Vauxhall and Ranelagh were two of the principal places of fashionable resort in mid-eighteenth-century London. Originally known as the New Spring Gardens, Vauxhall Gardens were laid out to the south of the Thames in 1660, the year of King Charles II's Restoration, when official attitudes to places of public entertainment changed dramatically; after a long period of decline the Gardens were closed, but the resourceful entrepreneur, Jonathan Tyers, who had secured a lease in 1728, relaunched them in 1732. Tyers, who commissioned Hayman and other artists to decorate supper boxes for the Gardens and was proud of his association with Handel, evidently had a shrewd awareness of the value of contemporary artists for what would now be termed promotional purposes. Under his aegis Vauxhall, which enjoyed the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales and became more accessible with the opening of Westminster Bridge in 1750, enjoyed a period of sustained prosperity. The octagonal Orchestra Pavilion was built in 1735 and the Turkish Dining Tent in the following decade. Tyers' successors presided over an almost painfully long period of decline at Vauxhall, although the Gardens did not finally go out of business until 1859.
Ranelagh, by contrast, had a shorter life. It took its name from Ranelagh House, the residence of the Viscounts Ranelagh, east of the Chelsea Hospital, and took over the former garden of this. The Rotunda, with an internal diameter of 150 feet, was the major focal point. Designed by William Jones, it was built in 1741 and opened in 1742, setting the pattern for one major later speculation of the kind, Wyatt's short-lived Pantheon in Oxford Street: from the outset, music had an important place in the Rotunda, which boasted a substantial organ and a major band. The central octagon was originally the bandstand, but by the time Canaletto painted it this had been replaced by a fireplace. The young Mozart performed in the Rotunda on 29 June 1764. Changes of fashion led to a falling off of patronage as the century progressed: the Rotunda was closed in 1803 and subsequently demolished.
Despite Tyers' interest in artists, Canaletto was the only significant painter who recorded Vauxhall. A series of views of Ranelagh attributable to Joseph Nickolls was dispersed at Christie's in the sale of the Viscount Ranelagh in 1886, but nonetheless Canaletto's views of the Rotunda, one of the pair under discussion and the variant of this in the National Gallery, are the definitive records of that building.
The early history of the two pictures has not been securely established. There is, however, no evidence that these have ever been sold on the open market and there is, therefore, a strong possibility that the two were acquired from the artist by a predecessor of the first recorded owner, most probably Arthur, 1st Viscount Dungannon (d.1771), or his widow, Anne (d. 1799), who was a significant heiress. While Tyers and Lord Ranelagh would have been obvious patrons for the views of Vauxhall and Ranelagh respectively, it seems more than likely that the pair was executed as a speculation, as was certainly the case with other works of Canaletto's London years, notably the major View of Old Horse Guards (Constable, no. 415), sold in these Rooms on 15 April 1992, and now in the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, and the panoramic Chelsea Hospital and Ranelagh, now divided between the National Museum, Havana and Blickling (the National Trust) (Constable, no. 413).
Canaletto arrived in London in 1746 counting on patronage from some of the many English patrons who had already secured Venetian views from him, partly through the auspices of Consul Joseph Smith. Sewter's opinion that the view of the Rotunda post-dates the artist's return to Venice (i.e. 1755), is implicitly discounted by Constable, who seems to propose a date of 1752-3 for the Vauxhall (Constable, 1976, I, p.42). The date, circa 1751 (i.e. shortly after Canaletto returned to London after his visit of 1750 to Venice) proposed for both pictures by Jane Farrington in the 1993-4 Birmingham exhibition catalogue, is plausible on stylistic grounds. Moreover, this derives tangential support from the captions of two engravings, both published on 2 December 1751 for Robert Sayer, and explicitly stated to be after drawings by Canaletto. That of Vauxhall (Constable, 1989, II, p. 684, Rooker no. 2) - inscribed 'Canaleti delin.t E. Rooker sculp.' - is in the reverse sense and differs in numerous details; while that of the Rotunda (Constable, 1989, II, p. 684, Parr no. 2), inscribed 'Canaleti Delin. N. Parr sculp.', is taken from the opposite side of the Rotunda, so that the orchestra is on the right: there are also differences in the details of the chandelier and the figures. Constable, followed by Levey, accepted that the captions of the prints issued by Sayer are reliable in distinguishing between pictures and drawings as sources and it must, therefore, be assumed that the two prints depend on finished 'presentation' drawings, now lost, of the kind that Canaletto had long prepared for sale. When in 1754 Canaletto supplied a picture of Ranelagh for the series commissioned by Thomas Hollis - one of the last recorded patrons of his English sojourn - he evidently had recourse to his drawing. The Hollis picture, now in the National Gallery (Constable, no. 420), is evidently later in style than that under discussion, being economical, even telegraphic in detail, and thus anticipating rather closely in technique the until recently underestimated pictures of the artist's final Venetian years. That Canaletto followed the drawing, rather than his earlier canvas, when supplying Hollis' picture may reflect an insistence on the latter's part that he should have an original composition: the artist's inscription on the reverse of the London picture is recorded: 'Fatto nel anno 1754 in Londra per la prima ed ultima volta con ogni maggior attenzione ...' (Levey, p. 29).
The view of Vauxhall is cast in the bright chromatic key that characterizes so many of the most familiar works of Canaletto's English years. The contrast between the plein air of Vauxhall and the sober interior lighting of the Rotunda was evidently studied and may well imply that Canaletto was aware of a general perception that Ranelagh was a more serious and restrained establishment than Vauxhall. Such an understanding on the artist's part is hardly surprising as the staffage of his London views shows that he was a keen observer of social nuance even when off his native ground. One peculiarity of the view of Vauxhall, however, defies rational explanation. Why did an artist who is often so specific to his allusion to the time of day choose to light the scene from the wrong direction? Farrington suggests that Canaletto copied drawings by another artist: this seems hardly credible, given the painter's topographical command of buildings within sight of both Vauxhall and Ranelagh - the Rotunda itself appears in the now-divided Chelsea panorama which the artist announced in the Daily Advertiser on 30 July 1751 - and her additional argument that topographical inaccuracies in the pavilions support this view must be discounted, for even when dealing with major Venetian buildings Canaletto was often altogether capricious in his attitude to architectural detail. It seems most likely that he sensed that in his composition the Grand Walk would look more impressive if light was directed at the sequence of major buildings which the visitor saw on his arrival rather than the visually less rewarding, indeed monotonous, supper boxes which he relegated to a discreet shade.
As with a number of other works of Canaletto's London years (including The Old Horse Guards and the Banqueting Hall, from St. James's Park (Constable, Links no. 416), Westminster Abbey, the Interior of King Henry VII's Chapel (no. 433), Westminster Bridge from the North (no. 436), a pair of Thames views (nos. 428a and 436a), and all the traceable pictures for the Hollis series (nos. 396*, 420, 422*, 441 and 472*, the asterisked examples cut to 20 1/2 by 24 inches, i.e. reduced on the longer sides), he took English canvasses of the standard 30 x 25 inch format used for half-length (in contemporary terms 'three-quarters') portraits, reducing these to achieve the more horizontal proportions he favoured for his views.