Canaletto’s success among British Grand Tourists and patrons residing in Italy (most notably Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice) made him decide to move to England in 1746, where he stayed – with some trips back to Italy – until 1755. Living in London, he made the city the subject of new paintings and drawings, but also worked elsewhere, offering the public a Venetian’s view of the beauties of the English countryside. Outstanding among the latter views are those of Warwick Castle, to the south of Birmingham. Canaletto was invited to make these views by the building’s proud owner, Francis Greville, Earl Brooke and later Earl of Warwick, who inherited it from his father at a young age. Warwick Castle became the building in England most often depicted by Canaletto, and the surviving paintings and drawings bear testament to how easily and brilliantly he adapted his talent to the depiction of types of landscape and architecture very different from those he grew up with.
Canaletto visited Warwickshire twice, and the present drawing, like the related painting recently bequeathed by Jayne Wrightsman to The Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 2019.141.7, Fig. 1; see E. Fahy in The Wrightsman Pictures, New York, 2005, no. 21, ill.), must date from his first trip there in 1748. Indeed, Brooke’s bank made a payment that year ‘to Seign.r Canal for his Drawings of Warwick Castle’ (quoted from exhib. cat. New Haven, op. cit., p. 144). This must be a direct reference to the present sheet, but one has to assume that during his stay Canaletto made extensive sketches, which after returning to his London studio he elaborated into finished drawings such as the one offered here. The drawing seems to have preceded the painted versions he did of the view – not only the Wrightsman picture mentioned above (Fig. 1), but also two others, at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven (inv. B1994.18.2; see C. Beddington in exhib. cat. New Haven, op. cit., no. 44, ill.), and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid (inv. 1978.13; see J. Farrington in exhib. cat., Birmingham, op. cit., no. 22, ill.). All have been dated to 1748-1749.
None of the sketches made in Warwick has survived, but two other finished drawings do: one, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, represents the interior of the castle (inv. 86.GG.727; Fig. 2; see exhib. cat. New Haven, op. cit., no. 48, ill.), while the other, showing the East front of the castle, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 1975.1.297, Fig. 3; see exhib. cat. New Haven, op. cit., no. 47, ill.). Most probably they both date from the artist’s second visit to Warwick in 1752, as do the related paintings, both at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (ibid., nos. 45, 46, ill.).
Warwick Castle became the impressive structure still preserved today through a number of renovations, starting with William the Conqueror. In the early 17th Century, it came into the possession of the Greville family, who made it their country seat, but it was more than a century later that Earl Brooke – Canaletto’s patron – truly transformed it into a modern house. Among the artists he attracted to work on the property was Lancelot Brown, known as Capability, the celebrated landscape architect, who came to work for Brooke around the same time as Canaletto. The drawing offered here gives arguably the most complete impression of the building and its grounds, although of the sturdy towers only Caesar’s Tower can be clearly distinguished. In the foreground, the banks of the river Avon are populated with visitors enjoying the site and the fine weather, which Canaletto masterfully suggests with the dark shadow of the clump of trees at the composition’s right edge. In the right background the city of Warwick can be distinguished. Canaletto depicted the town itself in a sheet at the British Museum (inv. 1900,1112.1; see exhib. cat. Birmingham, op. cit., no. 26, ill.), which was probably not part of the Brooke commission. Another, exceptionally large sheet, at the Yale Center for British Art, more than 36 in. (90 cm) wide, shows a public garden with views of the town and castle beyond (inv. B1981.25.2410; Fig. 4).
As in all of Canaletto’s best topographical works, the view of the South front of the castle give a highly detailed account of the architecture, as well as a wonderful sense of the atmosphere and human activity animating the landscape, all in the artist's fluent calligraphic style. The spacious setting, lacking in The Metropolitan Museum’s drawing (Fig. 3) and intentionally avoided in the Getty sheet (Fig. 2), makes the drawing offered here especially appealing, and it ranks among the best of his English works.
Fig. 1. Canaletto, View of the South front of Warwick Castle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fig. 2. Canaletto, View of the East front of the interior courtyard of Warwick Castle, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Fig. 3. Canaletto, View of the East front of Warwick Castle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fig. 4. Canaletto, View of the castle and town of Warwick from the Priory Gardens, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven