You’ve just been to one exhibition about Canaletto and Venice, and then a second one comes along straight away, a bit like delayed vaporettos on the Grand Canal.
Canaletto’s Venice Revisited at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich contrasted the painter’s classic views of the lagoon city with the threat it faces today from rising sea levels and mass tourism, and Canaletto and Melissa McGill: Performance and Panorama at the Lightbox in Woking takes a similar tack.
But if Greenwich’s display of statistics about population decline and increasing flooding and an array of disposable plastic boots for tourists left us rather depressed, we found something surprisingly soothing and uplifting about the American artist Melissa McGill’s attempt to alert us to the same problems.
Back in 2019, McGill created the Red Regatta project, which saw dozens of traditional Venetian sailing boats hoisted with sails she had hand-painted in varying shades of red traversing the city’s waterways. A video of the event and associated artworks, including retouched large-scale photographs highlighting the red of the sails, are given equal prominence in this show with Canaletto’s paintings.
These red sails against the backdrop of Venice’s canals and architecture are truly spectacular, and a six-minute video of one of the regattas is a mesmerising watch. The canals are as calm as in a Canaletto canvas, and the predominant sounds are that of the wind in the sails and the water gently lapping against the sides of the boats. Out in the lagoon, though, gigantic cruise ships lurk, having brought thousands of day-trippers to infest the streets and squares of the city, without adding much to the local economy.
One room is devoted to McGill’s work, but a series of her images of water breaks through into a second room bursting with Canalettos, some with familiar views, some with unfamiliar sights, and some with fantasy capriccios.
Here’s a very familiar sight: the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Andrea Palladio; it’s the same church you see in the foreground of the photograph of McGill’s regatta above.
At the bottom of Canaletto’s painting are those wisps of white paint he uses to create the canal surface; higher up you see the church and the other buildings around it reflected in the water. As the red-sailed boats pass by in the McGill video, we see just how much the water level has risen to threaten the square in front of the church.
Reflections are part of McGill’s work too, with the reds of her sails mirrored on the waters; we really liked these images, produced both as photographic prints and on glass.
Venice has of course a long artistic heritage, and an exhibition of paintings was traditionally held as part of the celebrations for the feast day of San Rocco in August. Canaletto appears to have included one of his own pictures of the Grand Canal on the far right within his painting of the procession exiting the church of San Rocco after mass.
The Doge is in the centre in yellow and ermine in this large picture, which has a slightly unusual feel for a Canaletto, with much more of a crowd and rather bigger figures than we’re used to seeing.
But now we come closer to home: Head east down the Basingstoke Canal that runs past the Lightbox, turn left at the River Wey and then turn right along the Thames, and after a while you’ll get to Walton Bridge. There’s a modern structure spanning the Thames at Walton these days, but the first version in 1750 was also quite a feat of engineering.
This is the last known painting made by Canaletto during his nine years in England, and in the foreground, just left of the centre, is what appears to be a self-portrait of the artist sketching the scene. The painting was commissioned by the wealthy Thomas Hollis, a long-standing friend of Canaletto, and you can see Hollis dressed in yellow, in front of the central arch of the bridge. Unusually for Canaletto, there’s a looming cloud in the sky, but that’s British weather for you.
If you peer closely, you can see a coach and horses crossing the bridge, and a couple of pedestrians, an adult and a child. Study further and you can see how Canaletto creates his distant figures out of tiny dots of paint.
An English scene captured by an Italian. For English scenes captured by some of the most English of artists, head upstairs to the second, smaller exhibition at the Lightbox: The Ingram Collection & The Fry Art Gallery: Bawden, Ravilious and the Art of Great Bardfield. This show celebrates the artists’ community that was started in the 1930s by Edward Bawden, his wife Charlotte, and Eric Ravilious and his wife Tirzah Garwood in the north-west Essex village of Great Bardfield.
Bawden and Ravilious drew and painted the villages and countryside roundabout, and there’s often a feel of the England time forgot, as in this 1950s linocut by Bawden of a scene on the Road to Thaxted, heading west out of Great Bardfield, with a helmeted bobby on a bicycle and the milk churns awaiting collection.
And what could be more rural than The Potato Field with its surroundings of house and hedgerow, rendered by Ravilious in a blueish-green palette. Plenty of spuds on the way to feed a hungry nation at war, a conflict that the artist did not survive.
This selection of works draws on the extensive holdings of the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, not too far from Great Bardfield, and from the Ingram Collection, which is housed at the Lightbox.
It’s not all Bawden and Ravilious; we liked this February Afternoon garden scene by John Aldridge.
Looks quite a nice day for a spot of gardening, considering it’s so early in the year. Wonder if he’s got any potatoes chitting in the shed?
There’s plenty to enjoy in this pair of shows at the Lightbox, one of the less obvious but repeatedly rewarding exhibition venues in the South-East.
Canaletto and Melissa McGill: Performance and Panorama can be seen at The Lightbox in Woking until November 13, while The Ingram Collection & The Fry Art Gallery: Bawden, Ravilious and the Art of Great Bardfield runs until October 9. The Lightbox is open Tuesday to Saturday 1030-1700, with lates on the last Thursday of the month to 2030, and on Sundays from 1100 to 1600. A day pass to the gallery’s exhibitions costs £9.50. Allow an hour for the Venice exhibition, 20-30 minutes for the Great Bardfield show. The Lightbox is a five-minute walk from Woking station, which has frequent trains from London Waterloo taking about 25 minutes.
Melissa McGill, Red Regatta (Coppa del Presidente della Repubblica, San Giorgio Maggiore)
, 2019. © Melissa McGill/Mazzoleni, London/Turin
Canaletto, The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore
, Venice, c. 1740. © Manchester Art Gallery/Bridgeman Images
Melissa McGill, Red Regatta: Riflessi 7 & 6
, 2019. © Melissa McGill/Mazzoleni, London/Turin
Canaletto, Venice: The Feast Day of Saint Roch, about 1735. © The National Gallery, London
Canaletto, A View of Walton Bridge, 1754, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Photo by permission of Dulwich Picture Gallery
Edward Bawden, The Road to Thaxted, c. 1956. © The Estate of Edward Bawden
Eric Ravilious, The Potato Field, c. 1940. © The Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden
John Aldridge, February Afternoon, 1958, The Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden