Canaletto and the art of Venice

Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace,

until 12th November, 2017

Timing is all when you buy contemporary art. The American Robber Barons had the good fortune to be at their height when the Impressionists’ paint was still wet. The Habsburgs could commission Titian and Velásquez, Breughel and Rubens. Our own Charles I also did well though, as the Royal Academy will show next year; even the best efforts of his son – our most underestimated monarch – could not reunite his fabulous collection. But timing was against the last great buying contemporary splurge by the British monarchy. This came not under the discriminating George IV but under his father, who was able to buy up swathes of fashionable Venetian art through the offices of Our Man in Venice, Consul Joseph Smith. Venetian art in the first half of the eighteenth century was the height of contemporary fashion but the quality was all too often export standard. The royal collection boasts hardly any works by the greatest Venetian artist of the period, Giovanni Batista Tiepolo. However, it does have a very large collection of the second greatest, Giovanni Antonio Canal: Canaletto. It also has a fair collection of works by Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Francesco Zuccarelli, Rosalba Carrieri, and others.

In this exhibition their work serves to show the quality of Canaletto. In fact there are some good works at the Palace, but some discrimination needs to be applied to this show of many, many Canalettos. First, this is not a representative exhibition of Canaletto’s work. There are none of the informal paintings such as the National Gallery’s ‘Stonemasons’ Yard’ or the Ashmolean’s charming ‘A view of Dolo on the Brenta canal.’ There are also none of his paintings of England, but there are some large cityscapes of Rome.

In terms of quantity the show is dominated by oil paintings of piazzas and the Grand Canal. These include a set of twelve views which take us all along the Canal, paintings commissioned by Consul Smith when European war interrupted the tourist trade on which Canaletto relied. But it is more instructive to step back from these set pieces, monotonous in their perfections, and look at some of the smaller works to learn about how various an artist Canaletto was.                                                                                                                         

The exhibition gives us a good collection of his drawings: sketches from life, preparatory studies for larger oil works and detailed, finished works for connoisseurs which remind us that in the eighteenth century those works were often held in higher regard by the cognoscenti than the large, detailed, brilliantly-coloured oils. The most notable of these drawings are four set around the Sant’ Elena convent. These small, long, flat, ink-and-wash pictures have a force and sensitivity about them which the more theatrical grand pictures don’t have. They are worth a good look.                                                                                                               

A second aspect of Canaletto’s art which might puzzle us, but when you understand it, it is obvious in many of the drawings, etchings and paintings. This is the ‘capriccio.’ Capriccios were very popular in the eighteenth century. They took, say, a statue or building, and transposed it to a stage-set of the painter’s imagination. In a sense this was to take to the extreme the landscape painter’s tendency to improve on nature for the sake of his composition. Canaletto and Constable both did this for their views of Westminster Bridge. But the capriccio goes further in its staginess. Stage painting was an important side-line for Venetian painters and both Canaletto and his father painted for the stage. Today it is quite an exercise in historical empathy to feel much for these works.

The stagy capriccio style helps us understand some of the standard tricks of Canaletto’s major works – masses of architecture on one side of the work, the full-on façades with a lateral line of wall extending from them and the interest in stock types, a cut above commedia dell’arte but such dreary local colour. Despite all that, a serious and authentic painter does emerge in this show. We don’t look to Canaletto for a stirring struggle with paint – he is too smooth and subtle a Venetian for that – but sometimes all that architecture serves a dynamic purpose. Finest here are two small scenes from inside St Mark’s, where the crowd has a life of its own and the interior of the great basilica has a personality rather than being just yet more walls and surfaces. And, in a set of three double paintings of views from the Piazza San’ Marco, for once the paint is broad, there are fewer street characters and the most extraordinary, skinny horizontal bars mark out the canvas.                                                                                            

Last of all, for the defining picture of this exhibition, there is a view of Santa Maria della Salute in the early morning. Much of the picture is a cloudy sky, and there is an expanse of canal with a cone of bright sunlight cutting across it. These two elements take their place as background to a view of Palladio’s great church set not at the standard head-on pose but at an angle. And the angle allows Canaletto to show precisely and beautifully the force and size and colour of the stone as it lies in the early morning shade. This painting alone is worth the admission price.

Owen Higgs

Discarded History

The Genizah of Medieval Cairo

Cambridge University Library,

until 28 October

Near the entrance of this free exhibition sits a gnarly, many-layered and nearly-rhomboid lump, about the size of a fist, which looks very much like the fossil of a fat, long-dead oyster. An examination of the label reveals that it is in fact a small Torah, dating from the tenth or eleventh century. Its dating is unclear because it is un-conserved; but it remains in very much the same shape it took on when it found itself at the bottom of the pile in the Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, close to a thousand years ago.

Genizah roughly equates to “treasury”; but it has shades of “mausoleum”, too. The holy books and scrolls that contained the Jewish wisdom of the ages were precious commodities to be treasured and cherished – and to be treated with reverence. When a liturgical or devotional document fell out of use, it was laid up in a Genizah – a resting-place of parchments and paper, gradually rotting away and returning to dust.   

The Cairo trove found its way to Cambridge after two sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, brought back a single page that they had acquired in Egypt in 1896 to show to Solomon Schechter, who was then teaching Rabbinics at the university. He realised that it was an extract in Hebrew from the Book of Sirach, which up to then had only been known in its later Greek and Latin translations. By the end of the year he had arranged, with the permission of the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, to acquire the whole collection of some 200,000 items. Not everything on display is in Hebrew – a letter in Arabic to Saladin features prominently – and of those that are, the palaeographical idiosyncrasies of the medieval handwriting take some getting used to. Helpfully, the substantial free programme includes detailed and clear translations of each.

The conservation of the collection has been intricate and time-consuming, as one might expect. A video demonstrating how the documents have been unfolded, cleaned, and restored is genuinely fascinating, and the exhibition is also available online – a simple internet search for “Discarded History” will bring the whole thing up. Away from the triumph of technology, however, there is a deeply personal element to it all. The pieces vary from biblical texts to advice on aphrodisiacs; from letters complaining about the behaviour of schoolchildren to doctors’ accounts; from bridal-trousseau lists to bills of divorce – matters relating to faith, life, sex, and death in medieval Cairo, laid bare for all to see. No translation is needed, either, for the little doodles here and there that speak of real people experiencing real distraction and letting their minds wander in the margins of the page.

Most poignant, perhaps, is the material relating to the experience of the eleventh-century Jews of Damascus under the rule of the relatively enlightened Shi’ite Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt, which nominally tolerated Jews and Christians alike; but where, in reality, oppression and hatred were not unknown. “All the elders,” says the writer, “the young men and all the notables of the city gathered and testified before [the Caliph], saying: ‘They have no legal right to share our water and they have no share among us in this city.’”

Nearby, a small case shows a pile of papers, left much as they had been found in the Genizah in Old Cairo: the stories of long-dead children of Israel, all piled up in an abandoned heap. I visited a couple of days after neo-Nazism had raised its ugly death’s head in Charlottesville, VA. The immediate mind’s leap to dusty piles of suitcases, spectacles, and shoes was chilling.

Serenhedd James




1930s Ecumenism exposed

Mark Vickers

Gracewing 304pp £14.99

ISBN 78-0852449165

This plain title conceals a fascinating story, which has been largely untold. Most Catholic Anglicans know of the Malines Conversations in the 1920s between Roman Catholics led by Cardinal Mercier and Anglicans led by Lord Halifax. The story goes that these were firmly opposed by Cardinal Bourne and the English hierarchy; and that when Mercier died it became impossible to continue this work because of the hostility of Rome.

Mark Vickers, a Roman Catholic priest and former lawyer, has uncovered a different story. He has written a biography of Cardinal Bourne so has had access to other papers. Bourne was less hostile to the Malines conversations than is supposed, though in the end he believed that conversations which did not include English Catholics were to be discouraged. A rather enigmatic Presbyterian, Sir James Marchant – for reasons that are not entirely clear – devoted a great part of his life to bringing together Anglicans and Roman Catholics in the search for unity.

Marchant succeeded in getting Cardinal Bourne to appoint a high-powered team with two Jesuits, a Benedictine, and a Dominican to meet with Anglicans. It was the Anglican Archbishops – Davidson, Lang, and Temple – who refused to co-operate by appointing Anglicans. They gave not the slightest encouragement to these talks, despite the fact the Lambeth in both 1908 and 1920 had recognised that ecumenism without the Roman Catholics made no sense.

Sadly, too, the Anglo-Catholic movement, then at the height of its growth and influence, was largely hostile to Roman Catholics. It believed that it was the true Catholic Church in England, and wanted no other. It was left to a small group of Anglo-Papalists to fill the gap. This little group – Fynes-Clinton, Jones, Pierce, Courbould, Scott, Simmonds and one or two others – was hardly representative of Anglicans in general. The desire of the members was for corporate reunion of Anglicans with Rome. It is not entirely clear whether they meant the corporate reunion of all Anglicans (which was wildly unrealistic) or of a significant minority.

The conversations did not go well. On the RC side, Archbishop Goodier was ill-equipped for the discussion. The Catholics wanted to talk doctrine; the Anglicans wanted to talk history to prove that Anglicans really were Catholic. Abbot Cuthbert Butler and Fr Bede Jarrett were much more open and sympathetic to the Anglicans than Goodier; but all of them insisted on the lack of firm ground for Anglicans to stand on. All of them insisted that Anglicans had to become Catholic individually: there was no appetite for a Uniate-style Anglican Church.

Amazingly, the talks continued through another two sessions, still with support from the Cardinal and none at all from Canterbury or York. There was no real meeting of minds. It had not then been realised how much ecumenism depends on long term relationships, friendships and understanding of different positions. A few papers on what were thought to be the key points of difference were not nearly enough.

The story ended at the end of the 1930s, when Paul Couturier more or less single-handedly transformed the Papalists’ Church Unity Octave – which focused simply on corporate reunion of Anglicans and Catholics – into the present Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which includes all Christians everywhere. This came to be supported by Anglo-Catholics generally, and specifically by the Anglican religious orders who had held aloof from the previous efforts, with the exception of Nashdom Abbey.

It has of course been a world-wide success; but Fr Vickers does raise the question of whether this Week of Prayer has become so vague and good natured that it is now largely ineffective. Does it simply aim to improve relationships between churches until, sometime in the future, differences fall away? Do we need it – and can we create something more specific, which takes more seriously the truth that unity with Rome is the first prize? Anything less than that is inadequate.

It is also worth noticing that what the Anglo-Papalists were asking for in the 1930s, is broadly speaking, what has come about in the Ordinariate. Time alone will tell whether this is simply a temporary refuge for dissident Anglicans, or a significant contribution to reunion. Fr Vickers must be congratulated on producing a really interesting book – well written, well researched, and quietly humorous – which encourages us all to think again about ecumenical priorities and possibilities in these difficult times.

Nicolas Stebbing CR



A Family’s Heroic Witness in an Age of Intolerance

Patricia Claus

Gracewing 198pp £12.99

ISBN 978-0852448809

In this era of increasing anxiety about the possible fracturing of British society, highlighted by polemicized debates about such things as Brexit and a Scottish referendum, the historical matters examined in this book should resonate with contemporary society because of several similarities between the past and our current socio-political context. In Conscience is my Crown, Patricia Claus begins with Henry VIII’s schism from Rome and proceeds all the way through the Civil War to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. During that span of time she looks at the various religious and political struggles that nearly rent Britain asunder.

The author begins with an account of researching her family tree, which may not capture the interest of those who are not genealogists. This is followed by a rudimentary sketch of the Henrician reformation, but I encourage readers to persevere in pushing beyond the book’s beginning as the author tells the story of her four remarkable ancestors. These four relations were divided sharply in their beliefs and loyalties, with some being Puritans and others recusants holding to Roman Catholicism. What unites the stories of these four men was their support for the enlightened ideal of freedom of religion. The roles in life – ranging from priest to politician – that these four men played forced each of them to make some difficult choices. This book looks at the resulting consequences, examining how the personal sacrifices that they made were the gruelling testing ground that eventually became part of the foundation of our present democratic institutions in the United Kingdom.

Claus’s family tree is a study in contrasts, as illustrated by two of her subjects. Robert Southwell grew up in a staunch recusant family and became a Jesuit, conducting his priestly ministry at a time when that was illegal. His nephew John Hampden lost his life on the battlefield fighting for the Parliamentarian cause against King Charles I. Both of these men died for the causes that they espoused, and Southwell was later canonised.

This book does not shy away from exploring the compromises made by people on all sides of the theological spectrum. Protestant reformers were not the only ones who profited from the wholesale usurpation and redistribution of ecclesiastical wealth, and examples are given of how the Southwell family profited handsomely by the acquisition of properties during the dissolution of the monasteries, even though they remained notable recusants. Ethical questions arose as I reflected upon today’s consumer-oriented economic system, driven by avarice; and readers can ponder what effect society’s pursuit of rampant materialism is having on the health of our souls and the planet.

Southwell and Hampden stayed true to their ideals in the face of persecution. In a sense both of them suffered ‘martyrdom’ – Southwell for his priesthood, and Hampden for his Puritanism. However, others in the author’s family (like William Lenthall) portrayed a lifetime of constant vacillation, guided primarily by the desire for self-preservation at all costs. Perhaps the challenge for us today is finding a way to reconcile genuine efforts at compromise for the sake of finding common ground with an espousal of an objective truth’s integrity due to its rightness.

For the author, familial redemption of her remarkably diverse ancestors finally is achieved when she states that it was the accumulated sacrifices, triumphs, and even the failures of these four men that contributed towards the freedom and respect for the rule of law that has provided a political model of charitable tolerance and pluralistic acceptance for the rest of the world. As the 21st century increasingly seems to be dominated by the extremist ideologies of fundamentalism and intolerance, the historical lessons in this book may serve as a useful corrective.

Dennis Berk CR


Book of the month


A Sort of Memoir

Chris Patten

Penguin 299pp £9.99

ISBN 978-024127560

The best we can do is try to be better and kinder ourselves; to remember how much it is sheer courage that usually gets people through disappointment and heartbreak; and to recognize how the greatest disruption to our well-ordered plans is often love, occasionally regretted but usually embraced and invariably transformative.

These modest words about basic ambition typify the autobiography of Chris Patten, former Chairman of the Conservative Party, last Governor of Hong Kong, European Commissioner for External Affairs, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Chairman of the BBC, advisor to the Pope: as he himself puts it, ‘a Grand Poo-bah, the Lord High Everything Else.

The autobiography of a conservative liberal challenges a political culture in which ‘a thick skin of prejudice, reinforced by reading the tabloids, is proof against the dilemmas of the real world.’ Patten writes: ‘I am a Conservative who has never believed that everything my party does or stands for is right. I am a Catholic who has occasional doubts and disagreements which have not persuaded me of the merits of agnosticism or atheism […] I have always been in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU without thinking everything about it is hunky-dory.’

I found this book refreshing, as a loyal member of the Church of England always in doubt about aspects of an institution I publicly support. Being derogatory about institutions is fashionable; but reading Patten’s appealing life-story leaves you with more confidence about institutions inasmuch as they contain loyal folk like the author, who breathe integrity and work for right development of the fabric of society.

You can only dream of ‘institutions so perfect that no one will need to be good’, wrote T. S. Eliot. Good men and women bring fruit through critical loyalty to the institutions they serve. It is heartening to read a balanced perspective on UK politics from Ted Heath to Theresa May, ending with a provocative question: ‘Do we really want to escape the alleged EU cage to take up residence in the Trump kennel?’

‘Political leaders have ceased to be as brave as they might in speaking up for what seems to them to be the public good and the national interest,’ Patten claims. He goes on to quote St Thomas Aquinas: ‘If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.’ The career of the author includes the shipwreck of the loss of his parliamentary seat, and the wake of the Savile abuse-scandal at the BBC. Patten’s analysis of Prime Ministers Heath, Thatcher, and Major are fascinating reading, since he worked closely to each, and saw their strengths and weaknesses at close hand: ‘Thatcherism’, he concludes, ‘was not a fully worked-out doctrine, but in effect simply the aggregate of what she did – was not always very Conservative, and in the end she came close not only to wrecking the Conservative Party but also, in the longer term, to corroding the middle-class values whose preservation was the objective of her furious activities.’

There is much clarification of world politics through the eyes of a participative observer; and Patten laments Britain’s apparently giving up the centrepiece of foreign policy for the last century: namely holding out one hand to Europe, and another to America. The latter, however, is seen as essential to solving the big problems in our world, so the book laments its new insularity.

In this life story we gain insight about so-called ‘panthers of identity politics’. Respect for racial and religious identities needs enveloping in a common set of values; and the failure to establish and esteem these lies at the root of much of the world’s ills. As a Roman Catholic serving UK governance in Northern Ireland, Patten notably helped build bridges across traditions – though he does not shy from illustrating the savage naivety of the ‘panthers’. There is an amusing analogy with football, one of his passions: ‘The chant of the Millwall Football Club fans, “No one likes us; we don’t care”, should be avoided at all costs!’

In Northern Ireland he was labelled from the day he made the sign of the cross at a civic lunch: such religious externals are clearly second nature to him, and yet his Christian allegiance is set in an ecumenical context through his marriage to Lavender, an Anglican. It is no wonder that David Cameron brought him in at short notice to iron out the logistics of the papal visit to the UK in 2010. The humble sense of how others – or God – might see us breathes through Patten with empathy for those on the sharp end of things, and this makes for good politics. His service in promoting democracy as last governor of Hong Kong is a key legacy.

There have been few political memoirs in recent years that include the unashamed profession of Christian faith that appears gently throughout First Confession. The section on mortality is particularly striking. He talks of ‘the Christian promise, that death is not the end of the story […] It is the Christian and family parts of my identity which I hope will be with me right down to the wire.’ If good living comes from good values, and good values from good vision, then here is a book that illustrates one man’s vision and values whilst encouraging self examination about ultimate ambitions.

John Twisleton