When I (and probably you) think of Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto), I think of his great compositions, with their great expanses of great sky; his stunning attention to architectural precision, observed with a keen draughtsman’s eye; his transparent use of paint to render light and shadow on stone and brick as well as any modern photographer. When I think of Canaletto, I therefore think of buildings – cityscapes that have never been surpassed – usually seen reflected across shimmering water. However, in Compton Verney’s current exhibition, Canaletto: Celebrating Britain, two things caught my attention that I would never (through my own ignorance) have attributed to him – because I have never spent so much time before staring deep into his work, glasses perched on the tip of my nose, seeing his creations afresh, startled by his obvious skill and intelligence… – firstly, his wonderful use of ink and wash in his ‘sketches’ for his larger works; and, secondly, his superb portrayals (in any medium) of the people who inhabit them, and therefore bring his masterpieces to life. Oh, and there’s nearly always a dog in there, somewhere…!
The figures – especially in the pen-and-ink drawings – are caught with a minimum of fuss, but a maximum of proficiency: simple strokes (and magical, minuscule sparkling white dots for lit cotton) that delineate their poses: boatmen pulling heftily on their oars, or gondoliers sculling, muscling their rèmi into the deep Venetian waters – sometimes in the foreground, where, again, astonishing, almost Rembrandt-like interest and detail are brought to bear; although these craft frequently move out of shot, half-captured: adding even richer verisimilitude to the pictures. There is something particularly fluid about these characters: who contrast beautifully with the immutability of the solid, ruled world they inhabit. And each is recognizably an individual. (My favourites? The two servants beating the large rug, just catching the sun, in London: the Old Horse Guards from St James’ Park.)
If I initially visited the gallery for Canaletto, I lingered much, much longer for The Non-Conformists: Photographs by Martin Parr – in a much calmer, thankfully less-crowded setting. This is photography at its most powerful, its most human: monochrome explorations of the soul, of close communities, of the realities of life – and all captured with both deep pathos and wit. If you don’t believe that the camera is an equal tool to the brush, then this exhibition, I hope, will change your mind.
I left with misted eyes (and will return so, no doubt) and a deep contentment: not only for remembered moments parallel to many of my own youth (based on foundations set deep, also, in the heritage of my grandad’s and mum’s Yorkshire Methodist upbringings); but for the sincerity and sympathy of observation. I must – as did others – have chuckled out loud at some of the absurdities, too: the man on the step-ladder, in Hebden Bridge, one foot firmly anchored in nothingness; the Silver Jubilee street party, Elland, suddenly abandoned, and washed out by torrential rain of a very certain Northern kind. You could hear the absent children screaming and giggling as they ran for shelter.
This is art at least as great as Canaletto’s – but now filling each frame with the characters that were once rendered small by their surrounding built environment – filling them with radiance that emanates from within; painting the people large, the centre of our attention (even when they are present only by their previous actions). The buildings – as beautiful as they are, to my Pennine gaze – now there only to cradle these vivid beings, give them context. This art is also – as it should be – honest: you do not feel the touch of manipulation of poses or settings; the light and situations are natural; and there is the same thoughtful attention to detail. This is how it was; and, in these moments made permanent, how these graceful mortals will remain. I can think of no better memorial; and am grateful for the opportunity to bear witness.
Back outside in the grounds, under the glooming clouds; then re-exploring the memorials in the crumbling chapel; I felt a deeper connection – fanciful, perhaps – to those who had gone before; had made this world for us; left their gentle, subtle marks on both the physical and mental landscape I now inhabit. Such – as I have said before – is the potency of Art: not just to entertain, or to move us; or to make us ask more valuable questions of those, and that, which surrounds us; but to enrich all that comes after. We are so very fortunate….