Speaking prose all their lives: The relationship between art Victorian social mores explored

A book on the social and monetary value of art and how big businessmen became big collectors


In 1832, after the passage of the Reform bill, a horrified Duke of Wellington looked down at a House of Commons packed with newly emancipated middle class industrialists and remarked that he had never seen so many bad hats in his life. By “bad hats” he implied that the new MPs were nouveau riche arrivistes, lacking the qualifications of gentlemen in not owing their status to inherited land, but deriving their wealth from the new industries of the Midlands and the North.

In the same decade both W.P. Frith and C.R. Leslie painted pictures based on Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme in which the bourgeois Monsieur Jourdain, learns fencing and dancing in order to achieve recognition as a gentleman. The acquisition of works of art by Victorian industrialists would form a parallel process, notably in the cities Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.

The artistic endeavours of these cities are discussed by the author with the enthusiasm of a sports writer describing the merits of individual football teams. She singles out for special praise the connoisseurs of Manchester, united under the clever direction of Thomas Agnew, the first manager of the famous art dealers who set up business in Manchester in 1817, over forty years before opening their first London shop in 1860. Miss Macleod describes vividly the major Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, and attacks the “tired cliché of the boorish Manchester patron” in Victorian literature, citing rewarding yet little known sources (as she does throughout the book) a good example being these amusing lines by H.H. Horton of 1851 describing Birmingham’s most prosperous suburb:

“See Edgbaston, the bed of prosperous trade, Where they recline who have their fortunes made; Strong in their wealth, no matter how possessed, There fashion calls, and there at ease they rest.”

Birmingham, however, comes out lower in Miss Macleod’s league table and she wittily suggests that the epigraph of the Art Gallery, founded in the 1860s should be not “By the gains of industry we promote art” but “By the efforts of art we promote industry.”

Like the novelist Mrs Gaskell, Miss Macleod is extremely good at “North and South.” Her description of the career of the Kensington-based entrepreneur Baron Albert Grant, a prototype for Frith’s five paintings entitled “The race for wealth” is of great interest. She also writes well on the more familiar subject of Pre-Raphaelite patrons, describing how Rossetti played one collector off against another. He regarded MacCracken, the Belfast collector, as an enemy to be pillaged rather than a patron to be won, and derided Thomas Plint of Leeds and James Leathart of Newcastle as being “twin lambs at the altar of sacrifice,” so eager were they to buy whatever was offered them.

The chapter on the Aesthetic Movement is particularly interesting on the patronage of women. Their motivations are discussed in purchasing what the publisher’s “blurb” describes as “late-Victorians’ eroto-religious subjects which promised escapist pleasures to the world-weary buyer.” The author’s examination of this stirring capitalist rallying cry “World-weary buyers of the world escape” could have been profitably enlarged by a look at the artistic activities of the South African millionaire, Sir Alfred Beit.

Sadly there is no definition of the term “middle class”, a more complex problem than at first appears, given the British establishment’s ability to marry new money, a source for satire since the time of Hogarth. It would also have been interesting to see discussion not of North and South but East and West (collectors of regional art such as the Bristol or Norwich schools), and mention of the great collector of sporting art, Sir Walter Gilbey, the Paul Mellon of his day. But as a “collection of collectors” the biographical appendix listing 146 collectors forms a valuable reference work.

Dianne Sachko Macleod, Art and the Victorian middle class: money and the making of cultural identity, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996), 550 pp, 76 b/w ills, 8 col. ills, £65 $95 (hb) ISBN 0521550904

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Speaking prose all their lives'