This painting shows the inside of the famous rotunda (demolished in 1805) at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea. Ranelegh opened in 1742 as one of London’s most prestigious pleasure gardens, and its main attraction was this vast circular building in which fashionable society could attend balls and listen to music.
To the right, an orchestra performs, catching the attention of a small crowd. We look down on the elegant clientele, which, along with the light that floods the space, emphasises the building’s loftiness. Canaletto’s theatrical lighting highlights the curvature of the building and sparkles on the delicate chandeliers. We aren't just watching the concert – we watch the men, women and children scattered across an enormous stage.
Canaletto painted this work in 1754, towards the end of his nine years in England. He had dominated the London market for view paintings – no other artist, native or foreign, could compare to him.
This painting shows the inside of the famous rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea. Ranelagh opened in 1742 as one of London’s most prestigious pleasure gardens, and its main attraction was this vast circular building in which fashionable society could attend balls and listen to music (the young Mozart even performed there in 1764). Despite the popularity of these grand pavilions and formal gardens during the eighteenth century, they fell out of fashion as the century progressed; the rotunda closed in 1803 and was demolished in 1805.
Made almost entirely of wood, the rotunda was 150 metres wide and contained 100 private supper-boxes. Concerts were performed on a grand stage – and here, to the right, an orchestra plays, filling the cavernous space with music. They catch the attention of a small crowd while other visitors sit around tables, enjoying refreshment under the colonnade (admission fee included a cup of tea or coffee). Small groups stroll around the central column, which is exquisitely painted and gilded with rococo motifs, and encases a huge fireplace that would entice visitors during wet and chilly weather.
We look down on the elegant clientele, which, along with the light that floods the space, emphasises the building’s loftiness. While sunlight peeks through a doorway on the left, it’s not strong enough to fill the room, and is too low to light the walls and central column in the way we see. Instead, Canaletto’s theatrical lighting comes from the upper left corner, highlighting the smooth curvature of the roof, archways and windows, and sparkling on the delicate chandeliers. We are not just watching the concert – we watch the men, women and children scattered across the scene, as if on an enormous stage. They too provide a sense of the building’s scale.
An inscription in Italian on the back states that the picture was painted in 1754 during Canaletto’s stay in England, during which he dominated the London market for view paintings – no other artist, native or foreign, could compare to him. This is one of six views commissioned by Thomas Hollis, a close friend of Joseph Smith, Canaletto’s loyal patron, and one of many British travellers who had likely become captivated by the artist’s work during their trips to Venice.
This view relates closely to a print by Nathaniel Parr, An Inside View of the Rotunda in Ranelagh Gardens, published in 1751 – around the same time as Canaletto’s earlier version of this subject taken from the opposite side of the interior (Compton Verney, Warwickshire). One other painting in our collection dates from Canaletto’s time in England: Eton College.
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