A Genius for Money: Business, Art and the Morrisons. By Caroline Dakers. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 326. $40.00.)
Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
© 2013 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 75, Issue 1, pages 192–193, Spring 2013
How to Cite
Simonelli, D. (2013), A Genius for Money: Business, Art and the Morrisons. By Caroline Dakers. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 326. $40.00.). Historian, 75: 192–193. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12004_55
- Issue published online: 13 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
This new biography of James Morrison and his sons is focused on two intertwined subjects: Morrison's rise to prominence in, first, textiles and, then, finance and the use of his money to build one of the most extensive art collections in England during the nineteenth century. Caroline Dakers is a cultural historian; likely she was originally attracted to her subject by her knowledge of country houses and art collecting and came upon the fact that James Morrison, known as the “Napoleon of shopkeepers” and the richest commoner of Victorian Britain, had no recent biography. The result is a dichotomous read, equal parts a businessman's biography and a study of the machinations behind cultural collecting.
James Morrison [1789–1857] was born to Scottish innkeepers in a southern English town with the fantastically Pythonesque name of Middle Wallop. Through apprenticeship, he married into a wealthy textiles family, the Todds. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Morrison transformed the textiles industry by doing away with sales operatives and getting the customers to come to his east London warehouses to buy cheap cloth at a low, predetermined, haggle-free price. The result was an obscene fortune built up by a decidedly not-obscene man. In every account Dakers can find, Morrison is depicted as kind, family oriented, and compassionate to workers and the locals who lived near his country houses. Dakers even uses depictions of crabby misers in the nineteenth-century novels of Dickens and Disraeli to show the kind of person Morrison was not. Through his association with the architect J. B. Papworth, Morrison absorbed an education in fine arts and used his fortune to collect paintings by Turner, Constable, Rubens, and other luminaries of the art world. He also bought property from William Beckford, whose famous Fonthill Abbey had collapsed almost as soon as it had been built, along with other country houses, a London domicile on Harley Street, and even the Scottish Argyll island of Islay.
In midlife, Morrison established a merchant bank and began investing in overseas ventures. Here the book becomes an interesting and well-written argument for the facility of the concept of gentlemanly capitalism, as Morrison's sons Charles and Alfred traipsed all over North America looking for quality investments. Along the way, they encountered Dickens on his famously disparaging tour of the United States. Dakers does well to compare notes between the cranky Dickens, who hated Americans but liked the Capitol, and the more curious Morrison brothers, who were mostly impressed with Americans and thought the Capitol a “monument of bad taste” (151).
Later, the most interesting chapter in the book presents James Morrison at the end of his life. Although the rest of Dakers's book has Morrison living as the very image of Samuel Smiles's conception of moral economy, in the 1850s Morrison was caught up in a minor scandal in Parliament, despaired of his children's and grandchildren's ability to manage his fortune, and became broken-down and embittered at his relationships with the artists and businessmen who surrounded him. His fears for his fortune proved well founded; there are few Morrisons of his line still around today, and none are rich, though one is titled.