A fantastic read: James Hamilton’s ‘Strange Business’

For Christmas this year, Zak gave me James Hamilton’s A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth Century Britain.

It is a terrific book, beautifully written. Hamilton’s style is a pleasure to read, conversational, fluent and clever in a good way, consistently interesting, never boring, and utterly free from academic gobbledigook.

The book is about the progression from private to public patronage, and the beginnings of the modern culture industry. Hamilton takes you through the period chapter by chapter from the distinct perspectives of the collector, the painter, the sculptor, engraver, the artist’s colourman, the dealer, the publisher and the curator. Familiar faces jostle with people I’d never met, Constable, Turner and Landseer, Flaxman and John Murray I know well, but the colourmen Sebastian Grandi and George Field were a revelation. Hamilton’s reading is prodigious, and this book is a remarkable secondary source. If, like me, you would love to sit down and read Farington’s Diary but might never have the time A Strange Business gives you a brilliant glimpse of these marvellous creatures in their natural habitat, wild, eccentric, flawed, fascinating and brilliant. The extraordinary curatorial shenanigans in the early days of the National Gallery. The jealousies and bust-ups among the Royal Academicians. The hard-minded practicality and sheer effort it took to turn genius into business. The gas-lit PT Barnum strangeness of early Victorian public culture, its circus world of art gallery-cum-menagerie combos. And Hamilton captures some expressive vignettes, like Constable’s sketch in a letter to CR Leslie of passing Edwin Landseer on the Strand, both painters on their way back from the 1829 RA Show, Landseer the young prodigy bowling along with another painter in a hansom, Constable on the deck of an omnibus, ‘all waving our catalogues in the air.’

For anyone – again like me – who is too apt to think of painting in isolation, or to imagine that the world falls off a cliff in 1830, this is an essential read, a brilliant journey from the world that Reynolds and Gainsborough had only just left to the bewildering modernity of the Great Exhibition. I loved this description of the Crystal Palace, by an unknown journalist in the Illustrated London News:

As the eye wanders up the vistas, the three primitive colours of Sir D[avid] Brewster, red, yellow and blue strike the eye by the intensity of their brightness in the foreground: but by blending in the distance, by the effect of parallax and diminished visual angle, the whole as in nature vanishes into a neutral grey… Looking up the nave, with its endless rows of pillars, the scene vanishes from extreme brightness into the hazy indistinctness which Turner alone can paint.

It’s a book I look forward to re-reading, soon. So  much was new to me in it, but Hamilton’s own conclusion at the end of the book was one of the most impressive. Such a clear assessment of the material good that art can bring in society. And what an optimistic note to end on.

While an art market may be the pinnacle circumstance of a capitalist economy, it can also, when the machinery is put into reverse, be the means whereby capitalism regenerates itself. Three towns at extreme points of Britain – Liverpool in Merseyside, St Ives in Cornwall and Margate in Kent – suffered serious economic decline in the latter decades of the twentieth century In the 1980s and 2000s, these towns were furnished against the odds, and perhaps counter-intuitively, with public art galleries of international standing and aspiration. Subsequently, the magnetic attraction of art is working its natural magic and is contributing fundamentally to the regeneration of these communities and their hinterland, and to the revival and variation of local businesses. Three towns that might have been closing in on themselves began gradually to blossom again. The final benefit of an art market, public and private display, has found its civic outcome in Liverpool, St Ives and Margate.

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