Introductory Essay

Dealers and the London Exhibition Scene

What did it mean to be an art dealer in the nineteenth century? This was one of many questions we needed to ask ourselves as we collated resources for this project. The second half of the nineteenth century brought about a rapid increase in the number dealer run galleries (as the ever growing number of galleries listed in Kelly's London Post Office Directory attests). By 1900, the classified columns of London Times teemed with advertisements: ''Exhibition of Paintings and Colour Prints by Japanese Artists' at the Black and White Gallery; 'The Lady of Shalott by W. Holman Hunt now on view' at Arthur Tooth and Sons; 'Masters of Watercolour Art' at the Leicester Galleries.[1] Picture dealers commonly advertised themselves as dealers in high-class pictures, framers, restorers and sellers of cheap reproductive prints. As well as selling fine art, the long-established firm of Gladwell Brothers listed its activities in 1886 as 'practical carvers and gilders, picture frame manufacturers and advertised the availability of 'all new and choice etchings as soon as issued.'[2] It also sold cornices, console tables, brackets and girandoles. Some such as the family firm of William Dyer[3] appear to have been art restorers who sold a few pictures on the side. Other so called 'picture dealers' were probably no more than glorified bric brac merchants or what were termed 'curiosity dealers.' Those further up the dealer hierarchy who were often men (and occasionally women) of knowledge and discerning taste who crossed old social boundaries between raw trade and professional respectability. Both Marcus Huish barrister, dealer and occasional artist - at the Fine Art Society and the Scottish dealer David Croal Thomson at the Goupil Gallery possessed shrewd business sense and a taste for the art of the vanguard. Huish gave Whistler both a commission to work in Venice in 1879-80 - a time when Whistler's career was at a low ebb and two solo exhibitions on his return that greatly assisted his rehabilitation. Thomson was keen artistic promoter, not only of Whistler but of Barbizon School painting, including the work of artists like Corot and Millet.[4] Others like William Agnew, partner at Agnew's, responded to growing markets amongst collectors for Old Masters and eighteenth century English portraiture during the 1870s and 80s.

In May and June each year the London social season would have in full swing and the Royal Academy drawing its customary crowds. But there would have been many alternatives, smaller and less busy. These galleries centred on fashionable streets like Old Bond Street, Piccadilly, Pall Mall and the Haymarket. What did a dealer exhibition look like? Nineteenth century ideas about exhibition spaces do not always corollate with our modern day assumptions. We expect clean uncluttered spaces and a rather austere atmosphere despite recent experiments in retrospective-style art display in some of our public galleries.[5] Nineteenth century dealer galleries tended to be like jumbled artistic bazaars, with pictures hung tightly together and double-hung. The smarter dealers attempted to create intimate, domestic scale settings for the display and sale of their stock or the work of the artists they promoted. The grander ones created ornate and richly decorated salons of art, typified by the Old Bond Street gallery designed by the architect E. Salomons for the firm of Thomas Agnew in 1877.[6] Victorian gallery visitors were used to patronising large public exhibitions. As one commentator wrote in 1904: 'As a nation we patronize them as liberally as we patronize the modern theatre, the modern football match, the modern sensational novel, and the modern cheap magazine. We have grown to like things that are big and bright and varied.'[7] Dealers attempted to replicate this kind of choice and visual impact. However later, by the 1890s and 1900s, art display often reflected the increasing taste of collectors for a uncluttered and harmonious domestic environment. The Times commented in 1908: 'Fifty years ago a man who had the ambition to be artistic showed it only in his pictures; now he shows it in all the furniture and ornaments of his room.'[8] Galleries also lacked the kind of sophisticated artificial lighting with which we are familiar. Innovations were remarked upon such as the addition of four new top-lighted rooms at the Goupil Gallery in 1907.[9]

The specialist art press was of great importance to the art trade (as well as the mainstream newspapers), and they were closely inter-twined, particularly in the 1880s when Huish was editor of the periodical, the Art Journal. Thomson went on to become editor of the Art Journal from 1892-1902. Thomson also contributed to the Studio and the Magazine of Art, and published works including The Barbizon School of Painters (1890) and The Brothers Maris (1907). From 1880-93, Huish edited The Year's Art, an annual compendium of activity in the visual arts in Britain and beyond and he was assisted by Thomson from 1883-85. The Year's Art, which ran from 1880-1948, has been a rich source of information for this project, from its brief descriptions of major art societies and exhibition listings to its advertisement pages. While many other London newspapers carried news about art, the Times was, by the standards of the day, generous in its art coverage. Regular reviews of the 'Minor Exhibitions' outside the Royal Academy were published and its classified advertisement column provided an essential source of information for the more affluent gallery visitor.

Whilst this project set out with the intention of focusing on exhibitions of fine art, we soon encountered some interesting (sometimes strange!) juxtapositions in gallery displays. As the market for domestic scale art expanded from c. 1850 onwards, one finds dealers trying to cater for all tastes and to create distinct spaces within their galleries to cater for different audiences at the same time. Many dealers would concentrate the exhibition of a famous 'sensation picture' in one room, creating a visual focal point. These pictures tended to be of monumental religious or historical subjects (such as Gustave Dor's monumental 'Vale of Tears', exhibited at Messrs Fairless and Beeforth's Dor Gallery in 1889 and William Holman Hunt's 'The Triumph of the Innocents' at the Fine Art Society in 1885), although works by the genre painter William Powell Frith were also exhibited this way. Series of narrative pictures were also exhibited in 1880, Frith's five 'The Race for Wealth' pictures, which told moral tale of reckless financial speculation, were exhibited at the John Stratton Gallery. The same year the Austrian artist Hans Makart's controversial pictures of the entry of Charles V into Antwerp and the silver wedding of the Emperor and Empress of Austria were shown at the Hanover Gallery.

Converselydepressions in the art market in the late 1870s and 1890s required dealers to invent new ways of presenting art. Exhibitions of art works fragmented from large mixed shows to those that focused on specific media. The popularity of etching, thought the Athenaeum in 1881, was enough to 'demand if not to require, a separate field of display' and this 'process of division' had spread into other art media. 'Painting in oil and painting in water colours have been separated,' it noted, 'and exercises in black and white have found place of refuge in the Dudley Gallery.'[10] Scale was an issue. By the late 1890s, the artist Walter Sickert felt that competition in the Salons and academies had grown to the extent that 'if painters are to make a living, they will have to learn to work on a small scale. The exhibition picture has had its day.'[11] There was also a recognition of the increasing internationalisation of art exhibitions. One critic wrote in 1879: 'Art in Englandis fast becoming cosmopolitan. Painting with us is no longer as it was, insular intensely and exclusively English. Our artists have many of them studied in foreign schools [] our picture dealers and buyers lay under contribution the ateliers, not only of Paris, but of Vienna, Munich, and Dusseldorf, Brussels and Antwerp, the Hague and Amsterdam, modern Florence, Milan and Rome..'[12] In this setting, the same critic extolled the value of the dealer as arbitrator: 'The public reaps [] all the benefit of judicious choice of painters and careful culling of pictures under the guidance of long experience and with a single eye to the effect of the exhibition.'[13]

In the 1890s and 1900s, increasing numbers of solo and small-scale exhibitions took place (notably at galleries like the Fine Art Society) that reflected attempts at subject specialisation and to connect more closely with the tastes of middle-class patrons. Increasingly dealer exhibitions fragmented into sub genres and themed exhibitions, especially those around places or journeys were popular. The Art Journal remarked of an exhibition about Venice featuring works by several artists: 'It is a decided gain to the interest of the minor London exhibitions that the fashion has grown of collecting works connected with each other by something more than a common medium, such as oil or watercolour. Subdivision is one of the most striking conditions of modern life, and upon its judiciousness or injudiciousness depends much of the pleasure and profit of the contemporary world'[14] Other travel related exhibitions often reflected a Victorian preoccupation with exotic cultures and eagerness for first-hand impressions of the more far flung parts of the British Empire, especially India and Africa. The Middle East was also popular. The dealer catalogue for E. H. Holden's exhibition of views of the Victoria Falls on the Zambesi at the Mendoza Gallery boasted that they were 'from sketches made on the spot.' But what has been most striking overall during the process of categorising exhibitions for this project is just how many relate in some way to travel. Documents of sea-journeys off the southern English coast (such as those of W. L. Wyllie) were as popular as a remote journey through Japan. In its celebration of its hundredth exhibition in 1892, the Fine Art Society proudly listed the places that its solo artists had painted. In Britain these included the '[Scottish] Highlands, the land of Burns and Scott, Yorkshire and Derbyshire dales, Shakespere's country,' an echo perhaps of Victorian literary-historical preoccupations.

The overall aim of this project has been to bring the exhibition activities of many types of different dealers altogether, in order to better understand the artistic choices a Victorian visitor to London might have pondered on at particular moment in time and the workings of the London art market of this period then - as now - a hub of artistic-economic activity, with global counterparts that included Paris, Berlin and increasingly, New York. It is hoped that to record every type of ephemeral display in every material, from Old Masters to embroidery will provide ultimately a broad and richly textured canvas of the London exhibition scene. While there are dealers about which we may never know much through lack of archival or other information, it is also hoped that the compilation of this data, together with that of some of the less well-known exhibition societies and clubs, will enable the London exhibition scene to be studied in some new and revealing ways.

Dr Patricia de Montfort


It is intended to publish regular short essays in this section about exhibition related topics, whether about the exhibition scene as a whole or about individual artists and dealers. Contributions are invited in the form of short notes (c. 500 words max) or essays (2,000 words max). Essays must be sourced and footnoted as appropriate. Please contact us if you are interested.

[1]Times advertisements, 1 Aug 1906, p. 1.

[2]Year's Art, 1886, rear advertisement section, p. 8.

[3] UK Census 1881.

[4] Houfe, Simon, 'David Croal Thomson: Whistler's Aide-de-Camp,' Apollo, vol. 19, no. 264, new series, Feb 1984, pp. 112-11.

[5] Notably attempts during the late 1980s and early 1990s at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh to display art in a richly coloured decorative context that included furniture and sculpture.

[6] Agnew, Geoffrey, Agnew's 1817-1967, London, 1967, illustration, p. 29.

[7] Anon., 'The Picture Exhibition of the Future,' Burlington Magazine, vol. 6, (Oct 1904-Mar 1905), p. 176.

[8] Anon., 'The Problem of Picture Exhibitions,' Times, 30 Oct 1908, p. 11.

[9] Anon., 'Art Exhibitions,' Times, 10 Jan 1907, p. 10.

[10] Quoted in E. Chambers, An Indolent and Blundering Art? : the Etching Revival and the Redefinition of etching in England, 1838-1892, London, 1999, p. 175.

[11] Walter Sickert, 'Small Pictures,' The Speaker, 2 Jan 1897, repr. in Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Oxford, 2000, p. 124.

[12] Anon., 'The French Gallery,' Times, 8 Apr 1879, p. 4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] 'The Winter Exhibitions at the Smaller Galleries,' Art Journal, Nov 1882, p. 378.