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

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Reviewed by Frances Ambler

Mention art and money together and the chances are it’ll conjure up an image of some Saatchi-esque super dealer or the likes of Damien Hirst, artists who have courted controversy and celebrity to reach the top of their game and who have made millions in the process. A Strange Business shows how such figures aren’t a recent invention and neither is the linking of art and money. Both were as central to the artistic life of the nineteenth century as they are to the twenty-first.

Like many of the artists it discusses, A Strange Business is hugely ambitious in its scope. The book’s five page dramatis personae is a necessity as, at first, as the large numbers of characters that flit across its pages can be bewildering. However, as Hamilton gets into his stride, the picture he creates from such a large cast of characters is dazzling, skilfully using them to illustrate the complex and stimulating interchange between not only art and money, but also science, industry and society that shaped Britain during this period.

One of the criticisms often thrown at contemporary art is how it can favour spectacle over substance. Nineteenth-century art was, unapologetically, all about the spectacle, from huge canvases to monumental statues, to the families commissioning their portraits, as we would be photographed today, or the packed private view at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith used on the jacket of this book, A Strange Business deftly proves how the consumption of art, as a viewer as well as a consumer, was an inescapable part of nineteenth-century society.

Rather than simply discussing the artworks produced and the talent behind them – although as a renowned biographer of J.M.W. Turner he is more than well placed to do so – Hamilton has looked at a huge range of sources to capture the breadth of British cultural and business life, from letter and diaries to accounts (sadly, not many as likely to be as interesting as Turner’s own, which are enlivened by the artist’s erotic drawings). The account books reveal the lesser-told tale: the scale of investment in art in the nineteenth century, not just in paintings, but also in the sculpture workshops required to produce those huge monumental works or invest in the time-consuming process of engraving. It quickly becomes obvious that doing well in the art business wasn’t just about talent; it was also about business acumen. Those who succeeded in making money were those who learnt to survive the market.

A Strange Business is great at capturing the sense of change in Britain at this moment in time and the excitement of the new. The new patrons of art had made their fortune in new kinds of money-making schemes, whether pen nibs or transportation, and businesses were born are still household names today, including Hatchard’s, then described as ‘the godly bookseller’, and the publisher John Murray, then – as now – producing bestsellers (in the early nineteenth century it was the cookery book A New System of Domestic Economy, as well as blockbusters from the likes of Lord Byron and Walter Scott that sold by the thousands). And while we might think of advances in science driving industry such as the growth of the railways or the beginnings of harnessing the power of electricity, this book explores how they were also closely entwined with the art world. Science helped the creation of new colours for painting, for example, and gave the world a fledging type of conservation in an early gallery cooling system.

For every success, A Strange Business as evocatively captures the failures: an advantage of reading business accounts, as well as the art history books. There are countless of moneymaking schemes that fell through being overambitious, overly greedy, misplaced enthusiasm or sheer bad luck. One interesting failure recounted is that of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Shakespeare collection: the same drive and bloody mindedness that helped him pull off engineering feats only resulted in less than spectacular work from the artists he bullied into delivery to budget and to schedule.

By the end of A Strange Business, the business of art has truly been taken out of the stately homes, with the important collections of the industrialists becoming important public art institutions such as the Walker in Liverpool or the Whitworth in Manchester. It’s obvious also that Hamilton’s time with the nineteenth century’s great and the good has left him sharing some of their opinions regarding the role of art in British life. He points to Margate, St Ives, Liverpool as places that have profited in more recent years both economically and culturally from their galleries. As A Strange Business demonstrates, the benefits from making art and money can be more about society as a whole, rather than simply wealthy collectors or artists.

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Frances Ambler blogs about vintage books and fashion at lastyeargirl.blogspot.com 

James Hamilton, A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Atlantic: London, 2014). 978-1-84887-9-249, 386pp., hardback

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