Record prices, bargain sales and the complications of dealing with Duveen: the early 20th century history of art dealers Dowdeswell’s in the pages of The Burlington Magazine

The advertisements that Dowdeswell’s published in The Burlington Magazine throughout the first two decades of the 20th century are a significant, and until now, untapped resource. Not only do they enable us to position this leading gallery within the trade surrounding the sale of old masters, but they also make it possible to demonstrate why the current indexing of the advertisements that appeared in The Burlington Magazine is an important project for the history of the art market.[1]

These advertisements, in fact, are among the very few extant testimonies to this firm’s history. They not only provide a glimpse into what was in stock, but also which works or art were regarded as important enough to be reproduced. They also record practical information regarding Dowdeswell’s (such as its official name and address) and its choices in terms of self-presentation (the typographic style chosen for the adverts).

Dowdeswell & Dowdeswells, as the gallery was officially named, was colloquially referred to as simply Dowdeswell’s. It was founded as a joint partnership in 1878 by Charles William Dowdeswell (1832-1915) and his son Charles Walter (1858-1929) and remained operative until around 1918.[2] Dowdeswell’s is now mainly remembered for its contemporary exhibitions in the 1880s and 1890s.

Screenshot 2015-12-15 19.43.35

The gallery hosted one of the first French Impressionist shows in London in 1883, Drawings, paintings, and pastels by members of ‘La Société des Impressionists. Organised in collaboration with the French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, the exhibition included works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.[3] Walter Dowdeswell was also in contact with the American painter James Whistler, who settled in London around 1858, and whose works Dowdeswell’s exhibited in 1884 and 1886.[4] By 1887, when William and Walter Dowdeswell moved to larger premises at 160 New Bond Street, they were already running an established gallery [advertisement for Dowdeswell’s in the Year’s Art of 1888, illustrated here left].[5]

Even during these earlier years, however, the Dowdeswells were not exclusively dealers in contemporary art. In parallel with its modern art exhibitions the gallery also dealt in old masters paintings since at least December 1885, when it held an exhibition with this title in their Bond Street rooms.[6] Dowdeswell’s old masters exhibitions then became a more frequent occasion in the first decade of the 20th century, when they were held annually from 1905 until 1914.

This aspect of Dowdeswell’s business is very little known, merely a subject for passing remarks in the provenance of works of art, and has not, as yet, been written up in full. Yet, Dowdeswell’s dealings in old masters deserves much grPEZZINIFig3eater attention. For instance, in 1902 Dowdeswell’s bought Mantegna’s Holy Family (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) [illustrated] from Court Augusto d’Aiuti in Naples, and subsequently sold this work to Eduard F. Weber in Hamburg for a record price of £4,000 (about £450,000 today).[7] Thus, by 1902, Dowdeswell’s already operated in an international network of trade and knew what to buy, where to buy it and who would buy it. In the absence of archival records – a recurrent problem when studying art dealers – how Dowdeswell’s reached this position in the old masters market is still a matter of conjecture.

 

Dowdeswell’s began advertising in The Burlington Magazine from its first issue in March 1903, and it continued to do so regularly for fourteen years, until February 1917. The Burlington archive holds over 110 advertisements of the firm, some of which are illustrated.[8] In parallel with the paid advertisements, Dowdeswell’s stock was sometimes of such quality to be the subject of articles in the Magazine. In February 1907, for instance, Claude Phillips confirmed the attribution to Palma il Vecchio of a painting of two nymphs then at Dowdeswell’s.[9] Phillips focused his whole article, in which Palma was compared with Giorgione and the young Titian, on this work. The illustration of Palma’s Nymphs took pride of place in the Magazine: as a black and white photogravure by Emery Walker [illustrated] it was published as the issue’s frontispiece.

Palma

This was, for an art dealer, perhaps the best possible kind of publicity: an illustrated article published in the most respected art journal in the country in which the attribution to an artist then very much en vogue was confirmed by an acknowledged art expert. In fact, this painting was acquired by the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt soon after and is still a recognised work by Palma il Vecchio, within the museum’s collection.

 

Another exceptional work in the stock of Dowdeswell recorded in the pages of the Burlington is an Ecce Homo and the Mourning Virgin, now attributed to Adriaen Isenbrandt, and bought by the Metropolitan Museum of art in 1904 as work by Jan Mostaert.[10] This was clearly another success for the dealers and a photograph of this work was still used by Dowdeswell as advertisement for their gallery in the Burlington as late as 1908 [illustrated].

DowdeswellAdvertBurlingtonApril1907

Apart from single deals, however, it is difficult to judge how financially profitable Dowdeswell’s was. In the early 1900s it operated on the American art market with Theron J. Blakeslee, a dealer that would make front page news when he committed suicide in 1914 because of his failing business.[11] In 1904 Blakeslee’s and the Dowdeswells’ stock was auctioned at the American Art Galleries in New York.[12] The catalogue of the sale listed 161 English, French, Dutch and Flemish works, which were sold, according to a contemporary report in the American art magazine Brush and Pencil, for $127,695. The reviewer commented that ‘it was a bargain sale, many of the canvases going for almost absolutely low figures’.[13] Why did Blakeslee and the Dowdeswells get rid of their stock so cheaply? Did they need liquidity quickly to keep themselves afloat in between large deals? Or was perhaps the sale at auction a failed business strategy because they had hoped to achieve more?

It is likely that a steady source of income for Dowdeswell’s, as for many dealers at the time, was the sale of art reproductions. In fact, its early Burlington advertisements emphasized this side of their business and illustrated as publicity for Dowdeswell’s the cheaper, mass-produced photographic reproductions (‘Swantypes’) of famous works they held for sale rather than the costly, unique originals from their stock. In the Burlington adverts Dowdeswell’s chose to illustrate repetitively the Portrait of Marie Adelaide de France by Jean-Marc Nattier from Versailles and Boy with Rabbit by Henry Raeburn from the Royal Academy [illustrated], indicating that these reproduction must have been the gallery’s best sellers.

Dowdeswell Advert Burlington September 1905

Perhaps, in spite of the few successful deals and the mass-produced reproductions, Dowdeswell’s was not so profitable after all. According to American Art News, in October 1912 the firm merged with Duveen Brothers, firm of the arch-famous (and arch-infamous) dealer Joseph Duveen. The newspaper stated clearly that Duveen Brothers ‘had acquired the good will and control of [Dowdeswell’s] business’.[14]

The terms of the merge, however, remain unclear as the gallery, according to William’s biographers, appear to have been already liquidated at auction in February 1912.[15] Even if many sources report that since 1912 Walter acted for Duveen, the London gallery seems to have maintained its independence and to be controlled by William only. The official company name dropped its double surname and became just Dowdeswell. It also ceased to illustrate works and the size of their adverts in the Burlington became much smaller. William, now aged 78, continued to hold exhibitions of modern British art and old masters, although, unsurprisingly, in diminished form.[16]

This suggest, as William’s biographers infer, that rather than a merge with Duveen there had been a split between William and Walter, with the former holding on to the family business and the latter working for Duveen. It is likely, however, that William had an associate. After his death in June 1915 somebody must have continued to run the firm, as exhibitions are recorded from this gallery until 1918 and the last Burlington advertisement for the firm is dated February 1917.

BP, April 2016

NB. A longer version of this article is published in The London Gallery Project

Notes:

[1] Advertisements can be searched digitally online in the Burlington Index: http://www.burlington.org.uk/archive/index-of-content#.

[2] P. Fletcher and A. Helmreich, ‘Selected galleries, dealers and exhibition spaces in London, 1850-1939’, in The Rise of the Modern Art Market in London, Manchester, 2011, p. 300. See also the webpage for Dowdeswell’s in The London Gallery Project, http://learn.bowdoin.edu/fletcher/london-gallery/data/pages/as542.html. A brief obituary for Charles William Dowdeswell was published in The Burlington Magazine 27 (June 1915), p. 28.

[3] Drawings, paintings, and pastels by members of ‘La Société des Impressionistes, (1883), catalogue available at the National Art Library, London, pressmark: 200.B.146. On this exhibition see K. Flint, Impressionists in England: the Critical reception, London 1984 and also G. Petri, ‘Whistler between the British and French Art Markets’ in C. Gould and S. Mesplede (eds.), Marketing Art in the British Isles, 1700 to the Present, Farnham and Burlington 2012, pp. 39-56.

[4] The Whistler-Dowdeswell correspondence at the University of Glasgow archive is available online, http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence/freetext/display/?rs=4951&q=&year1=&year2=1903

[5] ‘Notes on Current Events’, British Architect (15 July 1887), p. 39.

[6] The London Gallery Project, http://learn.bowdoin.edu/fletcher/london-gallery/data/pages/as542.html.

[7] Prices of Mantegna traced in G. Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste, London 1961, p. 379.

[8] See, http://www.burlington.org.uk/archive/index-of-content, using the keyword ‘Dowdeswell’.

[9] C. Phillips, ‘A further note on Palma il Vecchio’, The Burlington Magazine 10 (February 1907), pp.247-317. It is possible that Phillips acted as advisor for Dowdeswell’s, see his article on Paris Bordone in The Burlington Magazine 28 (December 1915), pp. 93-98.

[10] Information on this work available online, http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/436721

[11] ‘Art dealer suicide in his 5th Avenue shop’, The New York Times, 8 March 1914. News report available online: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9805E6DD163AE633A2575BC0A9659C946596D6CF

[12] https://archive.org/details/catalogueofdowde00dowd

[13] ‘Art Sales’, Brush and Pencil 14 (July 1904), p. 294.

[14] ‘Dowdeswells-Duveen’, American Art News 11 (12 October 1912), p. 1.

[15] ‘William Dowdeswell’, Grove Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T023515?q=dowdeswell&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit.

[16] Later Dowdeswell’s exhibitions are listed in the Burlington, for instance in volume 24 (December 1913), p. xiv and (March 1914), p. iv. Available online: http://www.burlington.org.uk/archive/index-of-content.

 

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