In 1612, Henry, Prince of Wales, received a shipment of choice bronzes from Florence. As the crates were unpacked, he joyfully examined each piece. A courtier suggested that he might present his younger brother, Charles, with a small bronze horse, but Henry's reaction was prompt, "No, no, I want it all." Sadly, he did not enjoy his bronzes for long. A promising and exuberant youth, he died from typhoid later that year at the age of just 18, leaving the succession to his shy and stubborn brother, who would lose his throne and his head in 1649.
That Henry's avidity was not uncommon among the British is amply demonstrated in James Stourton and Charles Sebag-Montefiore's superb illustrated survey of "The British as Art Collectors." Henry's mother, Anne of Denmark, much preferred Flemish devotional works to people. Horace Walpole crammed his medieval pile, Strawberry Hill, with miniatures, suits of armor and all manner of historical knickknacks like Cardinal Wolsey's hat and James I's glove. Even the Duke of Wellington caught the art bug and had a special hook installed in his carriage to hang his prized Caravaggio, "Agony in the Garden."
The British as Art Collectors
By James Stourton and Charles Sebag-Montefiore
Scala, 352 pages, $100
Collecting started out as the preserve of royalty. Henry VIII had employed Hans Holbein to glorify the crown with battle scenes and portraits, including the famous one, known only from copies, of the king, standing with his feet wide apart and brimming with testosterone. But it was Charles I who became the most successful royal collector ever when in the late 1620s he secured the Gonzaga collection from the impoverished dukes of Mantua, who liked "dwarves and parrots" better. Their collection contained works by Guido Reni, Caravaggio, Bellini, Titian and Andrea Mantegna. Unfortunately, Charles's political judgment did not march his aesthetic discernment. After his execution, the collection was sold at auction—though Cromwell kept Mantegna's "The Triumphs of Caesar."
For the 18th-century Whig aristocrats, collecting was as "natural as breathing or drinking." This was the age of the Grand Tour and of the great country houses. A young British gentleman would finish his education with an extended stay in Venice and Rome, acquiring Venetian cityscapes by Canaletto or his nephew Bellotti and having his portrait done by Pompeo Batoni with some suitable Roman ruin in the background.
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars put the Grand Tour on hold but also shook loose a lot of art from monasteries and the walls of palazzos whose owners had to contend with punitive taxes. And so rose the professional art dealer. "In troubled waters, we catch the most fish," said one, and London was where much of it ended up. The Duke of Orleans's collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings was sold off in 1793, the very year their former owner was guillotined in Paris.
The Victorians introduced the self-made man into the collecting business. For the whale-oil merchant who did not give "a damn for old masters," home grown artists like Turner and Stanfield were natural choices. Others, like the Liverpool banker William Roscoe identified with the Medici of Florence and so fancied early Renaissance painters—hitherto scorned as "primitives"—buying up works by Giotto and Fra Angelico. The authors view the 1857 Manchester Exhibition, where contemporary British artists shared the spotlight with Old Masters, as the high point of British collecting. By the end of century, the new money of the Germans and the Americans had entered the game.
"The British as Art Collectors" carries right on up to the present with chapters on "The Post-War Scene" and "London: International Art City Since 1979." But against this rich background, contemporary British collections such as Charles Saatchi's warehouse art cannot but appear joyless and crude. With craftsmanship having yielded to "concept," the authors note, the word "masterpiece" has been supplanted by the telling "iconic." When one visits the Wallace Collection in London, that "monument to British Francophilia" with its Bouchers and Fragonards assembled by the 4th Marquess of Hertford and inherited by his son Sir Richard Wallace, one knows the difference.
Mr. Bering collects 18th- and early-19th-century portraits.
A version of this article appeared January 26, 2013, on page C6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Legacy in Oil and Stone.