The Emergence of the Antique and Curiosity Dealer in Britain 1815–1850: The Commodification of Historical Objects

By Mark Westgarth, 2020. London : Routledge, 192 pp., 36 b/w illustrations. £120 (hardback) £36.99 (eBook), ISBN 9781409405795 (hardback) ISBN 9781003028147 (ebook)

– Imogen Tedbury

‘The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust.’ (Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop)

From Balzac and Gautier to Charles Dickens, Henry James and Wilkie Collins, the antique and curiosity dealer occupied a unique place in the nineteenth-century cultural imaginary. These fictions all full of tropes of chaotic premises, Jewish brokers and dishonest dealers given to trade in fakes and forgeries. Dealers are often defined by their artefacts, and by the confused profusion of incongruous historical disorder, antithetical to the orderly arrangements assembled by collectors.

How these fictional dealers – and their curiosity shops – swayed the activities and influence of their historical counterparts is just one facet of Mark Westgarth’s study of the early-nineteenth-century market for historical objects. Evolving from his PhD thesis (University of Southampton, 2007) on the same subject, this book’s long gestation has resulted in a nuanced and wide-ranging exploration, which, despite its focus on the early nineteenth century, has much broader implications for methodological approaches to art market studies.

Comprising four distinct parts – on the ‘spaces of the discourse’, the ‘emergence of historical consciousness’, the ‘emergence of the antique and curiosity dealer’ and the ‘spaces of consumption’ this book explores the intersections between practices of collecting historical objects and changing attitudes to history, as well as the fluid position of antiques dealers in this era of commodification more generally. Throughout, the dealer is relocated from the periphery to the centre, as an agent for promoting the desirability of objects with as much sway as the collectors who have traditionally received much of the credit for antiquarian study.

The dealing activities of John Coleman Isaac (c. 1803-1887) and the Davies family sit at the heart of this volume. Close examination of the business’s archive, with particular attention paid to the ‘Waste Book’ from the period 1815-1845, demonstrates how one business can provide the starting point for exploring the evolving diversification in the consumption of historical objects more broadly, against a broader backdrop of political and social change. Indeed, this it is welcome that this volume largely avoids the monographic focus of many recent art market studies contributions. Instead, Westgarth focuses his energies on positioning dealers in a wider cultural and theoretical field.

Through consideration of the physical sites where historical objects were seen, admired and traded, antique and curiosity shops, auction rooms and exhibitions emerge as a network, mutually responsible for the construction of value. Intersections with evolving consumer culture of the period, defined by the advance of the first ‘shopping arcades’ in the 1810s, demonstrate that dealers contributed to this movement. Delving into the various locations of antique and curiosity shops, we learn that while Bond Street may well have been an important hub for the trade earlier than was previously thought, the early-nineteenth century trade is instead characterised by an expansion of trade shops beyond this traditional centre, as the audience for antiques and curiosities expanded too. John Claudius Loudon, writing in 1833, drew addition to the divergent tastes exhibited by these dealers, who catered by for the ‘antiquary’ and ‘the virtuoso, who furnishes his mansion a la mode antique’.

One of the great strengths of this volume lies in the dexterity with which its author moves between detailed examples, contemporary sources and a huge range of theoretical and methodological material. The breadth of Westgarth’s study gives it great relevance to scholars of history, literature and nineteenth-century culture, as well as art history, museum studies and art market studies, and the clarity of its structure and presentation of varied sources position it as a text of great use to students too. With its attention to histories of consumption and the emergence of historical consciousness, in addition to its focus on the changing position of the antique and curiosity dealer, this slim yet rich volume contains riches of as great a variety as those ‘receptacles for old and curious things’ that form its subject.


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