November 22, 2016
Shortly after the death of the British diplomat John Strange, in 1799, his collection of paintings was auctioned at the European Museum, on King Street in London. Among the four hundred and thirty-six canvases sold, fifteen were by the Venetian painter Francesco Guardi, who was celebrated for his vedute, small paintings of Venice that were popular with English tourists visiting Italy on the Grand Tour. Although Guardi’s paintings typically captured water views of his native city, in the early 1780s he painted for Strange a set of four depicting country villas and the garden of a Venetian palazzo. One of these — View of the Villa Loredan at Paese — is on long-term loan to the Frick, where it currently can be seen in the Ante Room.
Both Strange and Guardi were key figures in Venice during the second half of the eighteenth century. Guardi was the most eminent member of a family of artists from that city; his father, Domenico, his brothers Giovanni Antonio and Nicolò, and his son Giacomo were also painters. The family was so rooted in Venetian artistic circles that Francesco’s sister, Cecilia, married Giambattista Tiepolo. Following in the footsteps of the older Canaletto, Guardi created paintings of Venice that were immediately recognizable by their elegant and sketchy brushstrokes. He worked throughout his career for an international clientele, and one of his greatest admirers was John Strange.
Born in 1732, Strange was educated in the sciences at Clare College, Cambridge, and between 1774 and 1786 he served as the British Resident (effectively, the ambassador) to Venice. He moved there with his wife, Mary Ann Gould, and quickly became one of the central figures of the city’s international intellectual community. In addition to being a diplomat, Strange was an antiquarian, geologist, and collector. He assembled a staggering collection of natural history specimens, antiquities, paintings, drawings, and prints. He also had a substantial library. Among the paintings he acquired were canvases by Venetian Old Masters, including Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Paolo Veronese, and contemporary artists, such as Tiepolo, Canaletto, Rosalba Carriera, and — above all — Guardi. Like other British diplomats in Venice before him, Strange was active both as a dealer (recommending Guardi to other international patrons) and as a collector.
In 1913, Henry Clay Frick acquired two vedute by Guardi, both of which had been commissioned by Strange in the 1770s. One, Regatta in Venice, among the most characteristic works by the painter, depicts a gondola race on the Grand Canal. Its pendant, View of the Cannaregio Canal, shows Palazzo Surian-Bellotto (at the time the residence of the French ambassador), with the Ponte dei Tre Archi to the left. Both paintings remained in the Frick family until 1984, when Helen Clay Frick bequeathed them to The Frick Collection. Since then, they have been displayed in the Reading Room of the Frick Art Reference Library.
The canvas on loan to the Frick depicts the Villa Loredan in Paese, a small town west of Treviso, on the road to Castelfranco Veneto. (Its pendant, in the Wrightsman Collection in New York, describes the back of the villa and its garden.) The house was built by the architect Giorgio Massari around 1719 for the Loredan family, in the Palladian style typical of the area. Before 1779, Count Gerolamo Antonio Loredan sold the building to Marchese Giuseppe de Canonicis, who rented it to Strange soon after he moved to Venice, for use as his country residence. For two days in 1777, Strange hosted there the Duke of Gloucester (the younger brother of George III) and subsequently renamed the house Gloucester Lodge in honor of his royal guest.
Another painting in the series commissioned by Strange depicts the Villa Pisani Sagredo, which stood immediately to the right of the Villa Loredan. Known as Villa del Timpano Arcuato for its prominent arched pediment, the work is in a private collection, on loan to the National Gallery, London. The fourth represents the gardens of Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo in Venice, although it is not clear how the Contarini’s garden is related to Strange or the three views of the Paese villas.
The four canvases were sold en bloc at the Strange auction and remained together until 1941, when they were dispersed at the sale of Viscount Rothermere’s collection. Because of the significance of their patron and the fact that the scenes were unusual for Guardi, they have long been among the artist’s most sought-after works.
The painting on loan to the Frick shows the façade of Strange’s villa, with its prominent gate and extensive grounds. To the left of the main building is the villa’s barchessa, a utilitarian structure, typically used to store grain. Behind it is the roof of the Villa Pellegrini, constructed in 1778. A group of aristocrats populate the scene, elegant men and women dressed in French fashion, with their small dogs. Almost in the center, providing a stark contrast, are two street urchins. Guardi’s painting provides a lasting image of the Villa Loredan; unfortunately, the structure was demolished before 1833, and only its barchessa survives today.
Guardi, View of the Villa Loredan at Paese, ca. 1780. Oil on canvas. Private collection, on loan to The Frick Collection