Canalettos may be saved for the nation by mystery buyer

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The Independent Online

Two celebrated paintings by Italian master Canaletto, which are in danger of being sold and shipped abroad, may yet be saved for the British public by an unknown foreign art collector.

The landscapes, which show two of London's 18th-century pleasure grounds, were recently placed under an export ban by the Government amid concerns that they were to be sold abroad.

Valued by three independent experts at between £6.45m and £7m, the pair of paintings - View of the Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens and The Interior of the Rotunda, Ranelagh - form a vital part of Britain's artistic heritage.

Canaletto, who is famed for his postcard-like portrayals of Venice, lived and worked in Britain from 1746 until 1755, in order to be closer to his patrons.

The current anonymous owner of the two paintings had an application for an export licence rejected by the Culture minister, David Lammy, in December last year to allow time for a British buyer to be found.

Now correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed a new twist in the saga to keep the works in the UK. In February, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced an offer to buy the paintings had been made, and extended the deferral period until 20 June. But the department gave no other details.

However, the newly released correspondence reveals that an agent acting for the proposed buyer has suggested buying the masterpieces in stages - "one million now and the remaining five million over the next two to three years," with the intention of allowing regular public viewings. The agent also sought clarification on the need to allow public access to the paintings, asking: "Does this mean a public gallery - perhaps a municipal museum, could it mean a commercial gallery?"

Details of the proposed purchaser were passed to an Italian art expert, Dawson Carr, at the National Gallery. Mr Carr is the "champion" for the paintings, responsible for dealing with interested buyers. Champions may also be approached by private prospective buyers for help in arranging an undertaking with a public gallery.

An eight-strong panel of experts had advised Mr Lammy to place a temporary stop on the export because the paintings "were so closely connected with our history and national life that their departure would be a misfortune and they were of outstanding significance for the study of Canaletto and, in particular, his English period."

The experts also concluded, however, that the paintings were not Canaletto's best work. "The paintings, while attractive and skilfully painted, were rather dark. It was the subject matter that gave these paintings their special significance."

The Rotunda shows the inside of the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea in 1754, around 10 years after it opened. Vauxhall Gardens, depicted in the other painting, had opened in Kennington around a century earlier.

Entertainment on offer varied from masked balls to concerts: Mozart once performed at Ranelagh, while at Vauxhall a rehearsal for Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1749 attracted an audience of 12,000.

It is thought that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has no absolute requirement for works of art that have been released from an export ban to be exhibited. But a buyer who intends to exhibit would be preferred. The DCMS places around 50 works of art on an export ban list each year, and up to 20 are currently "live". Around half of those listed nevertheless end up leaving the country.