Think Venice and you might think of canals, gondolas, the Rialto Bridge, St Mark’s Square and countless crumbling and beautiful palazzi. You might also think of art, and Canaletto in particular, the 18th-century painter who immortalised Venice, a painter to a European aristocracy whose well-heeled sons and daughters trod the well-worn path of the Grand Tour, always on the lookout for a suitably impressive memento of their cultural journey.

“Canaletto has become so well known in this country that when we go to Venice today, we see it through his eyes – and in his time, the Grand Tourists did too,” says Lucy Whitaker, senior curator of paintings at the Royal Collection, who has worked on a new exhibition exploiting the collection’s superb 18th-century holdings, Canaletto and the Art of Venice, which opens at the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse this week, the largest exhibition of Canaletto in Scotland to date.

“But the Venetians weren’t interested in buying Canaletto,” says Whitaker. “He was regarded in Venice like everyone who was a view painter – as the lowest in status. Religious and history painters were at the top, the portrait and landscape artists, then view painters, who were only believed to paint what they saw.”

That view was so pervasive, indeed, that Venice itself did not own any Canalettos in its public collections until the 1980s.

The Royal Collection has the largest number of works by Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto) in the world: 53 paintings, 142 drawings and 46 prints. And it is all down to two men – Joseph Smith, an English consul, merchant, banker and art collector, who lived in Venice for his entire life, and King George III, both of whom had a shared passion – books.

Indeed it was the books that got King George his Canalettos, when his agents negotiated for the bibliophile Smith’s superb library in the early 1760s. It was perfect timing. George III had just bought a private London residence called Buckingham House (now Palace), a “comfortable family home” with 775 rooms full of bare walls urgently in need of decoration. He had negotiated with Smith to buy his library for £10,000 but the 80-year-old, desperate to provide for his new (second) wife and suffering financially from the War of Austrian Succession, offered to throw in his substantial art collection for £20,000.

Smith’s vast collection of Canalettos was a result of a partnership with the painter, working as his agent and dealer as well as a collector of the artist’s work. Grand Tourists would visit Smith and view the Canaletto works on display in his Venice home, then order their own through him, whether fully worked-up painting, drawing or engraving. It was a lucrative trade for both men, with Canaletto producing view after view of Venice.

The exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery is reduced somewhat in scale from its London showing due to the smaller walls in the former. The display begins with Smith’s first commission from Canaletto, a spectacular large-scale view of St Mark’s Square, in addition to two large paintings and many key 1720s drawings, early works that Canaletto would have shown to Smith before their partnership took root. There are paintings and drawings from his time in Padua, where he was encouraged to go by Smith during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) when few Grand Tourists got to Venice, and works including his large-scale paintings depicting the entire length of the Grand Canal, with superb technical prowess in use of light and detail.

Alongside these are works by his fellow Venetian contemporaries, fleshing out the views of Venice and its art in the 18th century.

Artists include Marco Ricci, who, like Canaletto, was employed in theatrical and operatic stage setting during the Venetian carnival, and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, who drew character drawings of Venetians.

There are hugely detailed views of Venice, full of fascinating detail which, as Whitaker points out, were in many ways works of the imagination as well as of the eye, for Canaletto often took liberties with perspective and reality, not least in his “capriccios”.

“People still think he just painted what he saw, and yet all the time he manipulated his perspective, had two views in one painting if it helped, removed buildings. Sometimes he’d straighten out the curves of the canal to show more of the view. He took reality and created a work of art.

“People say he is not imaginative, but in his capriccios his imagination is there. None of his works are prosaic – he worked both with superb technical skill and with his mind.”

Canaletto and the Art of Venice, The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Canongate, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, 0303 123 7306,, until 21 October, daily, 9.30am-6pm (last admission 5pm), adult £7.20, concessions available

Critics Choice

This multi-disciplinary exhibition at An Lanntair weaves – and knits, at times - around issues of memory, mixing contemporary art and craft with historic documentation, with threads both local and international.

Memory is a part of language, and there is much memory in the construction of Gaelic words. The Harris Oral History Project, too, is full of memory, represented here by a series of audio recordings of people from Harris, imbued with recollections of places and people gone, and relating here to community land ownership.

Working from folklore to modern reality, International artist collaborators, Eyes as Big as Plates (Finnish-Norwegian artist duo, Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth) take the everyday figures of Nordic folklore and expand it into “a continual search for modern human’s belonging to nature”. The results, here, are a photographic project involving a variety of retired people of all trades, from fishermen to opera singers, dressed in sculptural concoctions made by the wearers from natural materials in collaboration with the artists, and subsequently photographed in natural surroudings.

Hebridean artists are also represented in the exhibition, including Uist knitter and artist Gina MacDonald and Intelligent Textiles researcher Lucy Robertson who present their Sonic Flock, a knitted collection of birds, made by knitters around the UK who responded to a call for contributions, with sonic “interventions”.

And then there are the physical representations of memory, the historic everyday objects, no longer in use, collected from Harris and held in the Highland Folk Museum in Kingussie – including a fiendish-looking puffin snare and a traditional ciosan (a woven basket made of the ubiquitous and highly useful marram grass).  A thought-provoking exhibition.

Cuimhne/Memory Exhibition, An Lanntair, Kenneth Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 01851 708 480 Until 26 May, Mon – Weds, 10am – 9pm. Thurs – Sat, 10am – late.

Don't miss

Gathering under one marquee’d roof in the grounds of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow Contemporary Art Fair opens this weekend with art for every budget from £50 to over £10,000. There are established names aswell as young graduates exhibiting, with galleries from all over Scotland bringing a selection of their artists in original works and prints, as well as unique pieces from the Scottish Furniture Makers Association. There are chances over the weekend to meet some of the artists, with many new pieces specially commissioned for the fair.

Glasgow Contemporary Art Fair, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Sat 12 May 10am – 5.30pm; Sun 13 May 10am – 5pm. £4 adults/children free