Any number of novelists and historians could find inspiration in this vivid account of how the audience for art in Britain broadened during the 19th-century. In narrating the marriage of art, science, mercantile interests and nationalist fervour, Hamilton displays impressive scholarship and a mastery of dozens of technical subjects: from the advances in chemistry that revolutionised the manufacture of pigments to the development of engraving techniques that allowed for multiple impressions to be made from the same plate. The ingenious devices he cites range from a machine for reproducing sculpture, invented by James Watt, to a mechanical flogging contraption that greatly enriched the proprietress of a London brothel.
But Hamilton also provides a flood of rich anecdotes, alternately comic and poignant, about the men (rarely women) involved in the making, buying, selling, marketing and sometimes forging of art. The cast of characters includes a seemingly infinite array of hapless eccentrics, among them the doomed, grandiose history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon and the fabulously wealthy aesthete William Beckford, a collector on an unparalleled scale, until the soaring tower he had built at his Gothic mansion collapsed, along with his fortune. Suicide, murder, virulent quarrels, elaborate schemes to defraud rich patrons: all are described with elegant gusto. Along the way we are treated to lively discussions of goose quills versus steel nibs, JMW Turner’s shrewd marketing techniques, and the Great Exhibition of 1851. This is a grand entertainment as well as a serious history.