Canaletto, his finest work, and a royal exhibition

The British royal family has the biggest collection of Canalettos in the world thanks to the canniness, rather than the madness, of King George III. He bought all of them - 50 paintings and 150 rare drawings - for the bargain price of £20,000 when Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice who had been Canaletto's greatest patron, was elderly and strapped for cash.

The Grand Canal series was painted as a commission for Consul Smith, who even had one of the canvases updated after he bought and renovated his own palazzo on the waterfront. They are being displayed with two more paintings of Venetian festivals as well as the biggest selection of Canaletto drawings ever shown. It is the first exhibition of the Royal Collection Canalettos in 25 years.

Martin Clayton, the exhibition's curator, said: "The Grand Canal series was painted when he was at the height of his powers before he settled into the more formulaic pictures of later in his career. This group is the most complete series of the Grand Canal he ever executed."

Canaletto's works had come into vogue with British, French and German nobility, thanks to the efforts of Consul Smith - although the artist was never to be fêted on home turf as he was overseas. "His customers were nearly entirely foreigners," Mr Clayton said. The drawings are works of art in their own right, he said, produced from sketches the artist used to produce the paintings.

Canaletto in Venice runs until 23 April. It will transfer to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh in June.

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