Myles Birket Foster 'stands as one of England's most popular landscape draughtsmen and as a painter in water-colour of great distinction' the Dalziel Brothers recalled after the artist's death; while the Daily Graphic (26 December 1906) exclaimed 'Birket Foster produced something new - he was a tte d'cole... never approached by any other of his followers of rivals'.
The present watercolour is possibly the largest and most spectacular Venetian view executed by Myles Birket Foster. The majority of his watercolours of Venice were painted for his largest commission, received in the early 1870s from the Lincolnshire corn merchant Charles Seely. Seely had seen a watercolour of Venice at Agnew's and was so taken with it that he paid Birket Foster the princely sum of 5,000 to paint 50 views of the city. According to available records, it appears that the majority of the watercolours measured circa 8 x 12 in. but the large size of the present work suggests that is was produced as an independent work for the summer 1880 exhibition of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-colours.
Birket Foster first visited Venice in 1868, in the company of his wife, his cousin Mrs Elizabeth Foster Brown, his cousin's daughter Elizabeth, and the artist W.Q. Orchardson. Birket Foster hired a gondola, and the sketching party explored the smaller canals for studies of the local life as well as the more usual tourist sites. After his initial visit Birket Foster returned to Venice almost every year until 1877 to work on the watercolours for the Seely commission.
Birket Foster's passionate interest and keen observation of the maritime life on the Giudecca and the market folk about their daily business almost overshadows his fine rendering of the magnificent architecture: Santa Maria della Salute, the Campanile in St Mark's Square, the Dogana, the Doges Palace and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, provide a powerful back-drop to this intimate scene.
Birket Foster's Venetian watercolours of the 1870s had a definite influence on the style of his later painting and he went on to paint more topographical compositions. In Venice, Birket Foster learnt to paint crowd scenes and began to present his figures more dramatically, in relation to the grand architecture of their setting.
Christopher Newall, in his Victorian Watercolours, London, 1987, discusses Birket Foster's combination of 'progressive and traditional methods' and praises his 'vibrant colours unified and made tonally harmonious by the virtuosity of his stippled bodycolour technique' (op. cit., p. 60). The grand scale of the present watercolour allowed Birket Foster to explore fully the relationship between background and foreground and between the power of the architecture and the minute details of still-life motifs, seen particularly in the basket of eggs and the chianti bottle perched on the wall. The influence of William Henry Hunt, O.W.S. (1790-1864) is clearly seen in such attention to detail.
Barnet Lewis Esq. who owned the present watercolour in the 1930s, formed a very important collection of the artist's work, and many of his watercolours provided H.M. Cundall with the colour illustrations for his work on the artist. The sale of Lewis' collection of 115 watercolours by Birket Foster at Christie's London was an enormous success and the present watercolour was sold for the second highest price in the sale, a high price for a watercolour at the time. The highest price of 900 gns. was achieved for one of Birket Foster's largest recorded watercolours The Meet measuring 27 x 59 in. (see Cundall, op. cit., illustrated facing p. 140).
A much smaller watercolour of Shipping on the Bacino near the Salute, Venice, measuring 14 x 21 in., sold at Christie's London, 14 March 1997, lot 28, (32,200).