Getting to Canaletto by Curator of European and Decorative Art: Stanton Thomas

It’s been four years and about two months since I started working on the Canaletto project. I actually began it before I even arrived in Memphis to take a position at the museum. Our former director, Kaywin Feldman, called me at my home in Cleveland, Ohio, and told me that the Brooks was planning a Canaletto exhibition. And she told me that it was going to be my project, and that I needed to write a portion of a funding grant.

She had sent me files on the Brooks’ great painting by Canaletto, the View of the Grand Canal from the Campo San Vio. I was surprised by how little there was about George Proctor, the man who first owned the picture. So I chose to work on him and the painting’s ownership history.

I love working on ownership history, also known as provenance, it can reveal not just the names of owners, but facets of their lives and information about their families. My research on the ownership of the Canaletto painting began with reading wills. Thanks to the digital age, huge numbers of wills from the 1600s onwards are available online. It was fairly easy to find George Proctor’s, and those of his brother, sister, and nephew. Mr. Proctor outlived his brother, and inherited his property. Neither of them ever married, but devoted their time to developing their shipping business.

They were very successful. Since he had no heirs when Mr. died, he left everything to his sister’s oldest son. The will recorded that various friends and servants were left small things (watches, rings, etc.) and some pensions, but the bulk of the estate went to the nephew on the condition that he change his last name from Beauchamp, to Proctor-Beauchamp. The will also stipulated that the newly minted Mr. Proctor-Beauchamp should go on the Grand Tour with a sober, qualified, and reputable guide. Apparently Mr. Proctor wanted his heir to experience the benefits of travel throughout continental Europe, but only under the watch of a chaperone.

After reading the wills, and learning more about the Proctor and Proctor-Beauchamp families, I headed to Norwich, England. Located in East Anglia, Norwich is famous for its spectacular cathedral and medieval buildings, and the huge country houses scattered about the surrounding countryside.

The wills showed that Mr. Proctor (after retiring) had purchased an enormous estate and country house named Langley Park in East Anglia, and the internet revealed that the structure was still standing. It was an amazing experience to rent a car in Norwich and drive out into the English countryside to see the house. In particular, the rental agency had upgraded me to a “first class, luxury vehicle.” So I found myself suddenly driving on the wrong side of the road in a massive Mercedes.

It was a memorable experience, especially traversing the numerous roundabouts—features which I quickly renamed “moving circles of death.” Langley Park, Mr. Proctor’s house, is located near Loddon, a lovely country village. It is now a private boarding school, but it nonetheless looked much as must have did during Proctor’s time. Even more interesting than wandering through the man’s house was a beautiful portrait of him, still hanging in the west dining room. It showed him around the time he would have visited Venice.

While seeing Proctor’s house was interesting, the most fascinating discoveries about him lay in the Norwich Records Office. This regional archive preserves wills, land grants, inventories, and private papers from families and public institutions throughout East Anglia. It gave me great information about Proctor and his business ventures. I was even able to read his original account books, which recorded his banking transactions and food commodities trading. Even more interesting, the archives preserved his personal daybook–a pocket-sized leather-bound volume filled with his records of daily expenditures. Written in his own hand, it recorded his private purchases, which ranged from chocolate to picture frames, and horses to china. It was strange and wonderful to be able to leaf through pages he had written himself, and to hold a book that he would have carried with him in his coat pockets.

The most interesting information about Proctor came from private inventories preserved in the Norwich Art Museum. These recorded that Proctor commissioned the painting directly from Canaletto while visiting Venice in 1740, along with three other works. Of course, it was also great to visit Norwich. The art museum is located in a converted Norman Castle, and the entire city is largely unchanged from the medieval period.

Learning about George Proctor and his descendants was fascinating, as was the entire trip and indeed, the long, four-year journey to discover more about the history of our Canaletto. In addition to learning about a single painting, I have a much better understanding of daily life in the eighteenth century and the economies of daily life in country house. I am looking forward to applying this knowledge to my next project. And hoping that it won’t be as long as four years before it comes to fruition!

A special thanks to Stanton for his perspective and giving us the insight into a beautiful exhibit from its genesis into its public unveiling. Come check out the Venice in the Age of Canaletto exhibit which is on view until May 9, 2010.

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2 thoughts on “Getting to Canaletto by Curator of European and Decorative Art: Stanton Thomas

  1. Great post! I love this Canaletto exhibition even more after reading about the research that went into it.

  2. I agree – great post! I also appreciate the Canaletto exhibition more after reading about the research. And Dr. Thomas’s account makes me want to visit Norwich.

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