- The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s by Ruth E. Iskin, and: British Models of Art Collecting and the American Response: Reflections Across the Pond ed. by Inge Reist
As a cultural, social, and financial practice, collecting is a historically determined activity, as are its effects. As Inge Reist’s British Models of Art Collecting and the American Response: Reflections Across the Pond and Ruth E. Iskin’s The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s-1900s show, the nineteenth century was a period of significant development and flux in collecting practices, both because different people were collecting and because there were new things to collect. These two books interrogate a cultural marketplace which was becoming distinctively modern in the late nineteenth century. In other ways, though, they are very different books.
Reist’s edited volume focuses on the changing center of gravity of Old Master art collection during the nineteenth century, from British aristocrats at the beginning to American plutocrats by the end; it interrogates the mechanisms which produced and supported this change, as well as the tastes and motivations of the different collectors and their supporting dealers and experts. The book is arranged in three parts: the first gives a background and chronology to the whole book. Here, David Cannadine provides a socio-economic overview of the changing fortunes of British aristocrats, who initially benefited from the misfortunes of their peers in Italy and France and bought up cheap art, later falling victim to agricultural slump at the same time as American businessmen were amassing fortunes and seeking ways to spend them. These aristocratic collectors may have sought the same objects, but differences across nations such as inheritance laws meant that the purpose, location, and fate of their collections differed. The second part focuses on British collectors, largely aristocratic, as well as the agents and dealers who supplied them in order to set up the British model. Organized by case study, essays in this section do not always reflect upon what constitutes a model of collecting explicitly enough. Nor do they address fully the relative importance of similarity in content, method of acquisition, or mode of display or dispersal. Some, indeed, tend towards the descriptive and narrative. Jonathan Conlin’s chapter is the highlight of this section, exploring a self-conscious analysis of art collecting models of the period by J. C. Robinson, the art historian, some-time employee of the South Kensington Museum, and Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, who had a not inconsiderable influence on the operation of the art market.
The final section focuses on the ways in which a number of American art collectors moved into the market. Because their activities can be compared with those of the British collectors already covered, this is a more successful section that gives a more critical sense of the ways in which art collecting shaped and was shaped by structural, social, and cultural factors. These chapters deal less centrally with individual collectors (although some are covered, as in Shelley M. Bennett’s chapter on Henry E. Huntington), but pay much more attention to the operation of the art market, such as in M. J. Ripps’s chapter on the firm Knoedler & Co. One of the most thought-provoking chapters in the section, Neil Harris’s “The Long Good-Bye: Heritage and Threat in Anglo-America,” looks at the [End Page 187] increasing British perception of U.S. collectors as wealthy, rapacious, and determined to acquire all British treasures, addressing the effect this had on art policy in the United Kingdom. At the same time, though, aristocrats, even those who were Trustees of the National Gallery, were still selling paintings to the U.S., while restrictions on art exports remained virtually non-existent.
Overall, the book provides a wealth of detailed information on collectors, dealers, paintings...