Charles Roberson, London colourman, and the trade in artists' materials 1820─1939

Change log

In 1820 Charles Roberson opened his first shop on Long Acre, London, selling artists’ materials. Among his initial customers, comprising mainly amateurs and businesses related to the art trade, the name of Sir Thomas Lawrence, President of the Royal Academy, stands out. His custom is an early indication of the important position Roberson was to occupy in the Victorian art world. Today, the company is less well known than its contemporaries, but in the nineteenth century it was one of the most influential colour houses in London, its customers spanning the social spectrum from Queen Victoria to theatrical scene painters and its goods being sold throughout the United Kingdom and carried to many parts of the British Empire and beyond. Roberson’s activities are known in detail because of the survival of their archive, now housed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge. It forms the most comprehensive artist’s colourman’s archive in Britain, and through its pages the working lives of professional artists both male and female, with their successes and failures, can be reconstructed, along with the activity of the many amateurs who contributed to Britain’s vibrant and varied Victorian art world.

This research covers the period from Roberson’s foundation in 1820 to the archive’s closing date of 1939, concentrating on the firm’s interaction with painters, both amateur and professional. It assesses the reasons for the firm’s growing prosperity in the nineteenth century and analyses its decline and ultimate disappearance in the twentieth. It focuses a lens on the material world of the Victorian painter but also uses the archive to explore how Roberson’s customers lived and worked, with a particular emphasis on London-based painters, Roberson’s most valued customers.


372 pages, 8 figures, 44 plates.

Mandler, Peter
Bucklow, Spike
Art market, Artist, Artists’ colourman, Artists’ materials, Business history, Edwardian Britain, London, Paint, Painter, Painting, Victorian Britain
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge