Canaletto painting of the Abbey goes on display

Monday, 2nd March 2020

Painting of a procession of the Knights of the Order of the Bath, in their robes, leaving Westminster Abbey

A Canaletto painting of Westminster Abbey rarely seen in public goes on display in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries this week on Thursday 5th March until autumn 2020. The oil painting, Westminster Abbey with a procession of the Knights of the Bath is the earliest work of art to depict the Abbey’s iconic west towers.

The painting is being exhibited in the 275th anniversary year of architect Nicholas Hawksmoor’s completion of the west front of the Abbey. It is thought to be the first time that the painting has gone on display at the Abbey.

Richly executed in Canaletto’s signature style, it was painted around 1749, four years after the west towers were completed. It shows the grand procession from the Abbey to the House of Lords of the newly installed Knights of the Order of the Bath, which had taken place on 26th June that year.

The painting, 100cm by 100cm, was commissioned by Joseph Wilcocks, the Dean of Westminster from 1731–1756 and bequeathed to the Abbey in 1792 by his son. Since then it has hung in the Abbey’s Deanery and been occasionally loaned for public display, believed to be just five times in the last hundred years.

The Dean of Westminster, Dr David Hoyle said:

I am delighted that we are widening public access to the Abbey Collection by putting Dean Wilcocks’ Canaletto on display in the Abbey’s Galleries, and especially so in the 275th anniversary year of the completion of the west towers. The painting is one of the finest views we have of the Abbey by one of the finest artists of the 18th century.

The King of Arms of the Order of the Bath, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton GCB said:

I am very pleased that the public will have the opportunity to see this beautiful painting by Canaletto which is an important historic record of the Order of the Bath.

The Abbey’s archive does not reveal how or why Dean Wilcocks commissioned the painting but he demonstrated great judgement in selecting Canaletto. Canaletto remains one of the most celebrated painters of the 18th century, famous for his depictions of Venice. Between 1746–1755 he lived in England and painted many London views, the majority of which were bought by George III and are in the Royal Collection.

Dean Wilcocks may have been very proud of the Abbey’s new west front; certainly he viewed it as a personal achievement, with the towers featuring prominently on his funeral monument in the Abbey. The Order of the Bath ceremony was also an impressive way to depict the newly built Abbey, with Dean Wilcocks making an appearance in the procession in fine scarlet robes and black tasselled hat.

Canaletto was at the height of his powers during his period in London and the quality of his work was exceptionally high. Canaletto didn’t travel frequently; but he followed his aristocratic patrons to England, where he lived in Soho. He painted many scenes near the Abbey and on the river, including Westminster Bridge under construction. A painting of the interior of the Abbey’s Lady Chapel is in a private collection. Another version, after Canaletto, will be exhibited back-to-back with Westminster Abbey with a procession of the Knights of the Bath.

Many of Canaletto’s London views show buildings either newly completed, like the Abbey’s west towers or refurbished. Most are fascinating records of scenes that no longer survive.

The Order of the Bath is one of the oldest chivalric orders originating in medieval times, and was revived by George I in 1725. The Abbey’s Henry VII Lady Chapel was designated as the Chapel of the Order. The Order continues to this day and the ceremony to install new Knights usually takes place every four years. Her Majesty The Queen is Sovereign of the Order and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales is Great Master.

Painting of a procession of the Knights of the Order of the Bath, in their robes, leaving Westminster Abbey

'Westminster Abbey with a procession of the Knights of the Bath' by Canaletto