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Marcus Huish (1843-1921)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 26-30 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0014

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Marcus Huish's obituary, published in The Times of London on 4 May 1921, drew attention to his work as editor of The Art Journal from 1881 to 1893; his interest in and many writings on Japanese art; his position as chairman of the Japan society; his role in organizing the British pavilion at the International Art Exhibition at Venice; and his own artistic productions in watercolour, often shown at the Royal Academy ("Mr. Huish" 13). Surprisingly, the obituary omitted his directorship of the Fine Art Society, a position he held from 1879 to 1911. Indeed, Huish was a pivotal figure in the late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century London art world, and his myriad activities are representative of the blurred boundaries between artist and critic, private and public, didactic and commercial, and nationalism and cosmopolitanism that existed at the time. Huish both helped to produce this complex system of art exhibition, criticism, and production, and adroitly navigated it.

After his undergraduate education at Trinity College, Cambridge, Huish's initial training was in law, and he was called to the bar in 1867, but he spent his mature professional career in the arts. He joined the Fine Art Society shortly after it was founded. Established in 1876 as a fine art publisher, the firm initially specialized in engravings reproduced from paintings and then expanded into selling original works of art, often displayed in temporary exhibitions accompanied by catalogues with prefatory essays by well-known authors. John Ruskin, for example, curated an exhibition of J.M.W. Turner's drawings in 1878 and authored the accompanying notes. In that same year, etcher Francis Seymour Haden provided the notes for an exhibition of old master prints, and Henry James contributed an essay for an exhibition of watercolours of gardens by Alfred Parsons in 1891. Huish himself authored essays for artists exhibiting at the Fine Art Society; for example, he supplied a prefatory note for William Logsdail's cabinet pictures of the Riviera in 1891 and penned a monograph entitled Happy England (1888) on the work of watercolourist Helen Allingham. The range of art critics, artists, and literary figures who supported the Fine Art Society's exhibitions underscores Huish's ability to operate successfully within multiple social and professional circles and to form points of intersection.

As Hilarie Faberman has noted, the Fine Art Society's "exhibitions were distinguished by their quality and educational significance" (147). Although the sales technique of judiciously selected special exhibitions accompanied by edifying exegesis may seem familiar today, we should remember that these strategies for reaching the public were in formation in the second half of the nineteenth century (Fletcher). Although Huish was certainly not the first art dealer as scholar—for example, John Smith, an early nineteenth-century British dealer also authored A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters (1829-1842)—Huish made a distinctive contribution through his attention to the art of his day. He wrote about etching in England as well as France and watercolour painting in Great Britain. As director of the Fine Art Society, he supervised an intense schedule of exhibitions of the work of leading British artists, including Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Elizabeth Thompson, and James McNeill Whistler. As Faberman notes, "during the early 1880s the company did a brisk trade, its sales averaging around £25,500 annually" (156).

Sales were inextricably linked to positive notices of the firm's exhibitions in the press, and the lines between the art market and art criticism were sometimes so obscured as to be effectively invisible (Fletcher and Helmreich). Indeed, as noted above, Huish was editor of The Art Journal for over a decade and, when he stepped down, his position was taken by David Croal Thomson, the manager of the Goupil Gallery, another commercial fine art gallery. The role of editor, for both Huish and Thomson, enabled these art dealers to keep their finger on the pulse of the art world and subtly promote those whom they believed should become the leading lights of the age, as in the case of James McNeill Whistler. Huish was also responsible for compiling The Year's Art, founded...

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