“P ainting,” J. M. W. Turner remarked in late life, “is a strange business.” As Turner’s biographer James Hamilton shows in this finely limned portrait of an age, the application of paint to canvas was only one of the strange businesses that flourished in the art world of late Georgian and early Victorian Britain. Amid the innovation and disruption of John Stuart Mill’s “Age of Change,” the profits of commerce and new technologies created “art’s industrial revolution,” and the lineaments of the modern art business.

The engines of the new market were powered by steam and coal, and the products of the new machines traveled to market by a new infrastructure of canals and railways. The profits of trade created a new class of rich entrepreneurs, men like the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, with “rough accents in their speech and the trace of oil of their hands.” The...


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