This impressive picture belongs to a series of six canvases of the same format which, although previously unrecognised as a group, must count as one of the most ambitious such sets of Guardi's maturity. The pictures were evidently acquired en bloc by Samuel Boddington (see infra) and remained together until his daughter's posthumous sale in 1866, when the three subsequently in the Cavendish-Bentinck collection were bought by her son, H.B. Webster. The descriptions in the 1866 catalogue, in which the pictures were stated to be 'of unequalled Quality and Importance', make the following identifications possible:
1: THE GRAND CANAL, VENICE, looking towards St. Mark's Quay, with gondolas and figures (Morassi, no. 398, as in the Brunoldi collection, Vigevano, 1866 sale, lot 293, 1891 sale, lot 658 [to Lesser]).
2: THE CHURCH OF ST. MARIA DELLA SALUTE AND THE DOGANA, and numerous gondolas and figures (the present picture).
3: ST. MARK'S PLACE looking towards St. Mark's Church, with numerous figures (presumably Morassi, no. 326, as in the C.V. Hickox collection, New York, 1866 sale, lot 295 (to Anthony), first subsequently recorded in the possession of Lady M. Charteris).
4: ST. MARK'S PLACE, looking from the Church of St. Mark, with numerous figures (not recorded by Morassi, whereabouts unknown, 1866 sale, lot 296, 1891 sale, lot 659, 1948 sale, lot 659 [to Agnew's]).
5: THE RIALTO, with numerous gondolas and figures (presumably Morassi, no. 541, formerly in the California Palace of the Legion of Honour, San Francisco, 1866 sale, lot 297 (to Turton), first subsequently recorded in the possession of H.K.S. Williams).
6: THE GRAND CANAL, with numerous gondolas and figures (presumably Morassi, no. 547, as in the C.V. Hickox collection, New York, 1866 sale, lot 298 (to Anthony), first subsequently recorded in the collection of Lady M. Charteris).
Five of the identified pictures measure roughly 84 by 120 cm. (33 by 50½ in.), while the measurements of the sixth, which was exhibited as a pendant to the present canvas in 1891, are given as 80 by 130 cm. by Morassi but were recorded as 32 by 49½ in. (i.e. sight measurements) in the 1891 sale catalogue. The five pictures recorded by him were all recognised to be of mature date by Morassi (1: circa 1785-90, 'di qualità ottimo'; 2: 'di un periodo piuttosto tardo, appare di buona levatura' (evidently on the basis of a photograph); 3: 1775-80; 5: 'periodo maturo-tardo'; 6: 'periodo maturo'). While it is possible that the pictures were not all painted at the same time - cleaning has recently shown that the 'set' of four in the Wallace Collection originally constituted separate pairs - the fact that there are no other views of the precise format by Guardi leaves little room for doubt that these were indeed intended as a series, with paired views of the Grand Canal, the Piazza San Marco and the mouth of the Grand Canal taken from roughly opposite viewpoints: as is pointed out below, Boddington was almost certainly in Italy in 1789 and a date of circa 1790 would be entirely possible for the present canvas, allowing for the lack of precise points on which to hang any chronological analysis of Guardi's later work.
Whoever commissioned the Boddington series clearly wished to have pictures of a sequence of the most celebrated views in Venice. The church of Santa Maria della Salute, the masterpiece of the architect Baldassare Longhena, begun in 1631 but only completed in 1687, was of course one of the most familiar sights of the city. Guardi was drawn to it on numerous occasions, and the same viewpoint was used in a series of other pictures, e.g. Morassi, nos. 479-86, all notably smaller in size. Despite its scale this canvas is remarkable for the extreme refinement of the detail, for example the tiny figures apprehended on the Giudecca.
The first recorded owner of the picture and its erstwhile companions was Samuel Boddington (1765-1843), the son of Benjamin Boddington, a successful West India merchant whom he succeeded in 1791. Boddington took a responsible interest in his inheritance: by 1797 Boddington and Co. had an annual turnover of half a million pounds and at his death Boddington's estate was estimated at £350,000. A Whig, he was briefly Member of Parliament for Tralee in 1807. While a less prominent social and political figure than his partner, Richard 'Conversation' Sharp, Boddington entertained such luminaries as Sir Humphry Davy and Henry Hallam. His significance as a connoisseur has, however, been largely overlooked.
Boddington was educated privately. He was presumably the Mr. Boddington recorded as travelling with the Norwich surgeon Edward Rigby (1747-1821) - father of the redoubtable Lady Eastlake - in Italy in 1789. Two years later, perhaps on his return journey, he coincided with Samuel Rogers, the banker, poet and connoisseur, in Paris. He was one of a number of prominent men in the City who patronised Sir John Soane, who worked for him at 17 Mark Lane in 1793 and on alterations to his house at Southgate, Middlesex in 1795. Boddington is frequently mentioned in the diaries of Joseph Farington, and like him took advantage of the Peace of Amiens to visit Paris in 1802, examining sculptures in the Louvre with Fuseli and Flaxman, dining with the doyen of French dealers, Le Brun, and visiting the studio of Guerin. In 1814 he was in Italy, again in the company of Rogers: while there he seems to have ordered three, if not four, sculptures from Thorwaldsen and obtained a recently-excavated rhyton and no doubt other antiquities included in the 1866 sale.
Boddington's old masters were for the most part relatively minor - which is perhaps why his ownership of the Guardis has evaded attention - but he owned a Reynolds portrait of Mrs. Thrale and her daughter (for which Lady Ashburton paid 1,310 guineas in the 1866 sale) and bought two other pictures at the sale of the artist's niece, Lady Thomond, at Christie's in 1821: he had a number of other English pictures of some interest. He was a notable patron of Thomas Stothard, acquiring his Canterbury Pilgrimage and numerous other compositions that were loaned to the posthumous exhibition of the artist's work at the British Institution in 1841. The statement in the 1866 catalogue that his collection was formed 'about fifty years ago' suggests that Boddington, like Rogers and others in their circle, took advantage of the opportunities for acquisition that followed the defeat of Bonaparte. When he obtained the six Guardis cannot, however, be established. If he did so on his Grand Tour he would emerge as the outstanding English patron of Guardi's later years; an alternative hypothesis is that he secured en bloc a group of pictures supplied to another patron at a time when the artist was still very far from being widely recognised in this country.
Boddington's two sons predeceased him. His only daughter, Grace, had, in 1824 after overcoming her father's disapproval of the match, married Henry, later Sir Henry, Webster, second son of Sir Godfrey Webster, 4th Bt. of Battle Abbey, by the formidable Elizabeth Vassall, who after her divorce from Webster had married her lover, Henry Fox, 3rd Lord Holland, the Whig statesman. Lady Webster inherited her father's collection, and at her sale in 1866 a substantial portion of this was purchased by her elder son, Henry Boddington Webster who, clearly for family reasons, bought enough works to constitute a significant collection in their own right. His sale in 1881 did not, however, include his three Guardis from the Boddington series, which were presumably sold privately to G.A.F. Cavendish-Bentinck, whose catalogue records their provenance from the collections of both Boddington and Lady Webster.
George Augustus Frederick Cavendish-Bentinck, M.P., served as Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade in 1874-5 and Judge Advocate General in 1875-80 under Disraeli, who never forgot his early debt to the Portland family. Both in the early 1870s and after Gladstone's return to office in 1880, Cavendish-Bentinck travelled on the continent and he had a particular passion for Venice and Venetian art, both of the renaissance and of the settecento. Among his eighteenth-century Venetian pictures were nine by Longhi, eight given to Canaletto, six to G. B. Tiepolo, including the autograph Banquet of Cleopatra and the Deposition by Domenico, now in the National Gallery, London, nos. 6409 and 1333 respectively, and nineteen by Francesco Guardi, a twentieth catalogued merely as Guardi and a similarly catalogued set of twelve lagoon views presumably by Giacomo. While some of his pictures like this work were purchased from major British collections, Cavendish-Bentinck also made extensive purchases in Italy as the sale catalogue attests. Thus in Padua he bought from Counts Lazzaro and Giustiniani Cavelli, and in Venice from dealers and patricians alike, Guggenheim (1871 and 1874), Antonio Ca[o?]rrer (in 1874), Richetti (1874), Barbini (by 1874), Antonio Zen (1880), Marcato (1881), as well as the Albrizzi, Manfrin and Morosini families. Cavendish-Bentinck's extensive holdings of works by the Guardi reflected his long experience of, and affection for, Venice.
Cavendish-Bentinck's collection was divided between his London house, 3 Grafton Street and Brownsea Castle, itself if not on a lagoon then in the middle of Poole Harbour. The Grafton Street house was acquired at a moment of financial crisis by his son-in-law, Arthur James, who purchased many lots in the posthumous sale of 1891. He and his wife Venetia continued to live at Grafton Street and at his own house Coton Hall, near Rugby. Widowed in 1917, Mrs. James was a formidable figure in the social world. On her death some of her husband's pictures, including two of the Longhis he had acquired at her father's sale, were bequeathed to the National Gallery, which had already acquired one at the 1891 sale, while the bulk of the collection was sold; this canvas, which in 1891 had been divided from what was clearly originally the pair, the Doge's Palace from the Bacino (supra 1), was separated from the Piazza San Marco (supra 4), which had functioned as its pendant since the 1891 sale.