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Marketing Art in the British Isles, 1700 to the Present

A Cultural History


Edited by Charlotte Gould & Sophie Mesplède


London: Ashgate, 2012

Hardcover. 294 p. ISBN 978-1409436690. £65.00


Reviewed by Tom Flynn

Kingston University, London


The study of European art markets, for so long vilified and marginalised by academia as an irrelevant and vaguely unsavoury avenue of commercial inquiry that threatened to pollute the humanistic discipline of art history, has witnessed significant growth in recent years. New courses on the history of art markets, ‘art business’ and professional practice, have been established in universities across Europe and North America and are now beginning to appear in the emerging economies of Asia, the Middle East and South America. To a large extent this has been in response to the expansion of the market itself, now a global industry that embraces not merely the international trade in works of art but a range of associated cultural industries. Publishers are responding to the burgeoning interest in art market studies with ever greater energy.

To undergraduate art historians in the early 1980s, Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy seemed refreshingly invigorating, grounded as it was in the lived socio-economic relationship between Renaissance painters and their patrons. Baxandall’s pioneering work has since been deepened and broadened, notably by Richard Goldthwaite, Evelyn Welch and Michelle O’Malley amongst others, who continue to furnish us with invaluable insights into the economic substrata of Renaissance visual culture.

However, in recent decades the cordon sanitaire that once protected the university sector from the demands of the broader economy has been steadily eroded. Prospective undergraduate and postgraduate students with an interest in art history and related disciplines are now seeking degree and postgraduate courses that will not only satisfy their intellectual curiosity but also equip them for a career. This partly explains the booming growth of courses in the art market and creative industries and also the willingness of publishers like Yale, Princeton, and Ashgate in the UK, to meet that demand.

A further boost to publishers has been the changing demographic of the readership in this sector. Today, many students enrolling for postgraduate courses in the art market are as likely to be pursuing a mid-career transition or ongoing professional development in the banking or finance sectors as seeking a qualification for entry-level employment. History has shown that wherever wealth is generated, art markets flourish. Thus it is increasingly the so-called Veblen Effect concomitant with the ‘financialisation’ of the art market that is driving the booming demand for books and courses on the global art economy.

While university courses offering modules on the history of the art market now sit relatively unproblematically within the rubric of art history, economic history, or the history of collecting, those focusing on the professional practice of art business still tend to fall between two stools. Much useful writing on the art market today comes from art market journalism (see, for example, Melanie Gerlis’s Art as an Investment and Georgina Adam’s Big Bucks [both Ashgate, 2014]) or from market research agencies and organisations that crunch statistics and monitor market trends for business applications (for example, Clare McAndrew’s Arts Economics’ annual reports for the European Fine Art Fair and the surveys and reports conducted by Anders Petterson’s Art Tactic). Some university departments, still entrenched in the traditional humanities methodologies and the primacy of peer-reviewed scholarship, look askance at such market-driven research, however enlightening it may be for those seeking insights into the rapidly evolving global art economy.

Thus two cultures coexist in the developing disciplines clustering around art market studies, one focused on patterns of consumption and production and the socio-economic history of art, the other drilling down into the daily business of the contemporary art market and the relationship between value and price. One of the latest volumes seeking to build on the deepening interest in the British art market is Marketing Art in the British Isles, 1700 to the Present : A Cultural History, edited by Charlotte Gould and Sophie Mesplède.

Interest in the evolution of the British art market has grown significantly since Iain Pears’s ground-breaking The Discovery of Painting : The Growth of Interest in the Arts in England, 1680-1769 (Yale,1991) and Art Markets in Europe 1400-1600, a collection of critical essays edited by Michael North and David Ormrod, published by Ashgate in 1998. The latter volume emerged from a conference on European art markets, which refined our art historical attention to incorporate patterns of consumption and production across a range of important European mercantile centres. This was followed by Adriana Turpin and Jeremy Warren’s helpful edited collection of conference-generated essays, Auctions, Agents and Dealers : The Mechanisms of the Art Market 1660-1830 (Archeopress, Oxford 2008).

Marketing Art in the British Isles also evolved from a conference — ‘Art and Commerce in the British Isles’ held at the University of Rennes 2 in 2009. The ‘Cultural History’ sub-title stems from the broad span of subjects addressed — summarised in the editors’ introductory essay: ‘From Hogarth to Hirst: Three Hundred Years of Buying and Selling British Art’. Whether the book as a whole constitutes a ‘cultural history’ — a somewhat grand claim — is a moot point, but the assembled essays, while varied in period and topic, nevertheless together represent a helpful contribution to the growing literature. The book is divided into three sections: ‘An Artist’s Livelihood’; ‘Dealers, Auctioneers, And (Super)Collectors’; and ‘Negotiating Artistic Aspirations and Middle-Class Values’.

The first section combines essays on: Whistler between the British and French art markets (Grischka Petri); the market for British art during the Depression of the 1920s (Andrew Stephenson); art in northern England from 1980-2000 (Gabriel N. Gee), and a paper on Damien Hirst as an example of a notional ‘realignment of the artist and the art market’ in Great Britain (Uta Protz). Section two is equally diverse in subject and period, incorporating a discussion of Flemish dealers in London in the eighteenth century (Dries Lyna); a study of the marketing of pictures in Georgian London (Bénédicte Miyamoto); a study of the London art market at the turn of the twentieth century (Anne Helmreich); the role of the Fine Art Society in the rise of the solo exhibition (Patricia de Montfort); and ‘The Collector as Phoenix’: a profile of Charles Saatchi (Chin-tao Wu). Finally, section three offers essays on the market for copies in eighteenth-century Britain (Bärbel Küster); a profile of the English aesthete William Beckford (Laurent Châtel); the Royal Academy of Art and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878 (Guillaume Évrard), and a closing chapter on Roger Fry and the Omega Workshops (Anne-Pascale Bruneau-Rumsey).

The trans-historical combination of topics does not always make for comfortable reading and one cannot help feeling that the book might have been more coherent if arranged chronologically rather than thematically. Chronology, however, is another casualty of the vogueish approach to academic art history that has held sway for too long (the recent decision by Tate Britain to restore a sense of historical progression to its displays has been broadly welcomed as a positive initiative. It would have been an advisable approach in this context too).

The editors’ introductory chapter is one of the strongest chapters in the book, comprising a critical summary of some of the major developments in the evolution of the market for art in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. One of the main subtexts of the book is the message that some of the recent, seemingly egregious developments in the contemporary art trade are in fact nothing new, despite drawing negative reactions from the media and other commentators who have interpreted them as evidence of a new and worrying trend. As Gould and Mesplède phrase it, ‘many of the commercial strategies adopted in the British art world which today tend to surprise, if not outrage, actually stem from a specific national history in which the role of commerce has both attached stigma to local creativity by hindering some practices, and encouraged the development of marketing innovations’.

However, some of the strategies that surprise and outrage stem not so much from a British national history but from a Continental European one. For example, the vitriol generated by the presence of Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling, Damien Hirst’s major dealers, at Hirst’s one-man sale at Sotheby’s in 2008, was widely seen as an attempt by the two gallerists to shore up the value their own significant holdings of Hirst’s work. Professional dealers, often more knowledgeable about the history of the trade than the average art market journalist, would doubtless be quick to invoke the example of the nineteenth-century French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who openly declared it his duty to attend auctions to bid up the price of works by artists he represented and thereby to protect his own inventory and his artists’ equity profile.

Another important theme emerging from the book, and adumbrated in the introduction, is the gradual transition that took place in the art trade broadly from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, which the editors describe as ‘a process of professionalisation that characterised British society as a whole’. Again, this was a broader European trend, arguably as noticeable in France as in England. With the steady decline of patronage, art dealers did indeed ‘step into the limelight’, as Gould and Mesplède put it, so much so that by the 1870s the Art Journal could opine that ‘the influence of the dealer is one of the chief characteristics of modern art. He has taken the place of the patron, and to him has been owing to a great extent the immense increase in the prices of modern pictures’. That arc, from patronage to professionalisation, has become a familiar one in the historiography of luxury markets. In his study of Dutch culture in the Golden Age, the historian Simon Schama described the tulip craze of the early seventeenth century as having four distinct phases: a period of connoisseurship and academic expertise; followed by a period of professionalisation, in turn followed by a period of speculation, before concluding with the necessary regulation when the market spiralled out of control. Since the eighteenth century, the European art market has followed a broadly similar pattern of development, from connoisseurship and patronage in the eighteenth century, through professionalisation in the nineteenth, to increased speculative activity in the twentieth century. The final stage, regulation, is yet to arrive, but calls for stricter controls of the art market become ever more clamorous.

If the book is strong on the historical material, it is less so where contemporary discussions are concerned. We can overlook the reference to ‘Simon Rosenthal’ (sic) as the curator of the seminal New Spirit of Painting exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1981 although whether Norman Rosenthal, who did curate that exhibition, would approve of being mistaken for Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal is a moot point given Rosenthal’s outspoken stance on the restitution of Holocaust assets. However, the lack of transparency around Damien Hirst’s market somewhat undermines the editors’ claims in the introduction that the sale of his For the Love of God diamond-encrusted skull represented an ‘affirmation of the position of the artist as well as that of the whole British art world in the world’ is a matter of conjecture. Hirst’s ‘position’, both in critical terms as an artist and as a ‘branded’ commodity and art market player, is still up for negotiation.

One of the core themes mentioned above is that many of the commercial structures operating in the art market today are not new but are in fact written into the DNA of the art market and traceable at least to the eighteenth century, The message may have come across clearly in a thematic conference format but it is not altogether successful in book form, which would have benefited from a chronological structure. Certainly the book succeeds in reinforcing a sense of cultural continuity but it also results in a series of disorientating jolts, such as that in section one, from Grischka Petri’s helpful discussion of Whistler’s market in England and France at the turn of the twentieth century to Gabriel Gee’s investigation of the sociological implications of the art market in Northern England in the late 1980s. It is instructive that the editors, in introducing the essays in their opening chapter, choose to move from discussing Andrew Stephenson’s helpful work on Depression-era London in Part One — which expands on his chapter in Fletcher & Helmreich’s Rise of the Modern Art Market in London (2011) — to Anne Helmreich’s essay on the London art market in the immediately preceding period, (which has been placed in Part Two). Section One closes with Uta Protz’s less than convincing suggestion that Damien Hirst’s business model constitutes a ‘realignment of the artist and the art market in the twenty-first century’. Certainly, Hirst’s financial success and global fame were propelled to a new level by the Midas touch of his canny business manager Frank Dunphy, but any ‘realignment’ represented by his own career (i.e. from rags to riches), cannot be mapped onto a generic ‘artist’, if such a thing exists. Moreover, it has become a commonplace of art market studies that there is no such thing as ‘the Art Market’. Rather we are confronted by a commercial realm constituting numerous niche markets, each subject to a different economic logic and demand demographic. Furthermore, Hirst’s ground-breaking Beautiful Inside My Head sale at Sotheby’s in 2008 remains shrouded in secrecy, making any critical assessment of its broader impact nigh on impossible. The sotto voce’ back-office deals and confidential, pre-arranged financial instruments that are now commonplace at high-ticket auctions militate against full disclosure of the outcome, thereby calling into question its notional influence. Nor, tellingly, was the experiment repeated with sales of work by other high-profile artists which, had they taken place, might have supported a concept of ‘realignment’. Thus any notional cultural change can realistically only be applied to the broader global culture of creeping financialisation concomitant with the ever-rising power of the banking sector, rather than to Hirst himself or to ‘the Art Market in Great Britain in the Twenty First Century’, as Protz suggests.

The editors’ decision to eschew a chronological approach to their subject leads to some interruptions in what might otherwise have been a helpful progression of interconnected ideas about the evolution of the British art market. Thus, on a positive note, in Part Two we move logically from Dries Lyna’s excellent excavation of the activities of Flemish dealers in London between 1750-1800 to Bénédicte Miyamoto’s study of the marketing strategies adopted by dealers and auctioneers in Georgian London. Miyamoto’s investigation is particularly helpful in the context of recent discussions of transparency and the extent to which the internet might be opening the market to new participants and fostering a process of gradual democratisation. Her paper reminds us of the subtle difference between knowledge and information and the uses to which these two ‘commodities’ are put, which is critical to a proper understanding of how the art market has functioned historically and indeed how it continues to function. The internet and other new technologies may have ushered new participants into the global art market, by making price and other forms of information more widely available, but at the same time the auction houses continue to devise ever more exotic ways of sealing the perimeter fence to ensure privilege, confidentiality, and exclusivity for the select few.

From these stimulating chapters on Georgian London the book makes another big century-wide stride to Anne Helmreich’s and Patricia de Montfort’s contributions on the London art market at the turn of the twentieth century and the innovative initiation of solo exhibitions at the Fine Art Society, respectively. These two essays sit creatively side by side and, following Helmreich and Fletcher’s excellent volume, The Rise of The Modern Art Market in London (2011), make another significant contribution to the widening of conventional Victorian studies to embrace the commercial structures of the art market during the period. Slowly, and not before time, the role played by businesses such as The Fine Art Society, and the Carfax, Goupil and Chenil galleries is shifting into sharper focus, enriching our understanding of the long-neglected economic dimension to British art history. From here, however, the book makes another jolting historical jump into the weird world of Charles Saatchi through Chin-tao Wu’s critique of the notorious ‘super-collector’ cum dealer-gallerist-speculator. Saatchi’s decision in the 1980s to deaccession works by Sean Scully, Sandro Chia and others in order to change the theme of his collection now looks less controversial in the light of the unashamed ‘flipping’ culture that has become commonplace among contemporary speculators like David Martinez and Pierre Chen. It is too often the case that the artists themselves are marginalised in discussions of the contemporary art market and it is notable here that Wu, despite decrying the disproportionate media interest that has contributed to Saatchi’s status, effectively adds even more ballast to that process. She overlooks the fact that Saatchi’s website offers free exposure to many artists who would otherwise struggle to get their art seen. If he can offer anything, it is a website with critical mass and momentum, a shop window for the world’s exponentially expanding constituency of impoverished or under-remunerated artists.

The book’s final section settles into a more conventional rhythm, moving from Bärbel Küster’s exploration of the market for copies on the eighteenth-century British art market to Laurent Châtel’s insightful profile of the English aesthete William Beckford, who remains a gift that keeps on giving despite a number of significant exhibitions and books devoted to his life and work. Guillaume Évrard’s archival research on the Royal Academy of Art’s involvement in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878 represents another constructive contribution to the body of research initiated by Paul Greenhalgh into the nineteenth-century culture of international exhibitions that is proving an increasingly helpful way of reading the evolution the rapidly evolving ‘event culture’ of sprawling art fairs now dominating the global contemporary art market. Anne-Pascale Bruneau-Rumsey’s closing chapter on Roger Fry and the Omega Workshops reinforces the underlying sub-theme referred to above, that the dialectical tension between the autonomy of art and the economic conditions that frame its production and consumption that remains so pertinent within discussions of the art market today, has deeper historical roots.

This book is an important addition to an expanding literature on the British art market and will be welcomed by those university art history departments that have been expansive enough to embrace the economic history of art. It also has much to contribute to a clearer understanding of the broader patterns of promotion and consumption that have been fashioned over time to meet the challenges of a luxury ‘commodity’ that defies the conventional laws of supply and demand. Even art market journalists might learn a thing or two from it.


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