In 1746 George Vertue, the great chronicler of the British art world of his day, recorded in his notebook: 'Latter end of May, came to London from Venice the Famous Painter of Views Cannalletti . . . of Venice. the Multitude of his works done abroad for English noblemen & Gentlemen has procurd him great reputation & his great merrit & excellence in that way, he is much esteemed and no doubt but what Views and works He doth here, will give the same satisfaction - tho' many persons already have so many of his paintings -' (Notebooks, published in The Walpole Society, III, 1934, p. 130). In many ways, a visit to England was the natural step for Canaletto to take. His almost exclusively English clientele was, according to Vertue (ibid., p.132), reluctant to travel on the continent during the War of the Austrian Succession, which had broken out in 1741 and spread to Italy in the following year, and his long-standing business relationships with Owen MacSwinny and Consul Smith assured him of introductions to suitable patrons. Vertue also records that an influential factor was the persuasion of Jacopo Amigoni, who had spent ten years in England (1729-39) and 'acquainted him with his success here, and also of the prospects he might make of Views of the Thames at London' (ibid., p. 133). Indeed there was a tradition of Venetian artists finding success in England, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini in 1708-13, Sebastiano and Marco Ricci in 1711/12-16, Antonio Bellucci in 1716-22 and - most significantly for Canaletto - the Modenese view painter Antonio Joli in c. 1742-50. Canaletto was to remain in England until 1755 or 1756, returning to Venice for some months between September/November 1750 and July 1751 and probably also in 1752/3.
The present picture shows the Old Horse Guards and the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall, from St. James's Park. The park then had three avenues for pedestrians, lined with 350 limes planted by Queen Anne's gardener to shade the walks. It was open to all and was the most fashionable place for the beau monde to take the air in the afternoon, to gossip, pick up 'ladies of the town' or watch members of the royal family escorted by Yeomen of the Guard. On 25 July 1749 Canaletto placed an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser: 'Signor Canaleto hereby invites any Gentleman that will be pleased to come to his house to see a picture done by him being a view of St. James's Park, which he hopes may in some manner deserve their approbation any morning or afternoon at his lodgings Mr Wiggan Cabinet maker in Silver street Golden Square. Nine in the morning till Three in the afternoon, and from Four till Seven in the Evening for the Space of fifteen days from the publication of the Advertizement'. Although it shows less of the park than the adjacent buildings, there can be no doubt, on account of its scale, that the painting exhibited at the artist's lodgings at 16 Silver Street (now 41 Beak Street, off Regent Street) was his only other view of the Old Horse Guards, the magnificent canvas sold in these Rooms, 15 April 1992, lot 59, and now in the collection of the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation. Both paintings show the trees in similarly full leaf and there is every reason to believe that both were executed around May or June 1749. Canaletto may have been attracted to the subject because the scene was about to change dramatically, as with the Whitehall and the Privy Garden from Richmond House at Goodwood. Demolition of the Old Horse Guards was begun later in 1749 to make way for William Kent's New Horse Guards, completed in 1753. The Lloyd Webber picture would seem to have been executed as a speculation and, given its size, this is even more likely for the present painting. Canaletto may have hoped to sell it to a Knight of the Order of the Bath, one of whose number is prominently shown in the left foreground. In June 1749 the artist received the commission to record the procession of the Knights of the Order of the Bath outside Westminster Abbey (on the 20th of the month) in the painting which still hangs in the Westminster Deanery.
There is however, strong evidence to suggest that its first owner was not a Knight of the Bath. In the catalogue entry for the sale of the present picture in these Rooms in 1975, it is stated that it was traditionally thought to have been in the collection of Dr. Mead. Richard Mead (1673-1754) was the leading physician of his day, numbering among his patients King George I, King George II (from 1727), Alexander Pope, Sir Robert Walpole, Bishop Burnet and Watteau, who came to England specially to consult him about his consumption. A close friend of Sir Isaac Newton, Mead was also responsible for persuading Thomas Guy to bequeath his fortune to the hospital which bears his name. A very distinguished man of letters, he formed a large collection of pictures, books, manuscripts, coins and antiquities. In the words of the author of his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography 'Of the many men who have grown rich in professions, few have expended their riches during their lives so generously and wisely as Mead', and Professor Francis Haskell has described him as 'the most stimulating art collector of early eighteenth-century England' (Patrons and Painters, 2nd. ed., New Haven and London, 1980, p. 301). His collection, most of which was dispersed in a series of sales at Langford's, London, 20-22 March 1754 (pictures), 13-28 January, 11-19 February and 11-15 March 1755, included Holbein's portrait of Erasmus and Massys' portrait of Aegidius, both now in an English private collection, and some of the finest pictures from the collection of Cardinal Massimi (ibid., p. 118). Mead was portrayed by a number of leading artists (see J. Kerslake, National Portrait Gallery. Early Georgian Portraits, London, 1977, I. pp. 183-5, and II, pls. 528-38). That he was indeed the first owner of the present picture seems quite likely. His daughter Sarah married Edward Wilmot (1693-1786), also a celebrated physician and for a period Mead's colleague, who was created a baronet in 1759 and was the direct ancestor of the 1975 vendor. The discovery of the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition label with the name of Sir H.S. Wilmot on the stretcher of the present picture (it was lent anonymously) establishes that it was in the family collection at least by that date, and both Dahl's portrait of Mead and Amigoni's portrait of Queen Caroline commissioned by him are also known to have passed by descent to Sir H.S. Wilmot (Kerslake, loc. cit.); Mead's only son died without issue. Mead was a friend of Consul Smith and owned a pair of Canaletto Venetian views, 'St. Mark's Place at Venice, in the Carnival Time' and 'A view up the Grand Canal' (Langford's, 21 March 1754, lots 30 and 31); there is every reason to speculate that Mead would have taken advantage of the artist's presence in England to secure one of his London views.
Two preparatory drawings, on pages from a sketchbook formerly in the collection of Dr. Alfredo Viggiano, Venice, and since 1968 in the Accademia (Constable, op. cit., nos. 735-6, pl. 136; see also Bettagno, op. cit., nos. 43-4, both illustrated; and, for one of the drawings, Links, op. cit., 1982, pl. 150, ed. 1994, pl. 153), were first published in 1950 by Watson, op. cit. He points out that both are 'so bespattered with notes on colours and architectural characteristics as to suggest at first sight that they are sketches made on the spot, perhaps in a notebook held in the artist's hand...[They] relate very closely to a little-known view of the Horse Guards Parade by Canaletto, which was exhibitied in London shortly before the war... The painting agrees closely with the drawings, and follows the notes as to colour, treatment of architecture and material, with great care. The proportions of the Horse Guards building have been modified to accord with the direction piu largo and the plastered walls of Little Walsingham House [largely obscured by the trees to the right of the Horse Guards] follow the indication sporco. Dirty they may well have been, for the house had already been described as "little, old and ruinous" as early as 1658, although it was not demolished until 1786'.