The gallery was founded by a group of like-minded art enthusiasts and collectors led by William Longman (first Chairman) of the print publishing family, Marcus Huish (first Managing Director) a polymath: lawyer, editor, writer and collector, and Archibald Stuart-Worley MP who was also a fine amateur artist. In characteristic Victorian fashion, Huish was immensely industrious during his time at the gallery. He embarked on many extra-curricula activities including editing The Art Journal, being involved with publishing the English version of French art dealer Samuel Bing’s book on Japanese arts and was a founder member of the Japan Society. These activities were by-products of Huish’s punishing exhibition schedule which set the gallery apart from its rivals and drew in enormous crowds.
The mainstay of the business for the first 25 years was print publishing, as with many of the rival firms in the area. In fact, evidence from our archive suggests that picture dealing at this time was not very profitable. Many of the pieces included in the exhibitions were loans rather than items for sale. The gallery invested heavily in its publishing side, particularly to secure the rights to the most celebrated picture shown at the Royal Academy of recent years, including Elizabeth Thompson’s The Roll Call, 1874, and Edward Poynter’s Atlanta’s Race, 1876.
An exhibition in 1879 of A Collection of Etchings by the Great Masters tempered the gallery’s reliance on solely reproductive prints, that is, copies of paintings made in vast quantities. The exhibition included artist’s prints, ranging from Old Masters such as Durer and Rembrandt to Turner. In 1880 the gallery exhibited a group of contemporary etchings including works by Samuel Palmer and Tissot, who the gallery continue to deal in today.
Of all of our relationships with artists, and particularly artist-printmakers, none was more important or infamously fraught than that with James McNeill Whistler. The gallery was from its outset involved and influenced by the artist and critic John Ruskin, who was to become Whistler’s antagonist. Ruskin’s hand is detectable in many of the Society’s early exhibitions including the original Venice Exhibition we held in 1882 which was tied to his campaign for the restoration of the façade of St Marks. Unfortunately, in 1877 Ruskin accused Whistler of ‘throwing a pot of paint in the public’s face’ in an exhibition of works at the Grosvenor Gallery. Ruskin refused to see Whistler’s contribution as art at all and called him a fraud. Whistler was offended enough to take libel action against Ruskin.
Whistler was successful in his suit against Ruskin, but was left bankrupted by the case. Huish agreed to finance Whistler’s trip to Venice to work on twenty etchings and in 1879 the board paid £150 against Whistler’s promise to return with twenty prints in December. Inevitably Whistler was delayed and requested further funds as well as copper plates and special paper. Finally he returned in November 1880 with only twelve prints he felt were fit to exhibit. To add further complication Whistler insisted on printing the plates himself and moved a printing press into the gallery. Though his first two shows were not a success his Venice pastels shown the following year were better received. A further show in 1883 showed a second series of prints and a selection of London etchings.
For these exhibitions Whistler devised a historically important scheme for the display. The pastels were displayed against yellow-green cloth, framed in gold and hung on one level in a continuous line. No Academy hang! The 1883 scheme was even more radical an Arrangement in Yellow, with yellow mouldings, skirting board, carpet and fireplace, the prints hung against white felt and were framed in white. Even a servant employed to hand out catalogues was dressed in yellow livery, a point which resulted in Whistler’s falling out with The Fine Art Society over who should suffer the cost of the costume! It is hard for us to appreciate the excitement caused by Whistler’s elaborate stage management. It remains legendary not least because it was the start of our modern concept of exhibitions: the first white-cube show.
The Fine Art Society has always backed design and the decorative arts with modest initiatives including a prize offered for framing design. Significantly, the architect-designer EW Godwin was approached to ‘alter our front and make it rather less of a shop’. Godwin was an obvious choice as the architect and long-time friend of Whistler. It was popular amongst dealers in the area to have premises of architectural distinction. Godwin’s scheme dating from 1881 survives more or less unaltered today. The most important feature he introduced was opening up the frontage creating an anteroom in which to view art in glass showcases, before being drawn into the gallery itself. It was a radical solution to the problem of the conventional shop front and was to be much plagiarised.