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1870 William Agnew's Purchases at the Summer Exhibition

Art dealers were not invited to the grand inaugural banquet of the 102nd Royal Academy Exhibition, which took place on 1 May 1870.1 That year, two hundred men were present: not just Academicians, but royalty, aristocracy, politicians, collectors, and other celebrities in the art world.2 Many gave speeches, including Sir Francis Grant, President of the Academy, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), and the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, who singled out among all of the pictures Edwin Landseer’s Doctor’s Visit to Poor Relations at the Zoological Gardens.3 The elderly Charles Dickens also spoke. His address, in which he facetiously imagined a future where women would take the men’s place at the Royal Academy’s table, was his last public performance before his death a few weeks later.4 The absence of dealers at the dinner table, however, did not mean that the Academy was not connected with the art market. On the contrary, commerce was essential to the survival of the Academy.5 With very little state support, it depended financially on the sale of exhibition tickets, and sales arranged directly between exhibiting artists and buyers were also very much encouraged. In 1870, the catalogue listed the addresses of some 700 artists’ studios for buyers to contact, and the prices of works were available on request from the Price Clerk.6

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At the May banquet, a nod to the importance of private patronage was given by the presence of industrialists such as Henry Bolckow and Sam Mendel, who were large-scale buyers of paintings from Academy shows.7 But Bolckow and Mendel rarely bought pictures directly from the artists. They preferred to acquire these from the stock of another large-scale buyer and supporter of the Academy, the uninvited art dealer William Agnew, head of the firm “Thos. Agnew and Sons” (Agnew’s).8

According to family lore, William Agnew would choose which paintings to purchase on Varnishing Day.9 Yet, the Agnew’s stock books demonstrate that he bought well in advance of the Exhibition. In April 1870, William bought some fifty pictures that were later displayed at the Academy, including twenty-three on Thursday 21 April alone.10 He sold some of these paintings before the Exhibition opened, some during the show itself, and others later. When the as yet unsold pictures—such as Henry Moore’s A Quiet Evening in the Channel, William Powell Frith’s Amy Robsart and Janet (Fig. 1), and others—were on the walls at the Academy, they still belonged to William Agnew.11 The exhibition, therefore, not only showcased the artists who painted the pictures, but also advertised Agnew’s wares.

By 1870, Agnew’s was a well-established firm. Started in 1817 by the partnership of Vittore Zanetti and Thomas Agnew Senior as curiosity dealers and print sellers in Manchester, it reconstituted as “Thos. Agnew and Sons” in 1850 and specialised in fine art, branching out to Liverpool in 1859 and London in 1860 with premises in Waterloo Place, in close proximity to the Royal Academy.12 Agnew’s was run from 1861 by the two eldest sons of its founder, William and Thomas Junior, with William as undisputed leader.13 Agnew’s prospered through the sale of works by fashionable London-based artists to the wealthy industrialists of northern England.14 These included the communications merchant Mendel and the German-born industrialist and Liberal politician Bolckow, both of whom dined at the Academy banquet.15

Mendel purchased four works from Agnew’s at the 1870 Academy Exhibition: The Virgin’s Bower and The Orphans (Fig. 2) by Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Among the Hills by Peter Graham, and Saint Francis Preaches to the Birds by Henry Stacy Marks. Mendel spent just over £3,300 on these works—a significant sum at the time.16 He could, however, easily afford this expense. His cotton import–export business was prospering, and Mendel spent his disposable income on works of art: by 1862, he had already amassed a large, well-respected collection of modern and old master paintings and sculpture.17 As the catalogue of his collection noted, the paintings were mainly purchased through Agnew’s and previously exhibited at the Academy. The growing collection was on public display in Mendel’s mansion, Manley Hall near Manchester, and had been the subject of admiring articles in The Art Journal and elsewhere.18

But Agnew’s selections, and Mendel’s choices among them, had not been particularly fortunate that year. The pictures by Graham and Marks were met with critical silence and Calderon’s paintings were not highly regarded by the press. Tom Taylor wrote in The Portfolio that:

more recently Calderon has shown a leaning to classical subjects […]. But it does not seem to me that his natural bent lies this way. To convey in the guise of the past the feeling and affections of home seems Mr Calderon’s true vocation. He has not the dramatic or story-telling faculty in that intense strength which can dispense with the aids of costume.19

Similar sentiments were echoed by writers in The Times, The Art Journal, and other publications.20 The lukewarm reaction, however, did not merely single out William Agnew’s and Mendel’s choices; most writers found the 1870 Exhibition generally underwhelming and not very interesting overall.21

These responses were, perhaps an early symptom of the critics’ crisis of confidence in modern British painting and the beginnings of a sea change in the market. In January of that year, the first Winter Exhibition had opened at the Academy to great acclaim.22 It did not show contemporary painters, but “deceased masters”, British eighteenth-century and European old master paintings. These had started to gain commercial momentum. Within only a few years’ time, The Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough would surpass the records that had lately been achieved by contemporary artists, and it was none other than William Agnew who bought it for £10,500.23 The shift from “modern” to “old” had already started in 1870, and the market for “deceased masters” would eventually outperform modern British painting.24 The warm enthusiasm which the press demonstrated for the Winter Exhibition and the cool response reserved for the Summer show anticipated the difficult times to come for this Exhibition, the Academy and its artists. 

  1. The One Hundred and Second Exhibition was also the first one to be later known as the “Summer Exhibition”, because its counterpart, the “Winter Exhibition”, dedicated to paintings of “deceased masters”, had opened for the first time a few months earlier in January 1870.↩︎

  2. “Banquet at the Royal Academy”, The Times, 2 May 1870.↩︎

  3. “Banquet at the Royal Academy”, The Times.↩︎

  4. “Banquet at the Royal Academy”, The Times; “Minor Topic of the Month”, The Art Journal 32 (1870): 194.↩︎

  5. Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich “The Royal Academy of Arts”, in Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich (eds), The Rise of the Modern Art Market in London, 1850–1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), 5–7.↩︎

  6. The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art MDCCCLXX. The One Hundred and Second (London: Clowes and Sons, 1870), 5; Artists’ addresses, 58–64.↩︎

  7. Diane Sachko MacLeod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 395–396 and 450–451.↩︎

  8. For the many transactions with these collectors, see Agnew’s Stock Book 1*, 1 and 1A, National Gallery Archive, NGA27/1/1/1, NGA27/1/1/2 and NGA27/1/1/3; and an analysis in, Dongho Chun, “Art Dealing in Nineteenth-Century England: The Case of Thomas Agnew”, Horizons 2 (December 2011): 255–277.↩︎

  9. [Geoffrey Agnew], Agnew’s 1817–1977 (London: Agnew’s, 1967), 14.↩︎

  10. Agnew’s Stock Book 1A, National Gallery Archive, NGA27/1/1/3, nos. 5766–5789. A preview of works to be exhibited in, “Pictures for the Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Illustrated London News, 2 April 1870.↩︎

  11. Agnew’s Stock Book 1A, nos. 5732 and 5787.↩︎

  12. Dennis Farr, “Agnew Family (per. 1817–1986)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 2004; online edition, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/65633 (accessed March 2017); [Agnew], Agnew’s 1817–1977, 8–35.↩︎

  13. Farr, “Agnew Family”. On William Agnew, see William Roberts, “Agnew, William”, The Dictionary of National Biography, Second Supplement (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1912), 22–24.↩︎

  14. Chun, “Art Dealing in Nineteenth-Century England”, 255–277; MacLeod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class, 210–213.↩︎

  15. “Banquet at the Royal Academy”, The Times; MacLeod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class, 395–396 and 450–451.↩︎

  16. Agnew’s Stock Book 1A, nos 5766, 5768, 5770, and 5780.↩︎

  17. On Mendel, see MacLeod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class, 450–451; on his collection sale, see William Roberts, Memorials of Christie’s, a Record of Art Sales from 1766 to 1896 (London: George Bell & Sons, 1897), vol. 1, 228–232.↩︎

  18. Manley Hall: Catalogue of the Paintings and Drawings (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1862). “The Gallery of S. Mendel, Esq., Manchester”, The Art Journal 32 (1870): 106, 153–156, and 209–211; “Manley Hall”, Manchester City News, 8 October 1904; see also Edward Morris, “Provincial Internationalism: Contemporary Foreign Art in Nineteenth-Century Liverpool and Manchester”, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 147 (1997): 81–114.↩︎

  19. Tom Taylor, “English Painters of the Present Day: IX–Philip Hermogenes Calderon and the St. John Wood School”, The Portfolio 1 (1870): 97–102 [101].↩︎

  20. “The Royal Academy One Hundred and Second Exhibition”, The Art Journal 32 (1870): 164.↩︎

  21. “The collection barely reaches average merit”, “The Royal Academy One Hundred and Second Exhibition”, The Art Journal 32 (1870), 161; “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Times, 30 April 1870, 6 May 1870, 18 May 1870, and 30 May 1870; “Fine Arts”, The Illustrated London News, 7 May 1870; “Royal Academy: First Notice”, The Observer, 1 May 1870.↩︎

  22. “Works of the Old Masters and Deceased British Artists”, The Art Journal 32 (1870): 41; “Exhibition of Old Masters at the Royal Academy”, The Times, 3 January 1870.↩︎

  23. “The Wynn Ellis Collection”, The Times, 5 May 1876; “Art Sales”, The Times, 8 May 1876; Agnew’s Stock Book 7, NGA27/1/1/9, no. 9908.↩︎

  24. Thomas M. Bayer and John R. Page, The Development of the Art Market in England: Money as Muse 1730–1900 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011), 103.↩︎

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