A review of James Hamilton’s “A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain”

London lay in the centre of a pan-European web of art businesses: art dealers working with agents abroad and with ship-owners brought works of art, 'old masters' and antiquities, to London for sale. Artists brought their work from studios and back rooms for exhibition and sale. Auctioneers recycled paintings and sculpture from dispersed collections at home and abroad to be split up and sold to the highest bidder: prices rose for the work of one artist, prices fell for the work of another. Sculptors produced portrait busts, reliefs, memorials, mythological or other figure groups rrom studios that, for the more successful, were in effect sculpture factories. Engravers working in as good light as they could find in smoky London and elsewhere engraved on dully shining copper plate images that reproduced works of art, evoked landscape, or illustrated books and journals. These sold and spread worldwide. Auctioneers — principally James Christie, father and son, from their rooms in Pall Mall — sold paintings by the greatest artists of the previous three hundred years, along with countless copies, fakes and failures. The art trade came to London because everything else did, and because that was where the money was made, held, spent and enjoyed. [6]

book cover

Hamilton's thoroughly informative and frequently fascinating book situates nineteenth-century art within a complex ecology permeated by social, economic, and technological forces. Painting, sculpture, and engraving, he shows, took form in a context created by collectors, curators, dealers and the art market, but changing science and technology had their effects as well. Material factors, such as the cost and weight of the marble affected sculptors and their work just as did the bright colors — and virulent poisons — nineteenth-century chemistry offered painters.

After a brief discussion of the conditions of success for artworkers, A Strange Business explains how patronage changed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Next follow chapters on painters, sculptors, dealers, colormen, engravers, publishers, and curators, after which Hamilton discusses three vistors to London — the French artist Théodore Géricault, the German architect Karl Friedrick Schinkel, and the Boston sugar merchant Isaac Schofield. The final chapter, “A Giant Birdcage,” presents the issues of the book through the lenses provided by the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Manchester Exhibition of 1857.

Throughout Hamilton has a keen eye for detail that enables him to find representative people, events, and moments, such we see in his explanation of the role of J. M. W. Turner's father played in his professional success and in his discussion of Joseph Gillott's pen-nibs, sheet steel, and the writing revolution — a delightful detour that comes in the midst of a chapter on nineteenth-century art collectors. These little set-pieces frequently take the form of comparisons of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attitudes. Here, for example, Hamilton relates how differently two engravers marked the successful end of their projects:

Cultural events were both a cause for, and a product of, celebration. Where Boys celebrated a commercial advancement by having his engravers' plates smashed in public [to increase the value of the extant engravings], an engraver of an earlier generation, William Q. Woollett, celebrated the publication of a new engraving long laboured over by firing a cannon from his roof. So great was the joy in his house that he would line up his family outside his studio, and wife, children and servants all gave three cheers. The sheer relief at all the time, energy and financial danger, during which a family's welfare might hang by a thread, was overwhelming. Reproduction of images, whether those by old masters or living artists, topographers or travellers, had become big business, and as much a cause for advertisement and celebration as the launch of a new film or television series is today. [3]

As the preceding passage makes clear, Hamilton's interest in changing attitudes and technologies leads not only to nineteenth-century art but also to that of the eighteenth century as well. Some of his most interesting discussions involve the material and economic dimensions of painting and sculpture, such as his detailed description of nineteenth-century sculpture as heavy industry and the economic and logistical problems created by the sculptor's medium. As he explains, “the most expensive item that monumental sculptors had to buy was the stone they would carve. While limestones or alabasters would come from relatively local sources, the material that their clients overwhelmingly insisted upon was marble. There is no marble in the British Isles — so-called Derbyshire and Kilkenny marbles are in fact very hard limestones which will take a high polish.” Therefore, sculptors had to turn to marble merchants in London who in turn had to acquire marble from Italian quarries. After listing individual sculptors and their suppliers, Hamilton concludes, “this was big business in every way” (108). The sheer materiality of the sculptural medium, we learn, requires ocean-going trade, canals, railroads, and good roads, and therefore the spread of funerary, monumental, and portrait sculpture throughout Victorian Britain depended its rapidly growing transportation networks.

The actual production of sculpture required a large supporting cast, some of whom had very specific skills or, as in later assembly-line work, labored on only a single stage of the production. Using the example of sculptors from two generations — John Flaxman (1755-1826) and Sir Francis Chantrey, R. A. (1781-1841) — Hamilton explains,

Chantrey's studio output was by any comparison prodigious. He and his assistants were turning out sculpture on an industrial scale, with Chantrey as the managing director. While we might reasonably expect the hand of the master to be evident, romantically, in the cutting of the figures, the faces, the gestures, the light in their eyes, his personal contribution would effectively have been limited to composition and finish. The labour would be contributed by others: according to Chantrey's ledgers, Lege spent 142 days and seven-and-a-half hours, across five months, working on The Sleeping Children for Lichfield Cathedral in 1817. . . . While only a small number of Chantrey's assistants are known by name, production at this level, as with Flaxman, called for a small army of specialists in the fashioning of rough blocks, architectural carving, decorative design, polishing, plaster-casting, heavy-weight lifting and tool-making. Another vital speciality was lettering, as all or most of the monuments bore inscriptions, some running into elaborate texts of 400 words or more. The order for one monument, to Richard Bateman installed in All Saints' Church, Derby (now Derby Cathedral), shows that 845 letters cost £8.9s.0d — that is, 100 letters to the pound, Chantrey's standard charge for inscriptions. [123, 126]

One result of such industrialized production of sculpture is to bring into question the validity, even the relevance, of romantic conceptions of a single master sculptor's creativity — the equivalent to what Foucault terms the “author function” in literature. Another is that do not know the names of those who did much of the work we admire, and a third is that many potentially excellent sculptors never left the shelter of the master's studio.

Hamilton repeatedly reminds the reader of the importance of perceiving the economic conditions and concomitant financial pressures upon all those who produced works of art. He reminds us, for example, how much art dealers affected the painting and sculpture produced:

Dealers and their commercial activities are fundamental to the development of the history of art. Knowledge of who owns what in any one period, how a work passed from owner to owner, and where and by whom it might have been seen is critical to a clear drafting of art history in the same way that the properties of two reactive chemicals is required knowledge before they are put into the same bottle. Had the paintings of Claude and Poussin been somehow invisible to young British artists in the late eighteenth century, the history of British art would Live been very different. Claude's and Poussin's paintings, and their imitations and fakes, came in bulk to Britain through the activities of Grand Tourists, agents and art dealers. It is the market, display and exhibition systems that these people created that gradually enabled a wide public to sec iin from the continent, and for a rich culture to develop out of it through the insight and energy of a new generation of artists. [138]

In the 1815 preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth famously proclaimed that the great poets had to create the taste by which their works were to be enjoyed. Romantic and post-Romantic art and literature saw the rise of critics who interpreted and advocated the cause of such new forms of writing. Hamilton reminds us that publishers and art dealers also played a key role in shaping taste and therefore in shaping the art their publics demanded.

Related Material: Selected Passages from A Strange Business


Hamilton, James. A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain. London: Atlantic Books, 2014.

Last modified 20 October 2014