Lead book review

The age of the starving artist

A review of A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Britain, by James Hamilton. A brilliant account of learning, or failing, to survive in a market of extraordinary brutality

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Britain James Hamilton

Atlantic Books, pp.400, £25, ISBN: 9781848879249

What remains of art is art, of course; and what chiefly interests us is the creative talents of a painter or a sculptor. What we forget is that the work of art wouldn’t be there without some kind of engagement with the brutal forces of money.

James Hamilton’s riveting book is a richly detailed study of how, in Britain in the 19th century, artists and a small army of opportunists, art lovers, collectors and businessmen of all sorts used their ingenuity to turn the visual arts into money. ‘The business of art, when seen in the perspective of the time, does not always reflect the course of art history as perceived 200 years later,’ Hamilton says, and this is a remarkable attempt to show us what art might have looked like to those who were making their living through it.

The relationship between a work of art and its value had long puzzled anyone who has thought about it. Hogarth had tried to put his highest price not on one of the ‘comic history paintings’ for which he was celebrated, but on a gruesome ‘Sigismunda mourning over the heart of Guiscardo’. Joseph Wright of Derby, later in the century, demanded of the collector/curator John Boydell:

Is not my picture as large as Mr [Benjamin] West’s? Has it not equal, nay much more work in it? Is it not as highly finished? And has not the public spoken as well of it? Then why should you attempt to make any difference in our prices?

The answer, then as now, was that there is no correlation between labour and prices, a fact that continued to raise hackles. When Ruskin attacked Whistler, and his barrister in the subsequent libel trial expressed incredulity that ‘the labour of two days is that for which you ask 200 guineas’ — the same wishful thinking is at work. As the well-paid Gainsborough and Turner demonstrated, there is no correlation between high finish, or labour expended, and prices achievable.

As the collapse of the career of Benjamin Haydon showed, there was no necessary correlation between the highest and most dignified painting genres and the chance of maintaining a place at the top of the profession’s earners. By the time Haydon’s career ought to have been at its busiest, in the 1830s, the new rich and industrial magnates were following their own fashions, and investing heavily in the traditionally low-genre pursuit of watercolour landscapes. As Hamilton suggests, these Birmingham manufacturers were heroic and decisive figures during the day; they liked to retreat at night not to scenes of grandeur, but moments of intimate, even feminine charm and delicacy.

Interestingly, the sums of money involved were by present-day standards quite small. Perhaps because there was no guarantee that works of art would hold their value, and plenty of evidence to suggest that most would, sooner or later, collapse, patrons were less likely to pay anything comparable to the world-historical sums that quite ordinary Lucian Freuds now command. The collector John Julius Angerstein, buying a Rembrandt for 5,000 guineas in 1807, sounds as though he expended a huge sum of money, but it was still only the same as half Mr Bennet’s capital in Pride and Prejudice, quite an ordinary member of the gentry. It is very difficult to translate sums from the past to the present day, but it seems to be true that the best prices then attainable by the most successful artists fall a long way short of the equivalent of the tens of millions paid by collectors for some contemporary art.

To make a good living, an artist required a clear head, and often the most successful were those with the sharpest business sense. This was never so true as with sculptors, whose business required an immense initial outlay on basic materials in the form of marble, and could support a substantial number of incidental workers. Hamilton says that

when a painter failed… he failed alone, with a weeping family pleading the artists’ benevolent funds for relief. When a sculptor failed, however, he failed for dozens, bringing not only misery on his family, but dissolution on his studio and unemployment on his assistants.

In this context, some of the most interesting stories about artists’ relations with money are told about sculptors. J.T. Smith’s life of Joseph Nollekens, who lived in miserly penury and left £200,000, is full of rather embittered anecdotes, but one very telling detail shows how a sculptor could manage to ‘drill out a lump from between the legs large enough for the head, which he put on the shoulders of the block’. Considering that blocks of marble could cost a sculptor up to 1,200 guineas, that may be no more than good housekeeping.

Artists, then as now, competed over their prices and their financial status as much as over their skill. When Turner acquired a palette said to have belonged to Hogarth, he thought of either giving it, or selling it, to the Royal Academy; he inquired, and found to his great annoyance that his great rival Constable had earlier bought a palette of Sir Joshua Reynolds for £6, installed it in a glass case for £3.3.0, and given it to the Academy, condemning Turner to a comparable act of generosity.

Hamilton’s fascinating and richly researched book surveys the art world from a number of different angles, including two very different sorts of patron, as well as painters, sculptors, dealers, colourmen, engravers, publishers, curators and ‘spectators’, or foreign observers of the scene. He has gone very deeply into the archives, and Turner’s notes on his investments are glimpsed next to the erotic drawings in his notebooks. Landseer’s bank statements survive, and have been read, and the financial realities for many artists are placed next to the perception of riches, or poverty. It is lucid, insightful and simply gripping.

There are very many familiar things here, and it is not hard to suggest modern-day equivalents to the hard-nosed dealer, the artist with more of an eye on capitalising his talent than developing his skill, the collector who buys and sells with such rapidity that he could really best be regarded as a species of dealer.

One thing that does differentiate the 19th-century art market from the present day, however, is the greater danger of a crash in value, of the money underpinning an artist’s career simply vanishing. That seems much less likely to happen to an artist now. The difficulty is in succeeding in the first place, not in hanging on to an income once success has been attained. It is quite hard to think of a school of art, or an individual artist, that was once considered excellent and valuable whose prices have collapsed utterly. The reason, I guess, is the creation in recent years of art-market indices, which purport to show collector/investors that the price of this artist has gone up and up, and must therefore hold.

The 19th century, which at a certain point looked at the painting on the gallery wall and thought ‘I just don’t like it any more’ before walking off to buy something more fashionable, was a much more precarious period for an artist to exist within. To a large extent, these artists and dealers were still learning how to rig the market, and were not very good at it.

This is a brilliant account of learning, or failing, to survive in a market of extraordinary brutality. The interesting question is how far this market also succeeded in creating artists of the highest quality and innovative power.

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