Art history today is arguably more pluralistic and wide-ranging in its methodologies than ever before. Therefore, it is surprising that in the introduction to Thomas M. Bayer and John R. Page’s book The Development of the Art Market in England they perceive a ‘persistent prejudice that commoditization is inherently damaging to the aesthetic merit and quality of art products’.(1) For traditional connoisseurs who focus on an art object’s uniqueness and the artist’s inherent genius, this may be true. But few in the field of art history and criticism today would challenge Bayer and Page’s hypothesis, that art is a commodity, and key to its economic value is the role of the art dealer as the middleman between artist as producer and collector as consumer. Indeed, Bayer and Page’s text is an important, if occasionally faulty, contribution to art history. Their work is especially valuable to those who study British art, as it helps advance serious scholarship in a discipline often considered sub-standard to the study of French and Italian art.
Bayer and Page focus on England from about 1700 to 1900 because it was during this time that Britain experienced an increasing economic growth due to the industrial revolution and worldwide colonization. Moreover, because Britain was free from civil wars and outside incursions at this time—events that decimated large parts of the European continent—the country was able to maintain a level of economic stability and thus generate a steady market for the sale of art. The authors contend that the old idea that art follows wealth is no longer valid, that in fact these two principles worked reciprocally, supporting and nurturing one another, with the art dealer the fulcrum in this exchange. They focus almost exclusively on paintings, and their primary research comes from the extant records of dealers such as Agnew’s and Arthur Tooth. To this they extracted quantitative data from the scholarship of Algernon Graves and George Redford, as well as Christie’s auction catalogs, to create a statistical and econometric analysis of how and what types of paintings sold in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.(2)
This book then is about production, commodity, and consumption, and thus favors business, finance, and economics over art history. It is part of Pickering & Chatto’s ‘Financial History’ series. This is not to say that the art history student cannot glean something from it, for indeed the authors have much to offer those who wish to learn more about how the London-based art world evolved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When it comes to Bayer and Page’s actual research, however, with their numerous tables and charts, the art historian accustomed to images and interpretations of works of art will be disappointed. Yet, in reading closely a text which argues that art dealers and the commoditization of paintings directed taste and stylistic developments in England, the art historian will find him/herself with a refreshing take on how the art world developed over this time period.
The first chapter is a discussion of the art market in seventeenth-century Netherlands and serves as the model for the commoditization of art. By 1700 this market shifted to London, then the largest and richest city in Europe. The early art market dealt exclusively with Old Masters, and it was only later in the century that an increase in the sale of contemporary native English artists overtook that of Old Masters, a paradigm shift that would swing back and forth for art dealers over the course of the two centuries. The next three chapters focus on the different ways native art established itself in England: instructional and theoretical manuals on painting published in London by authors such as Jonathan Richardson, William Hogarth, and Joshua Reynolds; the first art schools and commercial galleries such as Vauxhall Gardens, ultimately culminating in the establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768; and the role of art criticism and auction houses in establishing ideas about taste.
Chapter five is one of the more interesting. From their original research, the authors determined that during the eighteenth century art dealers used auctions exclusively to sell paintings, but this practice changed drastically from the 1830s on, when art dealers became the largest consumers of paintings at auction, in order to resell the pictures at inflated costs. The primary reason for this shift was the power of the reproductive print. The success of the print market in England began with Hogarth and helped nurture support for contemporary native English painters. Through the sale of prints after paintings, the public had the opportunity to own a piece of the painting, while the actual picture could be owned by one person or reinvested in the art market. Chapters six, seven, nine, and ten focus on the Victorian art market’s taste for native English painters. Whereas art dealers in the eighteenth century were less stable in their businesses, during the Victorian period many (Agnew’s, Colnaghi, Gambart, Tooth, etc.) rose to power as stakeholders in the production and sale of art. These art dealers asserted their power when they purchased from artists not only their pictures but their copyright, enabling the dealers to ensure future success through reproductive prints and traveling exhibitions. The last of these chapters discusses how the art market began to fail at the end of the Victorian period with the introduction of new international styles (e.g. Impressionism), the failure of touring pictures due to new cinematic experiences, and the development of cheap photographic reproductions which obviated the once successful market for high-quality prints.
The strength of the authors’ work is most evident when they provide specific case studies. For instance, chapter eight focuses on the auction house Christie’s and its sale practices over the centuries. Other close studies include discussion of dealers (e.g. Arthur Tooth & Sons, pp. 113-17), commercial enterprises (e.g. Grosvenor Gallery, pp. 191-201), and successful painters (e.g. William Powell Frith, pp. 154-58).(3) Their work on the Victorian period itself is substantial and thus more useful than that of the eighteenth century. This is partly because more archival material survives from that period, but also because the book is taken from Bayer’s 2001 doctoral dissertation on the Victorian art market.(4) Bayer is an interdisciplinary art historian with related studies in history and economics, and Page is a certified public accountant and professor of accounting at Tulane. As specialists in the world of financial history, they certainly seem qualified to write on this topic.
Unfortunately, a surprising number of grammatical and spelling errors appear frequently in the text, suggesting poor proofreading at times, and over-editing with the appearance of double words and incorrect phrasing. These errors continue onto the website (http://artmarket.tulane.edu) designed to complement the text with images that are not in the book. The painter John Singleton Copley, for instance, appears frequently on the website as Copely. The quality of the images on the website, arranged by chapter, are low resolution files and often poor in quality, so they serve little use. For a book priced at £60 ($99), the authors could have arranged for black-and-white images in the text of just a few of the most frequently discussed paintings. More appropriately, they should have published prints after these paintings, since that is such a critical part of their thesis.
The website includes a promising link at the bottom that reads ‘Is the Art Market Like the Stock Market?’ It opens to a series of hyperlinks that relate to PowerPoint slides, but not a single link works, making the entire site worthless. The closest one comes to thoughts on their analogy to the stock market is when the authors, in the book, propose that ‘painters are firms which produce products …, dealers are specialists and brokers, critics are analysts and the auction house is the stock exchange’.(5) Although thought provoking, missing from this analogy is the collector as consumer/investor. Bayer and Page have authored a text that offers a close analysis of the painting market, and spend ample time discussing the art dealer, artist, and auction house, but in ignoring the collector, they have omitted a vital part of this stock market analogy. For those interested in the collector, particularly during the Victorian period, Dianne Sachko Macleod’s superb work Art and the Victorian Middle Class offers an interesting parallel by focusing on how certain industrialists operated as private collectors.(6)
Despite these criticisms, Bayer and Page’s text contributes to the literature in art history and financial history, and also could be consulted by researchers working on an array of related subjects, from British socio-economic history to marketing strategies over time. Although the publisher’s website suggests the text is intended for the general reader, it is for advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and academics. The scholarly apparatus seems ample and well-documented, with thirty-four pages of endnotes, a bibliography of archival, primary, and secondary sources, and a full index. The book itself has a sturdy hard cover and sewn binding that holds up well to regular use, and seems to be an appropriate purchase for college and university libraries, particularly with school programs in international studies, art history, and business/finance/marketing. Bayer and Page have not have written a perfect book on the history of the art market in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, and scholars inevitably will have more questions than answers based on their research. However, they have opened the door to an understudied area, upon which future scholars will be able contribute and thus expand, as it were, a new market on the commoditization of art.
1. Bayer and Page, 7.
2. Algernon Graves, Art Sales from Early in the Eighteenth Century to Early in the Twentieth Century, 3 vols (London, 1918-21); George Redford, Art Sales: A History of Sales of Pictures & Other Works of Art (London, 1888).
3. The section on Tooth was previously published as a longer essay by the authors, ‘Arthur Tooth: A London Art Dealer in the Spotlight, 1870-71’, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 9, no. 1 (Spring 2010), http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/spring10/arthur-tooth.
4. Thomas M. Bayer, ‘Money as Muse: The Origin and Development of the Art Market in Victorian England, a Process of Commodification’, Diss. Tulane University, 2001.
5. Bayer and Page, 143.
6. Dianne Sachko Macleod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).