venice without St Marks & the Doge’s Palace is like London without St Paul’s or Edinburgh without the Castle.’ Among known studies is a small oil-on-paper sketch (present whereabouts unknown) that captures the view in our painting, but includes the whole of the Doge’s Palace (on the right) to the Bridge of Sighs, and more of the Procuratie nuove on the left. The sketch is dated ‘Oct 6th 1851’.

The Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale, dominating the right of Roberts’ painting, is a magnificent late-Gothic-style building of pink Verona marble and white Istrian limestone, characterised by a patterned façade, colonnades with carved capitals, elaborate balconies, and crenelated roof. It is located at the entrance to the Grand Canal and was the seat of legislature for the Venetian Republic. Behind it can be seen the west end of St Mark’s basilica. To the left is the basilica’s 12th-century bell-tower or Campanile, almost 100m high, with a spire that was once a lighthouse to safeguard shipping. This campanile was to collapse in 1902 and be completely rebuilt. In front of it is the Libreria Vecchia or Sansoviniana, a classical Renaissance building designed by Jacopo Sansovino, with arched loggias and rooftop balustrade. To its left is the Procuratie nuove, which Napoleon had made his royal palace. The square in between, opening onto St Mark’s Canal in the foreground, is the Piazzetta San Marco, which leads off the Piazza San Marco in front of the basilica. At the canal end of the Piazzetta are two Syrian granite columns topped with symbols of Venice’s patron saints: St Mark on the right, represented by a winged lion, and St Theodore on the left. Gondolas, cargo boats and small craft, with multiple figures at work, show the busy waterborne traffic typical of the trading-port city.

‘Venice I should state not only came up to my expectations (which were great) but far far exceeded them’, Roberts wrote to his daughter and son-in-law on 18/19 October, ‘as from its situation in the midst of the Sea, every house as it were rising out of the water, or seems floating upon it – it is all & more than Canaletto has represented it.’ He was impressed by the ‘brilliant skies & effects of sunrise & sunset’ and that ‘every canal you enter seems flanked with the most sumptuous edifices – no sham, no Regent St lath & plaster, but substantial, vast, gorgeous palaces, combining all the beauties of the greatest the world have seen.’ For artists, he said ‘it is exhaustless’.

After his return to England Roberts painted a very large Venice picture for exhibition in 1852 at the Royal Academy, ‘showing the Ducal Palace & Entrance to The Grand Canal which Canaletto & others have painted so often’ that Roberts feared criticism from those familiar with the subject. It was bought from the artist for £400 by the architect and developer Thomas Cubitt (present whereabouts unknown). In 1853 Roberts exhibited two large Venice subjects at the Royal Academy, one of them a view of the Ducal Palace and Campanile from the Canal (present whereabouts unknown), similar to, but taken from a greater distance than, our oil, and including the Ducal Palace and Bridge of Sighs, like the oil sketch made on the spot mentioned earlier. Lord Londesborough bought the 1853 Royal Academy picture from Roberts for 500 guineas. Other Italian subjects, including views of Rome, which Roberts visited in 1853-54, featured in subsequent Royal Academy exhibitions.

In 1859 Roberts returned to the subject of St Mark’s exterior, painting for the Belgian-born art dealer Ernest Gambart a large view of the Piazza San Marco looking towards the basilica’s west front (present whereabouts unknown), for which Gambart paid Roberts 500 guineas. It was exhibited in 1860 at the Royal Academy, where a reviewer said ‘Roberts has contrived to fling a halo he alone can supply over the oft-produced façade of St Mark’s Cathedral’ (Globe, 4 May 1860). Gambart also commissioned from Roberts a smaller pair of related views for £200 each: our oil, and a view of the Piazzetta looking towards the Libreria Vecchia with Venice’s patron-saint columns on the left (present whereabouts unknown; Roberts’s Record Books number 221). Both of these smaller paintings were acquired from Gambart by fellow art dealer Louis Victor Flatou, who sold them to Thomas Agnew & Sons on 31 October 1860 for £735. Agnew sold our oil to John Farnworth on 5 September 1861 and consigned the second oil to Christie’s for sale on 7 November 1861, lot 1603, as The Piazza of St Mark: Venice, with numerous figures, erroneously described as ‘one of the chief attractions of the Academy of 1860’ (where it was not this painting but Gambart’s much larger one that was exhibited). The matching sizes and similar titles of the pair have led to some confusion between them, although the second was sold at Christie’s in 1881 and 1915 with the more correct title of Piazzetta.

Gambart commissioned Roberts to paint another pair of Venetian subjects in 1862 for 200 guineas each, the same size as the 1860 pair. One of these is a similar composition to the former Lord Londesborough painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853, with Campanile, Ducal Palace and Bridge of Sighs viewed from the canal (present whereabouts unknown; Roberts’s Record Books number 239). This painting was sold at Christie’s, 22 June 1867, lot 101 as St Mark’s Quay Venice, from the Grand Canal, 1862. Its companion, depicting The Dogana and Santa Maria, Venice, is now in the collection of Sheffield Museums Trust.

John Farnworth (1808-69) was a Liverpool timber merchant and director of Farnworth and Jardine, ‘timber measurers and brokers’, based in Canada Dock. He was a town councillor for South Toxteth, Liverpool alderman and chief magistrate, and chairman of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board finance committee, as well as a committed Wesleyan who paid off debts for many Wesleyan chapels in Liverpool. At his home in Woolton, south-east Liverpool, Farnworth ‘gathered together a most choice and valuable collection of pictures, of which he was extremely fond’. It numbered over fifty oils including works by Constable, Turner, Linnell, Clarkson Stanfield, and one of three large versions of John Rogers Herbert’s Our Saviour subject to his parents at Nazareth (sold at Christie’s in 2003). Among some fifty drawings were several watercolours by Turner and a Madrid subject by Roberts. Most of the artworks had been bought from or through Agnew, who arranged the collection’s sale in 1874 at Christie’s for beneficiaries of Farnworth’s will, which included many generous legacies to charities, hospitals and schools.

The subsequent owner of our painting, Andrew George Kurtz (1825-90), originally studied law but had to take over his father’s chemical manufacturing company, Sutton Alkali Works in St Helen’s, when his father died suddenly in 1846. Kurtz developed the company into one of the largest chemical works in the area and built public baths, hospitals and co-operative stores for his employees. His principal interest was music and he supported the Liverpool Philharmonic Society as well as being an amateur pianist himself, and collecting original music scores by composers such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He also had a large and important art collection, much of which was displayed in a gallery, opened regularly to the public, at his home, Grove House, also known as Dovedale Towers, on Liverpool’s world-famous Penny Lane. (The building later had many uses, including as a dance hall and various pubs; John Lennon and the Quarrymen played there in 1957, and Freddie Mercury stayed there when playing with the Liverpool band Ibex.) Kurtz bought much of his art from Agnew and his collection included works by Turner, Leighton, Millais, and Delaroche. He presented paintings by Leighton and Dicksee to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and bequeathed his collection of autographs to the British Museum.

Sir Thomas Lane Devitt (1839-1923), a later owner of the painting, was a leading ship-owner and ship-broker, who worked initially for Devitt & Moore, the ship-broking firm founded by his father. As a partner in Messrs F. Green & Co. he was involved in managing the Orient Steam Navigation Company’s mail and passenger services between England and Australia, living for several years in Australia. He was Chairman of Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, an active supporter of many charities, and involved in development of training for officers of the Merchant Navy. Devitt was well known for his interest in and knowledge of art, and was an honorary member of the Selection Committee for works of art purchased for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. His own collection ranged from portraits to riverside landscapes and marine subjects, including several paintings by the friend and contemporary of Roberts, Clarkson Stanfield, and a small Spanish view by Roberts.

We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for preparing this catalogue entry.

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