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A Strange Business:
Making Art and Money in 19th-Century Britain
IT IS impossible to describe what this book is about: easier simply to say that it is wonderful. James Hamilton is an art historian who has published a much-acclaimed biography of JMW Turner, so he is comfortable among 19th-century artists, but his field here is much broader. He is writing about the world in which artists moved, the patrons and collectors who helped them, the colourmen and chemists who supplied their paints, the engravers who made their art accessible through reproduction, the institutions that could help or hinder their careers. If you were setting out to be an artist in 19th-century London, this is the book you would want as your vade mecum.
Then as now, the great aristocratic collectors were not much use to young artists. They tended to prefer the Old Masters; they would head for the Pall Mall dealers or salerooms when they wanted to acquire another Rembrandt or Rubens for the ancestral pile. The royal family were, as usual, flaky patrons, Queen Victoria buying dozens of Landseers when she could have bought Turners. But the new rich, of whom there were many in Victorian Britain - the men who made their fortunes from pen nibs or machine parts and built their own mansions - were on the lookout for self-made talent like their own and wary (perhaps rightly) of the smooth-talking world of dealers and auction houses. They preferred to buy from living artists, whom they could meet and often befriend. As today, new money generally preferred new art.
However, there were no White Cube galleries: artists had to market their own wares, usually through the Royal Academy. It was good to be bold, on Damien Hirst lines. Turner caused outrage when in 1803, aged 28, he showed his first painting as a Royal Academician, The Festival upon the Opening of the Vintage of Macon, and priced it at 300 guineas, for which you could have bought a small Titian. A baronet offered him 250 guineas, but Turner turned him down; when the baronet later offered 300 Turner said the price had gone up to 400 guineas. In fact, he sold it to another aristocrat for 300 guineas, but he had established the principle: he knew the value of his talent.
Anyone with talent could in theory become a painter, but setting up as a sculptor was difficult because it entailed such enormous overheads. There was no shortage of demand, both for funerary monuments and public sculpture - every self-respecting city would want its statue of Queen Victoria, and not only in Britain but throughout the Empire - but you needed plenty of capital to start. A single block of marble could cost 1,200 guineas and had to be shipped from Italy. A canny sculptor such as Joseph Nollekens would know how to design a figure so that the chunk of marble cut from between the legs would be enough to make the head, but even so it was expensive stuff. And whereas a painter might have one or two assistants, a sculptor would need a dozen just to manhandle the work. He would also need winches and lifting gear and perhaps a furnace if he hoped to make bronzes. If he were very ambitious he would also invest in James Watt's sculpture-copying machine that could upsize or downsize a model. As Hamilton says, with typical brio: 'The sculptor's workshop was to a painter's studio what a slaughterhouse is to a chicken run: noisier, bigger, busier, bloodier.' Perhaps for that reason, sculptors tended to run in dynasties — once a workshop had been established, it made sense for the sons to carry on.
Then there were the engravers and print-sellers, who disseminated British art throughout the Empire - almost every Australian and New Zealand home would have a Landseer or a Constable on the wall. The most popular artists made as much money from selling their copyrights to printmakers as from the original works - David Wilkie, for instance, was paid £1,260 for his painting of Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo and £1,200 for the copyright. But the advent of steel engraving (instead of copper) meant that there was almost no limit to how many prints could be made from one plate, which tended to devalue the whole enterprise. When the print dealer Thomas Shotter Boys retired in 1855 he invited the public to come and watch him smash his plates in order, he explained, - to give a sterling and lasting value to the existing copies, which by this means can never become common-.
Hamilton’s book is full of arresting ideas and odd apercus - some so odd, I'm not sure he is right. For instance, he says it was strange that so many nouveau-riche businessmen collected watercolours - watercolours being far less showy than oil paintings, and poor investments because the colours tended to fade. Perhaps, he suggests, these alpha males wanted to get in touch with their feminine sides? Oh phooey! Surely it was just because watercolours were cheaper? And also a useful first step if you weren't yet sure of your taste. If you had just built your first mansion, you must have felt quite daunted by all those acres of walls to fill.
Although art is Hamilton’s overarching theme he is never afraid to wander down whatever byways take his fancy. He is good on publishers, on entertainment — everything from the Egyptian Hall to the Great Exhibition - and particularly good on brothels, especially those that catered to le vice anglais. Mrs Theresa Berkley of 28 Charlotte Street had a flogging machine called the Berkley Horse as well as a vast array of birches and nettles: 'Thus, at her shop, whoever went with plenty of money could be birched, whipped, fustigated, scourged, needle-pricked, half-hung, holly-brushed, furse-brushed, butcher-brushed, stinging-nettled, curry-combed, phlebotomoized, and tortured till he had a belly full.'
This is a strange gallimaufry of a book but an entirely joyous one.
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