the guardi family of painters


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  • THE GUARDI FAMILY OF PAINTERSAuthor(s): F. J. B. WATSONSource: Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 114, No. 5116 (MARCH 1966), pp. 266-289Published by: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and CommerceStable URL: .Accessed: 24/06/2014 23:01

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    The Fred Cook Memorial Lecture by F.J . B. WATSON , C.V.O., B.A. , F.S.A. ,

    Director of The Wallace Collection , and Surveyor of The Queen's Works of Art, delivered to the Society on

    Wednesday 12 th January 1966, with James By am Shaw , M.A., F.S.A. y a Director of P. & D. Colnaghi and Co. Ltd ., and Lecturer at Christ Churchy Oxford ,

    the Chair

    the chairman: I think it is appropriate to begin by saying something about the origin of the Fred Cook Memorial Lecture. Fred Cook was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and when his widow died in 1954 she left a sum of money to endow an annual lecture in memory of her husband. The subject is the Old Masters. The first lecture was given in 1955 by Mr. Allan G wynne- Jones, and since then the Memorial Lecture has been delivered by such experts as Sir Kenneth Clark, Sir Anthony Blunt, Sir Gerald Kelly, Mr. Boase and Professor Gombrich.

    Mr. Francis Watson succeeded the late Sir James Mann as Director of the Wallace Collection in 1963, having been on the staff at the Wallace for fifteen years previously, and in 1963 he also became Surveyor of The Queen's Works of Art (having been previously Deputy Surveyor). His recreations, according to Who's Who , are 'reading, writing and arithmetic'. What more concerns us here is his exceptionally wide knowledge of all forms of art of the eighteenth century. His catalogue of the French furniture in the Wallace collection was generally acclaimed, I think, as a masterpiece of its kind. At the Wallace Collection he is, of course, chiefly concerned with the French Schools, but he is also the author of an excellent book on Canaletto, and I believe his personal preference is for everything connected with the art, topography and life of Venice in the eighteenth century. It is as one of the best living authorities on Venetian Art that he speaks to-day.

    The following lecture , which was illustrated with lantern slides , was then delivered.


    For many people, probably for most, the name Guardi evokes merely the painter of views of Venice, a sort of more romantic Canaletto. Yet Francesco Guardi was probably at least middle-aged by eighteenth-century standards, before he adopted view-painting as an independent career. His working life was more than half over indeed before he gained complete independence for himself as a painter. For all the earlier part of his active life he was a mere assistant, generally anonymous for the outside world, working in the studio of his elder brother Giovanni Antonio, a studio engaged almost exclusively in producing figure paintings, either religious or historical, or employed on such humbler activities as making copies of the work of other masters.

    During the nineteenth century this aspect of the art of the Guardis was quite forgotten. Only Francesco's work as a painter of landscapes was remembered.


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    Even the name of his elder brother fell into total oblivion. It was only in 1923 that a book by Professor Fiocco drew attention once again to the considerable numbers of surviving figure paintings from the hands of the two brothers Guardi. This excited a good deal more interest in Italy than in this country. Understandably so, for hardly any of Francesco's landscape paintings remained in his homeland; almost all of them were in foreign hands, mostly in this country, whilst a number of Gianantonio's altarpieces survive in churches in the Veneto.

    In England the general public which visits exhibitions and picture galleries probably only became aware of the Guardis as figure painters in the winter of i960, when five huge paintings of scenes from Tasso, discovered under somewhat sensational circumstances in an Irish country house, were included in the Royal Academy's exhibition 'Italian Art and Britain'.

    In the summer of last year, the city of Venice organized a great exhibition, dedicated to the brothers Guardi, in which a large number of the view paintings were displayed together for the first time beside a wide selection of the landscapes and Venetian views. It provided a unique opportunity, and one unlikely to recur, to take a conspectus of the work of the Guardi brothers and especially to examine the significance of the figure paintings of both brothers. It was for this reason that when I was invited to give the Fred Cook Memorial Lecture, I chose the work of these two brothers, one famous, one half forgotten until recently, as my theme.

    In the course of the lecture I shall place far greater emphasis on the figure paintings than on Francesco's Venetian views. Indeed, I might well have entitled it 'The Brothers Guardi as Figure Painters'. This is not because I consider the religious and historical paintings as better or more important than the landscapes. I do not think posterity would have so readily forgotten that the Guardis were figure painters if that had been the case. I must confess, however, that since seeing the full range of Giovanni Antonio Guardi's work at Venice last summer, I take a considerably higher view of his capabilities than I did before. But it is not for that reason alone I am concentrating on their subject paintings here. It is partly because the figure compositions are so much less familiar, in England at any rate, where a large number of Francesco's Venetian vedute survive, that it seemed to me more interesting to examine this aspect of their art. But there was another reason also. In recent years there have been some very sharp exchanges, particularly between Italian scholars, as to which of the figure paintings are by Francesco and which by his elder brother. The Venice exhibition, by displaying a very large number of the figure paintings side by side for the first time (and certainly the last for many years), seemed to me to clarify this problem in a way which had been totally impossible before. Having said that, I should add that, as soon as I actually began to write the lecture I regretted my decision to make it focus largely on this particular question. The stylistic problem of distinguishing the work of the two artists is of so purely visual a character that I quickly despaired of presenting it in verbal form. If there- fore I urge you to concentrate on my slides rather than on what I have to say this afternoon it is not so much to distract your attention from the matter of my lecture as to concentrate it on what I believe to be its more important side.


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  • JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF ARTS MARCH 1 966 The main recorded facts about the Guardi family are comparatively scanty and

    quickly summarized: Gianantonio Guardi was born in Vienna on 27th May 1699, the son of Domenico Guardi, a painter from the Trentino. Francesco, their second son, was born on ist October 171 2, in Venice, where the family had transferred itself about a decade before and where Domenico had set up a studio near the SS. Apostoli. Three years later a third son, Nicol, was born. He, too, was to become a painter, but no single work by him is now identifiable; I shall have nothing to say of him today. Less than a year after this, Domenico Guardi died, leaving his seventeen-year-old son, Gianantonio, as head of the family studio to fend for himself, his widowed mother and the junior members of the family.

    A year later, Gianantonio produced his only signed and dated work. It is the feeblest sort of cult picture representing St. John Nepomuck and of no artistic significance whatever. Nevertheless, it gives some indication of the orientation of Gianantonio's artistic interests. He was a figure painter and not a landscape artist. After this, silence falls on the Guardi family for more than a decade, apart from the fact that in 171 9 the one sister Cecelia married the young Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, destined to become the greatest Venetian painter of the age. Then ten years later the will of a certain Conte Giovanni Benedetto Giovanelli, drawn up on 15th December 1731, mentions the disposition of certain copie