A noted historian weaves a brilliantly colorful tapestry.
From 1800, when George III still ruled, until the end of Victoria’s reign in 1901, Britain experienced dramatic social, political, economic, and cultural changes, resulting from the advent and expansion of the Industrial Revolution. Art historian and biographer Hamilton (University Curator and Honorary Reader in the History of Art/Univ. of Birmingham; London Lights: The Minds that Moved the City that Shook the World, 2007, etc.) offers an enthralling, densely detailed examination of the impact of these changes on the art world, populating his narrative with more than 150 painters, sculptors, dealers, collectors, engravers, publishers, writers, architects, and providers of artists’ materials, such as chemists (who created colors), suppliers of marble, and manufacturers of pen nibs. It’s likely that many of his huge cast of characters will not be familiar to readers, but Hamilton’s deft portraits bring them to life: Benjamin Robert Haydon, “vain, debt-ridden, self-destructive,” who insisted on painting historical narratives at a time when that genre was on the wane; the “charming, generous, loving” John Varley, a venerated teacher and popular watercolorist, whose financial woes landed him in debtors prison; the indomitable Maria Graham, a multilingual explorer of “untrodden paths,” whose marriage to artist Augustus Wall Callcott allowed her to reinvent herself “as an influential opinion-former and a distinguished, gregarious, and independent woman of letters.” Hamilton gives prominence to his former biographical subjects J.M.W. Turner, a savvy and successful marketer of his works; and Michael Faraday, who improved image reproduction of steel-plate engraving and lithography and contributed to the creation of a new paint color, Prussian blue. The book is organized according to participants’ roles, which include not only creators of art, but also the patrons who supported them, the dealers who exhibited and sold their works, and the engravers who reproduced their work for mass consumption.
A fascinating, consistently entertaining exploration into the exploding business of 19th-century art.