Tag Archives: London

Rouquet on Art Auctions

In the mid-18th century, the art world and art market in London was changing rapidly. Rouquet offers his own view of the newly-developing world of public art auctions and their role in influencing taste.

In London there are extraordinary sales of pictures and curiosities, which are a kind of market for the productions of the arts. This occasion furnishes us with another instance of that regularity and method which the English introduce into all sorts of business, and especially of the excessive care they take to consult the purchaser’s ease.

Within these twenty or thirty years they have built several halls or auction rooms in London, which are set aside for the sale of pictures.

These halls are lofty, spacious, and separate from any other building, to the end that on every side they may receive full light thro’ the glass windows which range all round them, but which do not come down so low as to hinder the walls at a certain height from being occasionally covered with pictures. Any private person, broker or other, who has collected a quantity of pictures sufficient to make a public sale, agrees with the proprietor of one of these auction rooms, who is at the same time appraiser and crier. He receives the pictures and ranges them in his hall, according to their excellence and value, each with its respective ticket; then he prints a catalogue of them wherein each picture is to be found in the order of the ticket or number, with the real or supposed name of some eminent master; the subject is also mentioned in these catalogues, and they are distributed gratis. Tho’ the conditions of these sales are known to all the world, yet they are repeated every time at the beginning of these catalogues, to the end that considered as a mutual compact or agreement, they may be a means of determining without litigation, the rights of the seller as well as of the purchasers. One of these conditions fixes the sum you shall advance; and less than that you are not allowed to bid. If any thing be put to sale at any price between three and six shillings, you are not allowed to advance less than three pence: under twelve shillings you are to advance six pence: and this rule is observed in the same proportion of the penny to the shilling, till the article mounts to a hundred guineas, where it ends, whatever may be the sum to which it is further carried.

These reasonable conditions are made to prevent the prolonging the time of sale to no sort of purpose, and to avoid the ridiculous and unmanly practice which obtains in other places, of advancing a penny for an article which was put to sale at six hundred pounds.

As soon as the sale is advertised, the room in which it is to be held, and where the pictures are advantageously displayed, is open for two or three days successively, to every body that has a mind to go in, except the meanest of the populace. A peace officer, dressed with the ensigns of his employment, stands to guard the door. The inhabitants of London amuse themselves with going to see the goods exposed to sale, just as the people amuse themselves at Paris in the great hall, when the performances of the artists of the academy are exposed to public view. As soon as the day and hour of sale, which is at twelve noon, are come, the room is filled with persons of different sexes and conditions. They take their places on benches opposite to a little rostrum, which stands by itself, and is raised in the further end of the room about four feet from the ground. The auctioneer mounts with a great deal of gravity, salutes the assembly, and prepares himself a little, like an orator, to perform his office with all the gracefulness and eloquence of which he is master. He takes his catalogue, he orders his servants to present the first article, which he declares aloud; in his hand he holds a little ivory hammer, with which he strikes a blow on the rostrum, when he thinks proper to signify to the company that the article put up to sale is determined.

Nothing can be more entertaining than this sort of auctions; the number of the persons present, the different passions which they cannot help shewing on these occasions, the pictures, the auctioneer himself, and his rostrum, all contribute to diversify the entertainment. There you may see a tricking broker, who shall employ another secretly to buy what he himself runs down before the company, or who shall lay a dangerous snare by pretending to purchase with the greatest eagerness a picture belonging to himself. There some shall be tempted to buy, and others sorry for having made any purchase. There a man shall give fifty guineas thro’ vanity and pique, when he would not have given five and twenty, had he not dreaded the shame of being outbid in the presence of a numerous assembly whose eyes were all fixed upon him. There you shall see a woman of quality grow as pale as ashes, when she finds herself in danger of losing a wretched pagod which she does not want, and which upon any other occasion she would not have purchased.

The number of articles marked on the catalogue for each day’s sale, is about seventy; from the order and regularity observed at those sales, a person absent in enabled to judge, within half an hour, at what time such or such an article will be put to sale; a vast conveniency for those who have no time to spare. This sort of sales have spread a pretty general taste for pictures in London;     a taste which they not only excite but form; there you learn to know the different schools and different masters; in a word, it is a kind of gaming, where the knowing ones employ all the wiles and artifices imaginable to make dupes of the unwary; and too often they succeed.

It sounds as if not much has changed in either the practices of perils of auctions.

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Rouquet on Kneller

Rouquet on Kneller

Jean André Rouquet (1701—1758) published a charming work, The Present State of the Arts in England, in 1755. Rouquet’s survey, rendered in his delightful and inimitable style, offers a penetrating, if personalized, view of the art world in London in the middle of the 18th century. Here is an extract giving his analysis of Sir Godfrey Kneller and his effect on English portrait painting.

We have already made mention, that till very lately painting had been practiced in England hardly by any but foreigners. Sir Godfrey Kneller, the last of those who settled there, died in 1726, and left five hundred portraits unfinished, for which he had been paid half the money beforehand. The artists in that country never speak of him but with admiration. He painted with a surprising quickness; his pencil was bold, his manner of designing great and noble, but less exact than becomes a portrait painter. You was not to expect he would give you a very just resemblance, but he knew how to supply this defect by a particular gracefulness, and especially by a remarkable simplicity, which has the greatest charms in the eye of an Englishman. By these qualifications he attained a prodigious reputation, which supplied the place of abilities, when he had too much business to shew them. This is what gave him a opportunity of making a great fortune, notwithstanding his fastuous expence. The King made him one of those knights of whom we have already taken notice.

Kneller was in every respect a difficult pattern to follow; and yet all the English painters would fain imitate him, would fain adopt his manner. He painted with an amazing quickness, without any appearance of study, and oftentimes at the first stroke. This set them all upon painting quick, tho’ they were far from obliged to it by the multiplicity of their occupations. Several were so affected, as not to cover the whole canvas, that is in those parts where its teint and its colour might answer the purpose, because Sir Godfrey Kneller had done so. They carried their enthusiasm so far as to attempt to distinguish very wretched pieces by the ridiculous merit of having been done at the first stroke. Kneller always drew his pictures square, but this was a vicious affectation, since it is not founded in nature: the others would fain give the same figure to their rough and careless draughts. Kneller had been obliged to have his draperies done by other hands, and his avarice always made him prefer those who would undertake it cheapest. Hence the drapery of his portraits was so very bad, as hardly to be imagined. And when his friends reproach’d him with this carelessness, and endeavoured to make him sensible of the injury which such performances might do to his reputation, he used to make answer that they were too bad to hurt him or ever go down to posterity under his name.

And yet his wretched drapery was likewise imitated by some artists. Such absurdities plainly shew, how dangerous it is to think of any other imitation than that of nature. The passion of copying Sir Godfrey, even to his greatest defects, did not raise any body to the same reputation. On the contrary, the public complained, that there were no more painters left in England; and the latter, by the character they gave of one another, endeavoured to enforce a truth which had been sufficiently established by their works. And yet the English continued to have their pictured drawn; for this nation, especially the ladies, make it one of their chief amusements.

Rouquet is tart, but without malice, and makes for good reading.


Fire was a constant threat in London, where memories of the Great Fire ran deep. Since then, building codes had been improved in an effort to minimize the spread of a fire, but there were still frequent and devastating fires. This report, from the Ipswich Journal, is of a relatively minor one in September 1735. The report also gives an interesting snapshot of the various businesses on one street, a picture not always easy to come by.

On Sunday Morning, a Fire broke out in a Back-House or Workshop of Mr. Brown a Hatter, on the North-Side of Wapping-Street by Wapping-Dock; the Flames immediately catched hold of Timber Piles in the Yard adjoining to the said Shed, thence to the Houses on the East-Side of Wapping-Dock-Street, and at the same Time to another Timber-Yard Eastward of the other, and to the House of Mr. Stiggers, standing in the Cartway passage to the said Yards, and thence to the Houses on the West side of King Edward Street, and to the South and North sides of Cinamon-Street: In Wapping-Dock-Street 11 Houses were burnt down to the Ground, and seven damaged; in Cinamon Street 16 burnt down, and eight damaged; in King Edward-street four burnt down, and 10 damaged; -the Ship Tavern the Corner of Wapping-Dock-Street and Wapping streets, having a good party Wall, check’d its Fury on that Side, and the Southerly Wind carrying the Flames Northward, chiefly sav’d not only Mr. Brown’s Dwelling-House, but the Houses of a Distiller, a Pewterer, a Cork Cutter, an empty House, a Grocer’s and a Milliner’s House in the same Row, though the Outhouses or sheds belonging to every one of them were totally destroyed: All the Inhabitants are safe, the Flames of the Timber giving them sufficient Notice to avoid them. Mr. Dean, Deputy Foreman of the Royal-Exchange Firemen, and Mr. Mackarel, a Fireman to the London Assurance, received some Damage by the Fall of a Wall, but their Wounds are not dangerous.

Thankfully, the pub was saved, athough thirty-one houses were destroyed and 25 more dmaged.


The streets of 18th-century London mingled people and animals rather more closely than we are used to nowadays, with occasionally unfortunate results. Here are a couple of brief reports of the sorts of mayhem that could follow when livestock, soon to be deadstock, escaped.

On Thursday Evening some Butchers were driving a Bullock into a Slaughter-House in Clare-Market, which being brought to the Place, and as ’tis said, smelling the Blood, broke away from them very furiously, and went up Drury-Lane, where he turn’d into a Cheesemonger’s Shop at the Corner of Russel-Court; the Man in the Shop not liking such Company secured himself behind the Compter, then he passed into the Back Room, where three Gentlewomen were drinking Tea, who all got safe away; but in walking about overturn’d their Tea-Table with all the China and with his Horns broke a Pier-Glass that was in the Room all to Pieces, perhaps observing another Bullock in it that seem’d to confront him.

Beware a bull in a cheese shop.

It wasn’t just cheese that attracted stray bullocks.

Last Friday Morning about 9 o’Clock, a mad Bullock ran up one Pair of Stairs in an empty House that is repairing in King-Street, Covent-Garden, and broke thro’ the Sash-Window into the Balcony, and went upon a slated Penthouse belonging to the next Door, which fell into the Street, without doing any farther Damage; and then the Bullock got up and ran away.

Beware mad bullocks in London. Stay safe.