A few years ago, in the wake of the great crash, I was talking to a big-shot art dealer. Was he fearful of any cultural fallout from the downturn? Not a bit of it, he said. In fact, far from worrying, he was convinced that there would now be a "flight to the security of the art market". I chuckled under my breath - but he was right and I was wrong. The art bubble hadn't burst. Indeed, unlike the housing bubble, which at least until Chancellor Osborne's ill-advised Help to Buy scheme had the good manners to deflate some, it went right on growing.
It began growing, says James Hamilton in his intriguing new book about art and money in Britain, in the early 19th century. The London of 200 years ago, like the London of today, was a condenser of consumerism, a place "where the art trade came. . . money was made, held, spent and enjoyed". Certainly, prices were rocketing. When, in 1803, the 28-year-old Turner asked 300 guineas for one of his early prentice works, he was charging the same rates as that "venerable painter of horses", the 77-year-old George Stubbs - and only a fraction less than an amateur art-lover had just paid for Titian's Noli me Tangere at auction.
Titian's painting is now in the National Gallery, of course, and one of Hamilton's themes is how the private collections of the Georgian and Victorian ages became the public collections of the 20th century. At the same time, that now unavoidable figure, the dealer in contemporary art, was beginning to appear. With his "Garrick-cut" wig and rosette-decked tricorn hat, Caleb Whitefoord, an Arthur Daley type "for whom buying art for others was just one of many activities", was, says Hamilton, the prototype for many a later foppish administrator.
At the same time, the technology of art was changing. At the Royal Institution, William Brande perfected the production of a pigment known as Prussian blue by heating potassium carbonate with dried blood or horn shavings. Meanwhile, over in France, another chemist, Nicolas Vauquelin, was isolating the pigment chrome yellow from the mineral crocoite - without which, noted the painter James Ward, his great rival Turner wouldn't have been able to paint all those "intolerable" sunsets.
"Painting," Turner once said, "is a strange business." Maybe so, but the trouble with the book James Hamilton has built out of that remark is that it takes all the strangeness out of painting and turns it into business pure and simple. The author of a heavily historicist biography of Turner, Hamilton is more interested in financiers and businessmen, in auctioneers and curators, in lawyers and journalists, in boffins and brothels, than he is in artists and their work.
It's not that Hamilton is a John Berger-style Marxist, much less any kind of post-structuralist inveigher against authorship. Nonetheless, the net result of his ceaseless contextualisation is a surreptitious suggestion that anybody who picked up the right kind of pencil or bought the latest pot of paint from Winsor & Newton could have made what John Martin did of Belshazzar's Feast, done what Turner did with his The Angel Standing in the Sun. I'm sure Hamilton doesn't believe that paintings are merely the byproducts of techno-cultural and/or socio-historical forces, but you could come away from his book thinking so.
The fact is that no talk of art that brackets artists out of the equation is ever going to compute. Nobody is arguing for a return to the loonier heights of hero-worshipping Romanticism. But even if we grant that the medium conditions the message, we must also accept that the medium is controlled by men and women lest the message be meaningless.
A Strange Business is littered with fascinating facts, but in subtracting the art from art history, the book rather lives up to its name.
To buy A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Britain for pounds 18.99 with free UK p&p call 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Turner's The Fighting Temeraire: one of his 'intolerable' sunset paintings.