Daniel Cottier: The Complex Role of a Victorian Art Entrepreneur

In this blog, authors Petra ten-Doesschate Chu and Max Donnelly explore the multi-faceted career and legacy of Daniel Cottier, an innovative designer and farsighted art entrepreneur whose successful home decorating empire capitalised on the Aesthetic movement’s ‘cult of beauty’ meeting with the bourgeoisie’s financial ability to possess it in the late nineteenth-century.

Daniel Cottier: Designer, Decorator, Dealer is distributed for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press. Find out more here.

Daniel Cottier as designer, decorator, and art dealer…

In his influential book Art Worlds of 1982, sociologist Howard S. Becker proposed that artists are not autonomous agents whose unique and original art works spring miraculously from their creative brains, but that they take part in a collective activity aimed at the production of art. The actors in the art-making process are part of an ‘art world’, defined by Becker as a ‘network of people whose cooperative activity, organised via their joined knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for’ (Becker 1982, X). Becker acknowledged that different art worlds may exist simultaneously in a single place and time.

(fig. 1) Daniel Cottier, Miriam, window in Dowanhill Church (now Cottiers Theatre), Glasgow, 1867. Photo: Colin McLean.

Becker’s thinking was at once formed by, and formative of, new ideas about art production as well as consumption that, beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s, had a powerful impact on the history of art and initiated a new interest in agents other than the artist—art supplies producers, critics, dealers, buyers,  etc., which in turn led to entire new sub-disciplines of art history, such as reception history, art market studies, history of collecting, museum studies, object studies, and more.

Cottier’s Start in Ecclesiastic Art

Daniel Cottier: Designer, Decorator, Dealer traverses several of these sub-disciplines as it traces the career of a man who, trained as a decorative artist, created a complex entrepreneurial role for himself in a distinct art world of the late nineteenth-century centred on the decoration of the upper-middle-class home. Through his training as a stained glass painter and mural decorator, the Glaswegian Cottier (1838-91) understood early-on the relation of art to architecture. Once his apprentice years finished, he designed windows for churches in Scotland and, a little later, painted wall decorations and designed windows for several new churches in Glasgow (fig. 1). But he quickly realised that the economic potential of ecclesiastic art was limited and that the private home was overtaking the church as a locus for art production and consumption.

‘The House Beautiful’

To take full advantage of the economic possibilities of, what today is loosely called the ‘house beautiful movement’, he saw that he had to expand his narrow role of artist-decorator to designer, decorator, taste maker, and dealer in art and antiques, and that he had to do so on a large scale. In the short timespan of three years (1870-1873), he established a home decorating empire with branches in three continents—Europe (London), the US (New York), and Australia (a partnership in Sydney and, later, Melbourne).

Though not operating in identical ways, all three branches of Cottier & Co. comprised showrooms and workshops, where domestic furnishings such as stained glass, ‘art’ furniture, and painted tiles and plaques were designed and produced. Some of the branches executed mural and ceiling paintings on commission. Moreover, in at least two of his establishments, Cottier sold objets d’art and antiques, sourced from all over the world, as well as (mostly) contemporary European paintings, watercolours, and prints. While not himself a critic, Cottier knew how to reach out to critical ‘influencers’ and did not hesitate to use incentives to gain publicity. For American taste maker Clarence Cook’s influential book, The House Beautiful, published in New York in 1878, Cottier designed a lavish cover (fig. 2), while his New York manager James Inglis provided several of the book’s illustrations. In return, Cottier & Co. received ample exposure in the book. Cottier equally ‘bribed’ the British author Mary Eliza Haweis, who praised his work in several publications

(fig. 2) Front cover of Clarence Cook, The House Beautiful, 1878. Cover design by Daniel Cottier. Ingalls Library, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

The Business of Home-Decor

Cottier and his managers and partners in the three branches of Cottier & Co. also keenly sought out and cultivated clienteles, focusing on, though not limiting themselves to, the Scottish diaspora, easily traceable in Presbyterian churches in the cities where they operated. For the homes of some, such as Ichabod Williams (Welsh rather than Scottish!) and his wife, they not only designed and built furniture, but also, most likely, provided most of the furnishings (drapes, carpets, wallpapers), as well as assembled two respectable collections of contemporary paintings and Chinese porcelain.

Cottier was not the only artist in the late nineteenth century to realize the economic potential of the home. Many other artists and artisans, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, did the same and created lucrative businesses catering to the insatiable desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Yet Cottier was more ambitious than most, both in the geographic reach of his business empire and in the range of activities he engaged in.

Multiple Roles in a Changing Art World

(fig. 3) Camille Corot, Orpheus greeting the Dawn, 1865. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Prized painting in Cottier’s own collection.

In Howard’s Art Worlds it is assumed that each agent plays a distinct role. It is not that Howard failed to realise that agents could play multiple roles, but for the argument he was making such complexities were unnecessary. Daniel Cottier: Designer, Decorator, Dealer, however, clearly shows that art worlds were more complex than Howard’s book suggests, as agents’ roles could not only fluctuate but one agent could have multiple roles that would cause constant shifts of his/her position in the networks in which he or she operated.

Some might ask how lucrative this complex strategy was. It seems that Cottier was well-to-do and provided jobs and incomes to his partners, managers and the numerous workmen (and, perhaps, occasional women) working in his workshops. Interestingly, it appears that ultimately most of his own money was made not on the production but rather on the consumption side of art. Over his lifetime, Cottier built a substantial art collection, carefully selecting from the paintings he acquired for his gallery, those that he wanted to keep for himself (fig. 3). Sold after his untimely death at the age of 53, this collection was the nest egg that allowed his wife and children to live out their lives in comfort.

Petra ten-Doesschate Chu is professor emeritus, Seton Hall University, and is a founding editor of the journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide.

Max Donnelly is curator of nineteenth-century furniture, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Their book, Daniel Cottier: Designer, Decorator, Dealer, is a spectacularly illustrated account of the life and career of an innovative designer and farsighted art entrepreneur, as well as the important role he played in the dissemination of nineteenth-century Aestheticism.

Find it online or at your favourite local bookshop.

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