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The Periodical and the Art Market: Investigating the “Dealer-Critic System” in Victorian England

From: Victorian Periodicals Review
Volume 41, Number 4, Winter 2008
pp. 323-351 | 10.1353/vpr.0.0055

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The “dealer-critic system” – Cynthia White and Harrison White’s oft-cited term describing the mutual dependence between the art market and the press – has been long recognized by scholars as a new and critically important feature of the nineteenth-century art world.1 Sociologists White and White charted the decline of the Academy and the rise of the commercial gallery system sustained by the press, and linked these structural changes to the shift from a focus on single important canvases to a speculative market that concentrated on the value of an artist’s entire oeuvre. Art-historical inquiry, building upon White and White’s work, has largely focused on the French art world in the late nineteenth century, as scholars have mapped the emergence of modernist work and practices within this institutional framework.2 Much of the groundwork for this new system, however, originated in Victorian London, which was a forerunner in the development of both the modern art market and the periodical press. In this paper, we argue that attending to the rich web of connections and intersections between the Victorian periodical press and the art market can expand and refine the definition of the dealer-critic system both in its Victorian particularities and as a more generally applicable theoretical model.3

By the 1850s, London had established its identity as a World City, a phrase denoting its position as the capital of the largest empire of the world, its teeming and diverse population, and leadership in capitalism. The art market thrived in such conditions, buoyed by new technologies such as railway and shipping networks and, later, telegraphs and telephones, and sustained largely by a new type of wealthy middle-class patron.4 These new audiences were served by a new business model for selling art: the dealer-run commercial gallery, distinguished both from artist-run exhibitions and shops selling art among other items of home décor, that emerged in the 1850s and rapidly became a dominant force in the art market.5 By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the recognizably modern commercial gallery system had been established and London’s art market was widely considered the most advanced and cosmopolitan in Europe, a fluid center for an international network of patrons and dealers.6

London’s equally vast and dynamic periodical press played multiple functions in this economy. Periodic art criticism arose in conjunction with the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy in the late eighteenth century and quickly proliferated across specialized art journals, literary journals, and general interest publications.7 As Helene Roberts, Julie Codell, and others have demonstrated, the tone and function of such art reporting evolved as the art world expanded and professionalized over the long nineteenth century.8 According to its own rhetoric, art criticism initially acted as a disinterested guide for would-be consumers or viewers, directing the public’s attention to the best on offer in the market and educating their taste. At mid-century, art critics and editors such as Tom Taylor writing for the Times and Samuel Carter Hall at the Art Journal embraced this role of educator as part of the professionalization of the artistic field and concomitantly consolidated notions of the British School.9

As the art market expanded and became less centered on the Royal Academy, however, the press played an increasingly visible partisan role, with critics and journals acting as advocates for particular schools or artists, as in the case of the promotion of the PreRaphaelites by William Michael Rossetti and F. G. Stephens, who also contributed to larger aesthetic debates.10 The Whistler-Ruskin trial of 1878 sustained these tendencies by thrusting artists and critics into divergent camps.11 By the 1880s and 90s, the next generation of “New Critics,” such as D.S. MacColl and R.A.M. Stevenson, had become outspoken defenders of formalist art criticism and new French and French-influenced art in the face of considerable opposition by more conservative critics such as Harry Quilter and J. A. Spender. Such debates were fueled by the increasing recognition achieved by critics; signed reviews began to appear in periodicals beginning in the 1860s and, concomitantly, as Prettejohn points out...

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