Considered to be one of the supreme examples of Gothic architecture in England and a testament to the great patronage of the Tudors, the chapel was begun by Henry VII in 1503 as a shrine for Henry VI, whose canonization was expected, though ultimately did not occur. The building accounts are now lost, but the architect is thought to have been either Robert Vertu I or Robert Janyns. Henry VII died in 1507, leaving funds for the completion of the chapel, which was undertaken by Henry VIII and finished in circa 1512. Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York are buried there in a tomb with recumbent gilt bronze effigies, of circa 1512-1518, by the Florentine sculptor Pietro Torrigiani. Among other royals interred there are Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary I; Mary, Queen of Scots and her son James I; Charles II; and William III and his wife Mary II.2 In 1725, when King George III reinstated the Order of the Bath, the building was officially designated as their chapel. Another of Canaletto’s London views depicts the Knights Companion of the Order of the Bath in procession from Westminster Abbey to the House of Lords on 20 June 1749 (collection of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey).
Canaletto first came to England in May of 1746, but already had a strong connection with that country long before his arrival. In Venice he had firmly established himself, from the late 1720s, as the leading provider of Venetian vedute to the foreign tourists, most of whom were British, coming in a steady stream to visit the city. One of his great patrons in Venice was Joseph Smith (circa 1674-1770) an English merchant who served as British Consul from 1744-60 and who eventually acted as his agent, brokering sales of his work to other British patrons. His move to London after two decades of painting primarily Venetian views may have been prompted by a desire to explore new subject matter. However, another reason may have been that the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession in 1740 had discouraged English visitors from undertaking the Grand Tour, thereby reducing a large portion of his client base. Whatever the reason, Canaletto found considerable success in England and, except for an eight-month return to Venice in 1750-51, remained there for nine years.
In the present work, Canaletto has chosen a viewpoint from an angle along the central nave of the chapel looking towards the tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The grille surrounding the tomb can be seen at the far end of the chapel. Heraldic banners belonging to the Knights of the Order of Bath hang over the stalls and east end of the building. The awe-inspiring architecture is the main focus, though the artist has included a few figures who serve to emphasize the scale and grandeur of the interior. Interestingly, Canaletto has highlighted the monument to John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1647-1721), designed by Denis Plumière and executed by Peter Scheemakers and Laurent Delvaux (fig. 2), drawing our eye to that structure rather than to the tomb of Henry VII which is the central focus of the chapel. Sheffield was a successful politician who was appointed Lord Privy Seal in 1702 by Queen Anne. He was also a poet, patron of John Dryden and friend of Alexander Pope. In 1702-5, he built Buckingham House, on the site of the current Buckingham Palace, which was owned in Canaletto’s time by the Duke’s illegitimate son Sir Charles Sheffield. It has been suggested that, perhaps, Canaletto was trying to attract the attention of this particular patron.3
1. In Commentari in Cygnea Cantio, 1545.
2. Henry VI for whom the chapel was originally conceived was, in the end, not interred there and is buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.
3. See C. Beddington, under Literature, p. 95.
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