The Artist as Migrant: Silver Street (Soho)

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The nomadic lifestyle of the artist is a recurrent theme in contemporary literature and aesthetic thinking. Modern philosophy of art tends to depict the artist as a citizen of the world, a global mind, as the eternal traveller. This view is a relatively recent one. In Classical culture, he would have been identified as the inhabitant of a specific polis or city. Even during the humanist era outspoken cosmopolitanism remained the exception.

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The term cosmopolitanism first appeared in the sixteenth century. Guillaume Postel visited the East on the orders of François I to collect manuscripts for the French Royal collection. In De la République des Turcs (1560) he gave a detailed and sympathetic account of Turkish culture. The book itself was signed by Guillaume Postel Cosmopolite (to later historians he became known as ‘le Gaulois cosmopolite’). One may find use of the word on occasion during the seventeenth century, but it was not until the Enlightenment that intellectuals came to regard themselves as proud members of a transnational ‘Republic of Letters’. In the eighteenth century, cosmopolitanism indicated an attitude of intellectual sophistication and open-mindedness. A cosmopolitan mind was not a follower of a particular religious or political authority, but an independent thinker and a man of the world. More often than not, he was a multi-lingual person who was at home in all European capitals. The 1789 Declaration of Human Rights was the result of cosmopolitan modes of thinking.

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Artistic migration before and even during the Enlightenment was motivated by much more mundane considerations. The artist moved away from home out of economic necessity and in search of patrons. He had to make a living. Traditionally, London had been a destination for those who were artistically gifted. In Tudor times, Continental artists and musicians were lured to sell their skills to royal and aristocratic households. During the reign of Charles I and particularly since the Restoration a seemingly unending number of Flemish and Dutch painters, engravers and sculptors joint the court or aristocratic estates. The ‘glorious’ seventeenth century produced too many artists in the Low Countries and not enough clients. The market simply was too small for such an overwhelming presence of talent. It was a period of cultural overproduction. For many young artists there was only one solution to their predicament: relocate, move elsewhere, and find a more equal playing field where their talent would be acknowledged. Or, to put it more crudely, find a place where they could earn money, get some commissions, and make a living. And move they did. They moved in their hundreds. They headed for Italy, Sweden, Germany, even for Russia – most of them crossed the Channel. It is interesting to note that English ambassadors in the Low Countries regularly functioned as ‘scouts’ who informed the court and gentry about the talent they had spotted whilst performing their diplomatic duties. Or they tried to encourage artists to move to England with the promise and prospect of employment and/or commissions.

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The courts of Charles II, James II, and William and Mary employed numerous foreign artists and craftsmen, and as a result English late seventeenth-century taste in interior decoration was decidedly Continental. In March 1709, a competition was announced to decorate the dome of Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. The most coveted contemporary commission, it attracted bids from British and foreign artists. In March 1709, a competition was announced to decorate the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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By 1710 the field of competitors was narrowed down to two candidates, James Thornhill and Venice-born Antonio Pellegrini (a director of Godfrey Kneller’s newly founded art academy in Queen Anne Street, 1711), each being required to execute their proposed designs on a model of the cupola. On 28 June 1715 Thornhill was awarded the commission by a Whig dominated committee.

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Archbishop Thomas Tenison’s pronouncement ‘I am no judge of painting, but on two articles I think I may insist: first that the painter employed be a Protestant; and secondly that he be an Englishman’, may not have an identified source, but it does echo a growing patriotic (anti-alien) sentiment which was put into words in the Weekly Packet of June 1715 by suggesting that the committee’s decision will ‘put to silence all the loud applauses hitherto given to foreign artists’. Others would argue that it reflected growing confidence in British native ability. As a consequence, the number of immigrant artists was dwindling rapidly.

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At that time, foreign in painting meant Italian – more specifically: Venetian. Decorative and portrait painter Giacomo Amiconi [Jacopo Amigoni] was born in Naples of Venetian parents in 1682. By 1711 he had established himself as an artist in Venice. Having worked all over northern Europe, he arrived in London in 1729. As an architectural decorator Amiconi joined forces with Gaetano Brunetti working on Lord Tankerville’s house in St James’s Square in early 1730 and on the Duke of Chandos’s residence at Cavendish Square in 1735. He painted a Banquet of the Gods on the ceiling at Covent Garden Theatre as well as a fresco above the stage (lost with the 1782 renovation). He was identified with Italian opera through his close friendship with the castrato Farinelli who was resident in London from 1734, and his marriage in May 1738 to opera singer Maria Antonia Marchesini (known as ‘La Lucchesina’).

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Amiconi’s work was fashionable in aristocratic London, but the established taste for Italian opera and for Venetian Rococo painting had started to decline by that time. A movement was in the making in favour of a more robust style in music, theatre and art. His staircase decoration for the Spanish ambassador at Powis House, Great Ormond Street, sparked controversy in 1734. The artist was attacked by James Ralph in the Weekly Register as one of those foreigners who painted in an overblown manner, compared with the more wholesome qualities of English art. Amiconi left London for Venice in August 1739 having been supplanted by Hogarth as decorator of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Foreigners were less welcome than they had been previously.

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Between 1732 and 1734, Amiconi occupied a house in Silver Street, Soho (now: Beak Street; the occupant is named in the rate books as James Amicony). When the latter encouraged fellow artist Antonio Canaletto to move to London, the latter settled in Silver Street as well. The Canal family, whose Venice lineage is traceable from the mid-sixteenth century, were ‘cittadini originari’, a class immediately below the patrician. Its most famous son was Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto.

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His first dated work is a large ‘Capriccio of Classical Ruins and a Pyramid’ (1723), which already surpasses anything in this genre produced by his contemporaries. It shows an imaginary landscape (capriccio means ‘fancy’) with arched Roman ruins supported by Corinthian columns, through which a church with a campanile can be seen while small figures are digging around. Further back a pyramid and Roman statue are depicted. From the start architecture and architectural elements played a dominant part in his paintings. Just like his predecessor Luca Carlevarijs, the first of the great Venetian view painters, Canaletto realised that the demand for prospects of the city among foreign visitors offered a viable commercial opportunity. Throughout his career, in creating his urban panoramas he took the liberty of including distortions in order to ‘improve’ reality for pictorial effect and, of course, saleability. He also developed the additional skill of depicting ceremonial events and festivals.

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From the late 1720s to the early 1750s Canaletto’s fortunes were bound up with the figure of Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice. The latter was one of the foremost collectors in the city who, over three decades, acquired fifty paintings by the artist, which he housed in his impressive palace on the Grand Canal. They were eventually sold en bloc to George III in 1762, along with 142 of the artist’s superb drawings. By 1730, Smith was acting as an agent in the sale of Canaletto’s work to English collectors which resulted in a constant flow of commissions throughout the decade that marks the peak of the painter’s career. With the constant demand for Canaletto’s work came a need to delegate various tasks to assistants. One of those, in the late 1730s and early 1740s, was his nephew Bernardo Bellotto, the only artist to rival him as the greatest Italian view painter of the eighteenth century. Canaletto’s studio was turned into a factory of art. With the ever increasing demand for paintings, the artist’s studio was rationalised in a quite a remarkable manner. It became a kind of early industrialised work-floor with a proper division of labour amongst specialised employees who worked on a production line of art. Canaletto had learned from his predecessors. The example of Rubens’s studio is well documented. Similar ways of working were introduced by Anthony van Dyck or Peter Lely in their London studios. All this, of course, long before the notion of the ‘division of labour’ was discussed by the Scottish socio-economic philosophers of the eighteenth century.

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The outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1741 restricted travel to Venice. As a consequence, the number of commissions for painted Venetian views diminished. In May 1746 Canaletto moved to London. There he was to remain for ten years as a resident at no. 16 Silver Street. Although his English paintings vary in quality, he soon found himself as busy as he had been in the 1730s. Like many artists before him, Canaletto was an economic migrant. Art does not acknowledge borders, neither physically nor intellectually.
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