TIAMSA review: London and the Emergence of a European Art Market, 1780-1820, edited by Susanna Avery-Quash and Christian Huemer (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2019).

by Jeremy Howard

Surveying his long and successful career as an art dealer in the Napoleonic era, William Buchanan observed that one catches more fish in choppy seas.  And the seas were certainly choppy during the period reviewed in this important new publication London and the Emergence of the European Art Market 1780-1820.   

During the French Revolution, the breakup of the royal and aristocratic collections led to an enormous quantity of works of art finding their way onto the London market where this art was snapped up by royal and aristocratic collectors such as the future George IV, the Duke of Bridgewater, the Duke of Sutherland and the Earl of Carlisle, and financiers such as John Julius Angerstein, the Barings and Thomas Hope.   During the Napoleonic era the waters became even choppier and the looting of art more widespread than at any period since Roman times.  The Pope was forced to hand over 100 of the greatest works of art in the Vatican collections which found their way north to the Musée Napoleon, and the combination of punitive taxation of the Italian noble families and the suppression of the monasteries brought works of art onto the market which had not been available even to the richest buyers during the heyday of the Grand Tour.  Spain, Belgium and Holland were similarly subject to artistic depredations and, while the French museums undoubtedly benefited hugely from the trophies of Napoleonic conquests many of which were never repatriated after Waterloo, British private collections were also enormously enriched with unrivalled opportunities for speculators and dealers. This, in turn, led to the expansion of the British Museum and the creation of London’s first public galleries: first the Dulwich Picture Gallery and soon afterwards the National Gallery. At the same time, the centre of gravity of the European art-market  moved from Paris to London following the French Revolution,  with Paris only catching up with London again in terms of trade volumes at the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century.[1]  

Using the phenomenal resources of the Getty Research Institute and the examination of numerous sales catalogues including some unknown to Lugt, this book is the fruit of years of research and assiduous data mining and a major collaborative project between the Getty and the National Gallery in London.  Its aim is to bring together the methodologies of macro-economic analysis made possible by the development of computers, with more traditional art-historical approaches based on individual case studies.  In this intention this book is largely successful and the editors achieved the difficult task of ensuring homogeneity and clarity in a broad range of papers by dividing the book into three main sections: ‘Patterns’, ‘Collections’ and ‘Dealers’.  Each section is preceded by strong introductions, with all the contributors commenting on, and, occasionally disagreeing with each other’s work, while under firm  editorial control.

In the first section, ‘Patterns’, authors investigate the vagaries of taste and their relationships to art prices, what Gerald Reitlinger dubbed ‘the economics of taste’But, whereas that author’s pioneering Economics of Taste surveyed the peaks in the history of the art market, the present study investigates the more low-lying hills, employing far more sophisticated tools of analysis than were available to Reitlinger or Lugt.  Authors investigate the complex interrelationships between the art markets in London, Paris, Amsterdam and, to an extent, Belgium which amazingly continued to flourish despite official embargos on export, blockades and the troubled and dangerous state of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.  The data underpinning the analyses presented here derives substantially from auction results, which, as Neil de Marchi concedes, is problematic given that some of the biggest prices were achieved not at auction but through private transactions, the sales of the Orleans Collection and some of the biggest deals involving the Italian art market, being cases in point.[2]     

Other problems are that analyses of high volumes of auction results tend to highlight broad trends but the reality may be more nuanced.  Carpreau’s analysis of auction results in France and England, indicates that the markets  in both countries tended to favour local production with many more English pictures being sold in English auctions and similarly with French pictures in France.  But, paradoxically, the prices achieved for those English pictures sold in France were higher in France than England and vice versa, precisely the opposite to the results for trade volumes.  Carpreau suggests this may be because ‘the pictures that made it across the Channel must have been of the highest quality’.[3] Fashion may have been as important as quality given the anglomanie among  collectors in France in the 1780s (Calonne, for example, paid a very substantial sum for Reynold’s Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, and English mezzotints, Morland prints and Wedgwood ceramics were very popular in France at this period).  In addition, English buyers during the same period, particularly those in the Prince of Wales’s circle, avidly sought French works of art, both the decorative art, and the paintings of Greuze whose popularity in England is very astutely analysed in Bonfait’s essay on the taste for French paintings.  Carpreau’s essay should also  be read in the light of Bénédicte Miyamoto’s subtly nuanced account of British buying patterns at auction sales, which contains some illuminating observations about the way in which auctioneer’s descriptions of paintings were evidently slanted to cater to national buying preferences and in turn have had their effect on the Getty data sets; a painting by Dou, for example, was categorised as a portrait rather than a genre painting because of the auctioneer’s description.[4]   

The graphs reveal the comparative analysis of trade volumes and prices in France and England between 1780 and 1820.  The central question which emerges here is: when and how did London begin to overtake Paris as an art market centre?  There was clearly a correlation between the outbreak of the French Revolution and the decline in the Paris art market certainly with regard to prices achieved, though interestingly trade volumes in Paris seemed to be on the decline already by 1785 and continued to decline even when might have expected volumes to have increased because of the vast scale of the Revolutionary dispersals, only catching up with London again at the end of the Napoleonic era.[5]  In terms of aggregate sales, London had already overtaken Paris by 1785 and during the 1790s, hugely outstripped the French capital suggesting  that, although the French Revolution may have greatly exacerbated the decline of the Paris market, it was not the catalyst.[6]  In terms of prices, the point at which England overtook France was apparently between 1800 and 1805 rather later than one might have expected given that the Paris art market crash which followed  the outbreak of the French Revolution had happened about ten years earlier.[7]

The other surprising pattern to emerge from these analyses is the extent of arbitrage between  the art centres of Amsterdam, Paris and London with canny dealers exploiting imbalances, buying cheaply in Amsterdam, and selling at progressively higher prices in Paris and then in London.  Carole Blumenfeld, however, in her fascinating study of the French dealer Pierre-Joseph Lafontaine, shows that this was not always the case because Lafontaine acquired paintings from the Prince of Wales which were then sold profitably in Holland to the Prince of Orange.[8]  In terms of prices what is perhaps surprising is how high the values were for Dutch pictures and how low for the paintings  by the great Italian artists. The Titians, Raphaels and Tintorettos from the Orleans Collection which topped the traditional academic hierarchies were worth less than Gerrit Dou, Wouwerman or Berchem and landscapes rather than “history pictures” were at the head of the price charts.[9]  What emerges from these essays, in particular from the illuminating chapter on international dealer networks, is just how interconnected were the northern European art markets at this period, with particularly strong links between dealers such as Noel Desenfans, auctioneers like James Christie and, like a spider at the centre of this international web, the powerful and extremely cunning dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun who seemed able to weather any political storm.  The main focus of the first section is on the north European art markets, but Italy was also enormously important as a source of pictures.   Guido Guerzoni’s chapter shows the impact of the Napoleonic invasions in forcing collections onto the market and the valiant attempts that were made, particularly in the Papal States to try to institute export controls, which were eventually to lead, though it was to take a hundred years, to a national system of ‘notification’.

In the section ‘Collections’, authors cover not only the famous Orleans collection, recently the subject of a major exhibition at the New Orleans Museum (curiously omitted from the footnotes and bibliography), but also provide fresh research on the much less familiar sales of collections such as those of Angelika Kauffmann, John Trumbull and Welbore Ellis Agar. The latter was of particular importance because it was the source for some of the greatest paintings in the Grosvenor Collection, which became one of the most famous London town-house picture galleries, along with those of the Sutherland and Bridgewater collections.   Here perhaps there could have been more discussion of the importance of these private picture galleries and the interrelationships between them and the development of public picture collections notably the Dulwich Picture Gallery, whose foundation was the direct result of the failure of Noel Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois’ attempts to sell the collection  formed for the King of Poland, and the National Gallery which was, at least initially, a collection of private collections.  The focus in this section was very much on picture collecting and David Alexander’s illuminating essay on the print market was therefore particularly welcome in helping to redress the balance. Many dealerships, such as Colnaghi and Agnew’s, who later became major players in the paintings market, came to prominence in this period through print-selling,  which also crucially underpinned the development of the contemporary art  market.   

In the final section, ‘Dealers’, there are interesting essays on some of the key players in the art market and their business strategies.  Julia Armstrong Totten’s essay ‘From Jack of All Trades to Professional’ was particularly thought-provoking.   She analysed very astutely the way in which Michael Bryan positioned himself as a picture specialist rather than a jack of all trades and this trend was seen even more markedly in the career of John Smith who specialised in Dutch and Flemish pictures.  Both dealers were, as is pointed out, following earlier French models (notably Gersaint’s) in their professionalism and in their use of scholarly publications (Smith’s catalogue, updated by Hofstede de Groot, is still very useful today) in order to enhance their standing.  Against this trend towards increasing specialisation though, Guerzoni observes  that ‘eclecticism continued to dominate collecting practices and dealer’s activities’ and most dealers remained jacks of all trades. Colnaghi, for example, dealt in prints, furniture and even arms and armour in the early nineteenth century.[10]  Totten shows the astute marketing strategies employed by Thomas More Slade in promoting the Orleans pictures and there is some interesting discussion of the development of private contract sales by Noel Desenfans, though arguably the idea was perfected rather than invented by Desenfans because Charles I’s collection was sold off in this way rather than by auction.  This section concludes with an interesting study of the career of Pierre-Joseph Lafontaine (who clearly deserves to be better known) and a fascinating chapter by Ana Maria Fernandez Garcia on the collecting and marketing of Spanish painting 1780-1820.

 In their introduction to this admirable publication, the editors acknowledge some of its limitations.   This book was substantially the product of a research project into picture sales by auction and, as such, cannot be said to represent the art market as a whole, given that some of the most significant sales were handled privately rather than through auctions and because pictures only accounted for one section of the market.  The period from 1780 to-1820 was an astonishing period in terms of the break up and formation of great collections of Old Master paintings, but it was also the time when the market for decorative arts was flourishing. Collectors like the Prince Regent and the 3rd Marquess of Hertford and dealers like the marchand amateur Dominique Daguerre, who had been Marie-Antoinette’s dealer and later worked for the Prince of Wales, the ceramics dealer Robert Fogg and, slightly later, Edward Holmes Baldock all profited hugely  from the dispersal of the French royal and aristocratic collections.  This was also the time when William Beckford was acquiring extraordinary Kunstkammer objects, setting the tone for the later collections of the Rothschilds, when the trade in arms and armour and the opening up in London of curiosity shops, laid the foundations for the modern antiques trade,  and when George IV paid more for a silver wine cooler  from Rundell Bridge and Rundell than for his prize Rembrandt: The Ship-Builder and His Wife.  It was also the era of Lord Elgin and the buccaneering Egyptologist Belzoni, a phenomenal period for the collecting of classical antiquities and Egyptian artefacts, which is only touched on here in the chapter on Thomas Hope and the antiquities dealer Giachino Marini.   

Lastly, this was also a period when contemporary British art was being promoted through the exhibitions of the British Institution and by canny dealers and publishers such as Daniel Orme and John Raphael Smith, who capitalised on the extraordinary contemporary vogue for Morland, as was astutely analysed by Camilla Murgia in her excellent chapter on ‘Exhibiting the Fine Arts in London around 1800’.  Collectors such as the 3rd Earl of Egremont paved the way for the great Victorian contemporary art boom and, in the following decade (the 1820s), a period of rich cultural interchange between England and France when Dominic Colnaghi provided Constable with letters of introduction to the Paris Salon and introduced Delacroix to the  British Institution and Gericault sent his Raft of the Medusa to be shown in a commercial exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London.   It is to be hoped that this excellent study of primarily the paintings market will encourage further research projects into the emergence of the European art market in its varying aspects and on the formation of private and public collections in this crucial and very exciting period.

Jeremy Howard, Senior Lecturer in History of Art, The University of Buckingham/Head of Academic Projects, P & D Colnaghi.

[1]Carpreau, p.23.

[2] De Marchi, p. 18.

[3] Carpreau,  p. 26.

[4] Miyamoto, p. 41.

[5] Carpreau, fig 1, p. 24.

[6] As revealed by Van Miegroet, Cronheim and Miyamoto, ‘International Dealer networks and triangular art trade’, p. 52, fig 1. 

[7] Carpreau, p. 26.

[8] Blumenfeld, pp. 222-23.

[9] Carpreau, p. 29

[10] Guerzoni, p. 65.