The UK celebration of the 60 year reign of Queen Elizabeth II included Sunday June 3 as an extraordinary river pageant, performed along the River Thames in central London. Over one thousand boats, from canoes to battleships, came together in a lengthy procession, led by a barge of pealing bells, and punctuated by music and by spectacles along the river bank. Even in the gathering mist of the predictable British rain, it was a compelling event for spectators and television viewers. A constant feature of the television narrative, picked up in other media, was the visual inspiration of an earlier river pageant, represented to us on the day by Antonio Canaletto’s painting of that event. This painting is a highlight of a current exhibition celebrating the relationship between the English crown and the River Thames for just such displays of visible royal authority, at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. As the BBC commentary put it, the live transmission of the Diamond Jubilee pageant gave us repeated ‘Canaletto moments’, seemingly bringing the historic painting to life.
The painting is one of a pair commissioned by a Czech prince as souvenirs of his London visit (rather enormous postcards at over 2m long); ‘The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day, Looking Towards the City and St Paul’s Cathedral’ depicts a variety of small river crafts, included several richly gilded covered rowing barges, filling the width of the river on their way up from the City towards Westminster. The Diamond Jubilee pageant included a similar gorgeously carved and gilded barge, commissioned for the occasion, and there were indeed televised images that reflected the crowded, celebratory, image that Canaletto created of the 1750s pageant. There is an important distinction, however, in that the Canaletto boats are heading away from the City, whereas the Diamond Jubilee boats travelled from Westminster to the City, with the Queen’s barge moored by the Tower of London.
The Canaletto in question, undated but painted before 1752, represents not a royal event but a civic ceremony, leading up to the swearing in of a new Lord Mayor of London. The official post of Lord Mayor of London had existed since 1189, but it was confirmed by King John as a right of the citizens of London to elect a mayor each year, provided that the mayor presented himself at the Palace of Westminster to swear allegiance to the crown. So each year, the new mayor travelled the two miles west from the City of London to Westminster, along the easiest route: the river. This occasion became a major ceremonial event by the time Canaletto (1697-1768) was in London, between 1746-55. The journey symbolises the relationship between the merchant citizens and the authority of the Crown: the City of London evolved its own system of limited democracy before the English parliament, probably because the power of the merchants to raise money to loan to successive monarchs was too useful to be repressed. There is an ancient ceremony (rarely enacted) of Temple Bar, a lost gateway on the western boundary of the City, where the monarch asks permission to enter the City, and the Lord Mayor responds by handing over his Sword of State: a ritual that recognises that the Crown granted the City its powers.
This is a story also of urban geography, from the familiar origins of London as a Roman city protected by defensive walls, to a gradual expansion westwards. Westminster was originally a separate hamlet further inland, rather marshy, but suitable for a Saxon monastery and royal palace. Here the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter, Westminster, was refounded from obscure origins, by Edward the Confessor (canonised as St Edward), and consecrated in 1065. Edward’s successor Harold II died at the Battle of Hasting in 1066 and the victorious William the Conqueror was crowned here. Around 160 years later, Henry III planned a replacement for the old church, working with his master mason Henry of Reynes. This gothic abbey church is the present church. The old royal palace of Westminster expanded beyond functioning as a royal residence to acquire the offices of state under Henry III. Henry’s motivation for all this activity at Westminster has been linked to his strategic adoption of his royal forbear, St Edward, as an appropriate royal saint. The art historian Paul Binski argues that the cult of a royal saint became more politically useful to Henry III because it was a time when aspects of English crown rule were becoming more formalised. Westminster emerged as the seat of government out of a peripatetic notion of governance. The abbey with its royal saint and the nearby royal palace, both established by Edward, were joined by the exchequer and treasury under Henry II and John (removing them from the old palace at Winchester), so that by the time of Henry III’s reign Westminster represented the heart of national power, a role taken forward by parliament to the present day. Westminster was being enhanced as a location distinct from the City of London, with a royal patron for the rebuilding of the monastic church making sure that this was an ‘emphatically royal’ district. It is the rebuilding of the abbey that makes the visual and geographical impact of the presence of royal power so powerful.
Canaletto painted several London river views, and depicted the conclusion of one mayor’s river pageant as the mayoral barge arrived at the new Westminster bridge (only the second river bridge for London) ready to alight for his visit to the old palace. Today, the only surviving building is the great Westminster hall, adjacent to the nineteenth-century Houses of Parliament. The 2012 Diamond Jubilee pageant correctly enacted the royal performance from west to east, as the Queen’s journey ended at the royal castle of the Tower of London, just outside the City of London boundary, in full view of the nineteenth-century Tower Bridge. The royal relationship with the City was acted out two days later, in the official service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral, followed by a reception at the Lord Mayor’s official residence, the Mansion House.
Registered Open University students can view a short slideshow called Canaletto in 2012, of Canaletto and related London images via the Open University Library.