The Wallace Collection

Venice: The Piazza San Marco, 1828, Richard Parkes Bonington, p375
Venice: The Piazza San Marco, 1828, Richard Parkes Bonington, p375
Treasure of the Month - December 2011

Richard Parkes Bonington: Venice: the Piazza San Marco, 1828

The short-lived English artist Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) is better represented in the Wallace Collection than anywhere else, with ten oils (all on display in this gallery) and twenty-five watercolours. The presence of this outstanding collection is due to the enthusiasm of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, the father of Sir Richard Wallace, who acquired all the Wallace Collection’s Boningtons between 1843, the year when he first began collecting in earnest, and February 1870, just six months before his death.

Like Lord Hertford, Bonington spent much of his life in France. Although trained in the Paris studio of the history painter Baron Gros (whose General Bonaparte reviewing Troops is on display in the Nineteenth-Century Gallery), it was as a painter of landscapes in watercolour that he first revealed his unusually instinctive talent for painting. Indeed his watercolour views in Normandy and Picardy were so popular with private collectors that from his earliest student days Bonington was able to make a profitable living from his work. Sketching tours, where artists made drawn or painted studies of picturesque sites which would be the basis for more complex pictures composed later in the studio, were an established part of many early nineteenth-century artists’ practice. At first Bonington confined his travels to the north-west of France, but in 1826 he made a tour of northern Italy lasting eleven weeks, four of which were spent in Venice. Although his travelling companion, Charles Rivet, reported that he missed his tea and beefsteak, it is clear from his artistic response, which included many drawings and a glorious series of open-air oil sketches (which are sadly unrepresented in the Wallace Collection), that Bonington loved Venice and responded with joy to its subtle light and beguiling architecture.

This oil painting, Venice: the Piazza San Marco, is one of small group of large views of the city that the artist produced after his return to Paris. It was included in the posthumous sale of Bonington’s effects held in London in 1829 where - no doubt because of its unfinished state - it fetched the low sum of £18. (It is not known when Lord Hertford acquired it.) If Bonington had lived long enough, he would have added details such as the bronze horses on the façade of the basilica of San Marco, or the windows on the left side of the Campanile. No doubt he was attempting to compete with Canaletto whose paintings were still popular with collectors, and he was also aware that as yet there were no other large-scale views of Venice by any of his own contemporaries. (Turner was to fill this gap in the 1830s, but by then Bonington was no longer alive to challenge him).  A recent cleaning of the Wallace Collection’s painting has revealed something of the artist’s crisp handling of architectural features, but there can be little doubt that, if Bonington had lived to complete the picture, it would have been improved by the addition of rich glazes and sharp touches of colour.

Gallery Talks:

1pm Tuesday 6 and Tuesday 20 December by Stephen Duffy, Curator of 19th Century Pictures and Frames

Further Reading:

Richard Parkes Bonington, by Stephen Duffy, The Wallace Collection 2003