Collectivism

Richard Jenkyns

  • Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity by Dianne Sachko Macleod
    Cambridge, 375 pp, £65.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 521 55090 4

Dianne Sachko Macleod’s Art and the Victorian Middle Class opens up a new world: it answers some questions that have hitherto been asked in vain and others which we may not have thought of asking at all. What sort of people collected paintings in the 19th century? How far did they specialise, or were their tastes catholic? What were their motives? Did they buy from artists or dealers, or did they commission works to their own specifications? Who earned the most? How did prices fluctuate? Despite some substantial faults, Macleod’s book has notable virtues also, the first and foremost being that it is a splendid work of research. An appendix of more than a hundred pages – it is a massive volume – lists almost a hundred and fifty middle-class Victorian collectors, with brief biographies and details of their occupations, taste and methods of buying. (Surprisingly, she omits Alexander Henderson, subsequently first Lord Faringdon, whose late Victorian collection is a rarity in having survived and being still visible to the public, at Buscot Park.) Some of these figures acquire a larger life in Macleod’s main text: Robert Vernon, son of a prosperous tradesman, who like Mr Bounderby exaggerated the lowliness of his origins; John Sheepshanks, so shabbily dressed that he was once refused admission to a first-class railway carriage, who told raucous jokes to the Prime Minister as he showed him round his gallery; jolly John Miller, with long white hair and a ripe Scottish voice, at whose table there was only bottled beer to drink, and no pudding followed the meat; devout Thomas Combe, whose patronage of the Pre-Raphaelites was part and parcel of his High Churchmanship (it was he who commissioned Holman Hunt’s Light of the World); the obsessive Thomas Plint, whose death at the age of 38 left his wife and ten children with no assets but his pictures; the farouche crook Albert Grant, born Abraham Gottheimer in Dublin, whose spectacular opulence and rollercoaster career put Merdle and Melmotte in the shade; Thomas Quilter, first president of the Institute of Accountants, who was found after his death to have been rigging the market; Frederick Leyland, patron of Whistler and the Aesthetic Movement, who rose from nowhere to great wealth, only to succumb to the maladie du siècle, deciding that everything in life was dull and hopeless; T.E. Smith, whose wife and daughter both had affairs with the maverick statesman Charles Dilke. As in a painting by Frith, here is a canvas crowded with figures, representing the rich diversity of Victorian life and manners.

Through the riot of detail Macleod detects patterns. That is not easily done with so large and various a body of evidence and with so much idiosyncrasy among collectors. She declares that she will use the term ‘middle-class’ in its broadest sense: ‘I consider an individual middle-class if his or her father was not born into the aristocracy or landed gentry and actively earned an income as opposed to living off the fruits of an inheritance.’ That looseness is sensible, partly because it corresponds to the Victorians’ own usage and reminds us of the vagueness and flexibility of their own perceptions of themselves; a broad definition should also help to discourage oversimplification by showing how complex a phenomenon the middle class was. None the less, Macleod traces a historical process. She watches aristocratic patronage decline in the early 19th century, allowing middle-class collectors a new prominence in forming educated taste; she investigates the strange mixture of rebellion and reaction in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; she studies the rise of the dealer and the developing symbiosis between painters, dealers, buyers and the editors of art magazines; she sees the Aesthetic Movement as a retreat into contemplative privacy, a response to a mid-Victorian crisis of confidence in established beliefs and values, and portrays it as being succeeded in its turn by the braggadocio of late Victorian capitalism.

She also examines the differences between places as well as periods. In a particularly ingenious chapter she compares Manchester and Birmingham. In the Lancashire city, she argues, the public sphere took precedence over the private; collectors were not particularly well-informed about painting (they bought mostly from Agnew, and the boorish Manchester patron was a common object of snobbish caricature in Victorian fiction), but they saw the staging of art exhibitions as a civic duty, directed to elevating the minds of the humbler classes. Birmingham, on the other hand, was more self-interested but also more aesthetically aware, and a number of local collectors were amateur artists themselves. Macleod relates these differences to the industrial character of the two cities: the textile manufacturing of Lancashire was big business, requiring long-term investment, and social stability was important, while the workshops of Birmingham were owned by a great many small independent businessmen who had to keep competing and innovating in the production of consumer goods. This argument is perhaps a little exaggerated, but very interesting, and Macleod recognises the exceptions that are to be found within the larger pattern. ‘Art collecting in Manchester,’ she writes, ‘was not an entirely situational practice, but ran the gamut of emotional and intellectual drives that impelled collectors elsewhere ... In drawing this contrast I am not suggesting that Birmingham and Manchester were opposed; rather, I am attempting to show how complexly polysemic the provincial middle class was in the early Victorian period.’ These are good points, made in a needlessly jargonised style.

Macleod’s style is a problem: she has gathered the material for a memorable work, and much of her analysis is intriguing and plausible. Her prose, however, is not only cruelly tortured but littered with bizarre misusages. Mrs Malaprop, or perhaps her love child by a professor of sociology, rampages through the text. Sometimes there is a nice derangement of metaphors: ‘The acuity of a trained eye, then, can be counted as one of the motivations for collecting which blunted the harsher trajectory of art’s profitability.’ ‘Sweeping ties with the past proclaimed an illusion of solidarity.’ Macleod commits the usual solecisms: ‘enormity’ for ‘size’, ‘inchoate’ meaning ‘confused’, ‘epithet’ for ‘phrase’, ‘bête noir’ and so on. Others are less usual, and risk muddling the meaning: ‘incredulously’ for ‘incredibly’, ‘pietism’ for ‘piety’, ‘genteel’ and ‘gentrified’ as synonyms for ‘upper-class’, ‘chaffed’ (twice) for ‘chafed’, ‘suspect’ for ‘suspicious’ (in the sense ‘feeling suspicion of’). In some cases, though words are used in a way that is wildly at variance with any known English usage, one can hazard a guess at the intended meaning: if you read ‘projected’ for ‘pivoted’, ‘exemplars’ for ‘pawns’, ‘rejected’ (or possibly ‘parodied’) for ‘parroted’, ‘influential’ for ‘inferential’, then at least you get sense; one must hope that it is the sense Macleod wanted. Other usages defy conjecture: what is ‘the molecular code of Protestant Britain’ or the ‘predicative base’ of a commitment to improve the working class? A few sentences convey no determinate meaning at all.

These things matter, of course, not only because they detract from the pleasure of reading the book and obscure its intent but also because on occasion they suggest a lack of clear thinking in the author herself. Sometimes Macleod can write not unpleasingly; indeed, there seem to be two Macleods. The first inhabits the spirit of the Victorian age, has a vast knowledge of her subject (inaccurate only in a few petty details, as when she refers to Lady Trevelyan as Lady Pauline Trevelyan or supposes baronets to be peers), and combines the handling of multiplied particulars with the ability to generalise effectively; this Macleod has written an important and original book. The other Macleod is more cautious and conventional, citing authority even for truisms (‘Georg Simmel’s contention that money can be an instrument of freedom in modern society’) and far too respectful towards the Volapük of the academy. Of course, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists quite properly have their professional jargon, but when Macleod adopts their language, not only does her thought become more inspissated but her analysis becomes flatter and more rigid. ‘Class origins, wealth, education, occupation, travel and geographic location,’ writes Macleod Two, ‘are the raw materials from which character is forged.’ That leaves out one element of which Macleod One appears well aware: genes. For better or worse, when Macleod becomes sociological, she also grows ungenerous in the motives that she attributes to her subjects. Macleod Two describes collectors as fetishistic, represents them as scrabbling for social legitimation, and cites with approval an authority who claims that all collecting is fundamentally a search for assurance against loneliness, despair and existential doubt. To be sure, it is easy enough to spot greed, obsession and self-aggrandisement among a good many collectors, then as now; yet one may still prefer the analysis of Macleod One, who respects the differences between individuals and finds in them a variety of motives, good, bad and mixed: genuine aesthetic passion, duty, the lust for fame, patriotism, religion, the desire to improve the working class and the hope of keeping them from stirring.

The picture of these collectors as socially and psychically anxious sits oddly with one of Macleod’s central and most interesting claims: that there was a distinctive cultural identity among the wealthy business class, and that contrary to what has been widely supposed, many of these prosperous people felt no need to imitate the way of life of the traditional gentry and aristocracy. She has found that none of her subjects is of undoubted working-class origin; some were self-made, but others came from families which had had money for several generations. Upper-class contemporaries tended to assume that all businessmen collectors were parvenus; but they were wrong.

In more recent times it has usually been supposed that the typical pattern of social rise in the last century was that represented by (for example) the Crossleys, carpet manufacturers of Halifax: ennobled under the title of Somerleyton, they move from Yorkshire to Suffolk, and from nonconformity to the established church, becoming after a generation indistinguishable from the older landed aristocracy. Macleod’s research suggests that this was only one possible pattern: other families might prefer to remain urban and actively involved in the businesses which had made them rich. That is an important finding. Where she might perhaps be questioned is in her ocasional implication that these urban businessmen exhibited a hostility to aristocratic values. For example, she takes the pre-Victorian case of Samuel Whitbread, son of the self-made man who founded the family brewery; he was educated at Eton, went on the Grand Tour, became an influential MP, married an earl’s daughter, inherited landed estates, but (in Macleod’s words) ‘defiantly identified himself with the middle class when he went to work at the brewery and when he refused to sell his shares in it’. It is true that Whitbread was known as a man of strong passions with a taste for opposition, but can we be sure that devoting a few years of his early manhood to the family business was defiant? In another place Macleod describes early Victorian art collectors as wanting to ‘master and rule’ their milieu and seeking to ‘harness’ the social order. This kind of language seems to owe something to a vestigial Marxism, and something to the psychopathology of the present age, with its fondness for talking about empowerment rather than freedom or happiness. But there is little reason to think that wealthy businessmen felt aggressive or conscious of exclusion.

In some continental societies there can be found a clear distinction between the haute bourgeoisie, however rich, and the petite noblesse, however impoverished, but in Britain you could really, and not merely by oxymoron, be a bourgeois gentilhomme. A characteristic of the English class structure was the vagueness of the boundaries between the aristocracy, the upper gentry and the petty gentry; this fluidity was assisted by the system of primogeniture, which ensured that the younger children of peers and landowners did not inherit land and titles and went into the professions. Equally, the children of parvenus were readily accepted as gentlefolk. Whitbread’s father may not have been a gentleman, but he assuredly was. There was in fact one line only which mattered deeply: that which separated ladies and gentlemen from the rest. This consideration is represented by that most sociologically accurate of novelists, Jane Austen. In Pride and Prejudice, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh tries to warn Elizabeth Bennet off marrying Mr Darcy, Elizabeth replies: ‘He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.’ Lady Catherine does not answer, ‘But he is an aristocrat and you are at the bottom end of the gentry.’ Instead she is compelled to attack from another direction, reminding Elizabeth that her mother is not of gentle stock. And even Lady Catherine would not have supposed that the taint could extend to Darcy’s children.

It seems best to think of the distinctive identity uncovered by Macleod not as antagonistic to gentility but as being made all the easier because it was compatible with gentility. It is also a little odd of her to suppose that such businessmen as J.D. Allcroft, Sir Isaac Bell and Lord Armstrong (a newly created peer, and therefore quite properly middle-class according to Macleod’s definition) were slipping from the aristocratic embrace because they erected vast new country houses for themselves rather than buying old ones. On the contrary, what could be more traditionally aristocratic than such building mania? Whether you chose to build for yourself or not had always been a matter of personal inclination. In the early 18th century, the first Duke of Marlborough loaded Blenheim Palace on the Oxfordshire earth; a hundred years later, the first Duke of Wellington settled for an existing house of quite modest dimensions. That did not show that his attitudes were less aristocratic.

Macleod’s chapter on the Aesthetic Movement produces some of her most interesting as well as some of her most questionable analysis. She persuasively detects two new developments. First, whereas early Victorian collectors had not usually given much thought to the settings in which their pictures were displayed, aesthetic collectors conceived the interiors of their homes as a whole, with each element contributing to the overall harmony. Secondly, aesthetic patrons sought to become more actively involved in the process of creation. More dubious is Macleod’s presentation of aestheticism as fundamentally the expression of an age of malaise and uncertainty, an inward-turning withdrawal into a world of private beauty. Where does that leave the flamboyant figures of Whistler and Oscar Wilde? One might rather see aestheticism as an ebullition of self-confidence: it is when people feel safe that they can afford to risk the pleasures of trying to épater les bourgeois. In social terms Macleod recognises that the Aesthetic Movement sees the reappearance of the aristocratic patron, but she insists that it was now the middle class that was folding aristocrats into its embrace, rather than the reverse. This is firmly and intelligently argued, but not finally convincing, because aestheticism is essentially aristocratic in its outlook, though sure enough, plenty of these scorners of the middle class were middle-class themselves. Macleod has some enjoyable pages on the shipowner T.E. Smith, or rather on his extrovert wife Eustacia. She quotes a description by Julian Hawthorne, son of the novelist, of Eustacia in a dress of dark blue silk, held at the neck by an insolent diamond: ‘One thought, Were that clasp to come undone, what an expanse of white loveliness would be revealed! but it held.’ Macleod supposes that Hawthorne was shocked, but it is plain enough that he and Mrs Smith were thoroughly enjoying themselves: it is wrong to think of him as trying to ‘discredit’ a dangerous subversive. Nor did her affair with Dilke mean, as Macleod imagines, that she was a bohemian rebel – as though adultery were a thing unheard of in Victorian high society. Aestheticism – like dandyism, to which it is related – does seem to grow out of an age of social flux, and thus far Macleod’s case is justified; but its charm lay in being an alternative to real radicalism or revolt: it diverted the spirit of rebellion into matters of taste and afforded the pleasures of feeling oneself ahead of the herd without requiring significant changes in social attitude. The culture of the late Victorian age is less unified than that of the mid-century, and aestheticism was one of the options. Macleod describes aestheticism as mutating into the ‘ostentatious display of late Victorian consumer capitalism’, but it would be more accurate to speak of two currents flowing side by side.

Macleod tells us that until the very end of her period her collectors bought very little other than modern British pictures. That provokes mixed feelings: on the one hand, disappointment at the parochialism, the missed opportunities, the expenditure of so much money on so many paintings which have not stood the test of time; on the other hand, a kind of envy for a world which had so good an opinion of itself. One is struck throughout this broad, bold, sometimes revelatory and sometimes frustrating book by how popular modern art was in the Victorian age, how large and socially diverse the crowds that flocked to public exhibitions. Macleod’s analyses of individual paintings are almost always good. In the course of an excellent discussion of Frith’s The Railway Station she remarks that though the artist includes two detectives arresting a criminal among his multitude of figures, his eye is ‘candid, not critical’: the darker side of modern life is not excluded but caught up and contained within a wide panorama of social types which in its totality appears celebratory. Macleod’s gallery of collectors is somewhat similar: however various their backgrounds and characters, they convey a sense of buoyancy and confidence in their native culture. There is something to admire in this; on the other hand, it was not until they lost that confidence that they started to buy Degas.