September 02, 2004
A Canaletto crowd scene

I like photographing tourists, and I like it when some of the tourists are my friends. Because of them being in London and me wanting to help show them round, I get to visit some classic tourist traps of the sort I often neglect, because, what with me living here anyway, they can wait.

Thus it was that when some foreign friends were in town last week I found myself inside London's National Gallery. I should go to this place more often.

You can't look at everything in a place like this. The trick is to focus in on a few works, either predetermined, or which force themselves on your attention on the day. With me, it was some of the Caneletto paintings I found myself scrutinising, in particular, this one.

This is what the whole thing looks like (and I hope the stuff at the bottom doesn't mean I'm going to have scary lawyer enemies):


But what fascinated me was the detail. I was struck, in some of the other Canalettos, by how badly he did water, which he often made look like a shiny floor covered in white squiggles. But, I was also struck by how well he did people, and buildings, and by how much detail he was able to cram in, which only the very best reproductions show. I like his people especially. His figures seem to have been done quite quickly and rather schematically, but they really live.

This is a situation where the Internet really does not (yet) do it. Here is the kind of thing I mean:


The original was much better, as I am sure you can imagine.

I had my camera with me while I was looking at this picture, but I don't think me using it would have gone down very well. Maybe there were postcards with detail like this. And I bet there are books with such details reproduced well. But no worries, because I can just go back to the original.

The other thing I found myself thinking, about the pictures in the National Gallery generally, was that there were lots of "famous" paintings on view. Suddenly, I started to wonder if their fame is a local thing, an English thing, a function of which paintings England possesses, as opposed to which ones by all these painters really are the best. Nationalism takes many forms, including the one that goes: our paintings by this foreign guy are better than yours.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:31 PM
Category: Painting