Perhaps no other object in our collection has lately received such immense media coverage than our splendid 1747 Westminster Bridge, with the Lord Mayor’s Procession on the Thames by Canaletto, yet few if any media outlets, including the New York Times, which spoke of it at considerable length, bothered to mention that the painting belongs to us and lives in New Haven, Connecticut. As regards proper or even cursory acknowledgment the media are most definitely a one-way street. Try posting something of theirs on YouTube, and one finds that it is generally removed in a matter of hours. Still, it was pleasing that our picture attracted such a lot of attention in connection with The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee flotilla last Sunday, and the resonances were indeed mighty powerful, especially when those plucky rowers fought a chill breeze on the same long, straight reach of the Thames that stretches between Millbank and the Palace of Westminster.
In Canaletto’s case, many of the little boats belonged to the watermen, whose closed-shop practices and stranglehold upon river traffic prompted the government of King George II to build only the second bridge over the Thames. The watermen appear to have resisted this unwelcome interference by sabotaging the first couple of spans, which duly collapsed, but the creation of this short-cut to the City of London via Southwark and London Bridge went ahead and was eventually successful. Indeed the task of painting it seems to have been the reason why Canaletto came to London in the first place. Interestingly, Canaletto painted the bridge as it was initially projected and not as it eventually looked. The elaborate personifications of the Thames were never installed in the middle, and nothing I think came of those useful cockle-shell niches for rainy weather. However much else last Sunday made you feel as if nothing much had changed on the Thames in the intervening 265 years.