Portraiture, caricature and visual culture in Britain, c. 1830–80

This book examines the role of political likenesses in a half-century that was crucial for the political modernisation of Britain, a two-party system that began to take shape and politicians became increasingly accountable and responsive to public opinion. Political language, especially electoral rhetoric, has been accorded considerable weight by recent studies in building broad coalitions of political support in popular and electoral politics. The book studies political likenesses, the key mode of visual politics at this time, as part of a nuanced analysis of contemporary political culture and the nature of the representative system. It examines a diverse range of material including woven silk portraiture, oil paintings, numismatics and medals, banners, ceramics, statuary and memorials as well as items printed on paper or card. After an analysis of the visual culture spawned by the reform bills of 1831-1832, the book shows how Conservative and Liberal/Reformer identities were visualised through semi-official series of portrait prints. The pictorial press, photographs and portrait testimonials, statues and memorials, MPs were venerated as independent representatives and champions of particular localities, trades, interests or issues, and not party hacks. Depictions of Lord Palmerston and his rivals, including Lord John Russell and Lord Derby, in the 1850s and 1860s often underplayed in pictorial representations to emphasise physical and political vigour. The role of political portraits and cartoons in the decade after the passing of the 1867 Representation of the People Act is also discussed.

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This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book examines the political modernisation of Britain, in which the electorate gradually expanded, a two-party system began to take shape and politicians became increasingly accountable and responsive to public opinion. It starts by analysing the visual culture spawned by the reform bills of 1831-32. The book describes that, in the pictorial press, photographs and portrait testimonials, statues and memorials, MPs were venerated as independent representatives and champions of particular localities, trades, interests or issues, and not party hacks. It focuses on the depictions of Lord Palmerston and his rivals, including Lord John Russell and Lord Derby, in the 1850s and 1860s. The book discusses the role of political portraits and cartoons in the decade after the passing of the 1867 Representation of the People Act.

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This chapter examines the visual culture stimulated by the popular fervour for reform, and sheds new light on the making of the 1832 Reform Act and how it was perceived at the time. It focuses on the extraordinarily diverse range of material and visual commodities, including prints, caricatures, ceramics, medals and banners, stimulated by reform, there was not unanimous or uncritical approval. The chapter offers a short overview of the extensive literature on Georgian caricature. It provides an overview of the Reform Act and the reformed political system. The intentions of the framers of 1832 English Reform Act and its impact have remained an enduring source of historical debate. The chapter also focuses on the English reform legislation, there was of course a Scottish and Irish dimension. In terms of increasing the electorate, the Scottish Reform Act was of greater significance than the English measure.

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This chapter shows how visual images personified and reaffirmed the party identities that were formed in the wake of the 1832 Reform Act. By examining the semi-official portrait series that were published in this period, it highlights the innovative new ways in which party identities were presented after 1832. The development of party identities created a market for portraits of politicians classified by party. The resultant series of engraved portraits were, however, only possible due to the development of steel engraving, which transformed the economics of reproductive printing. Steel engraving boasted potentially huge print runs, and it is significant that this medium was chosen by Henry Thomas Ryall and John Saunders as it suggests that large numbers of party portraits could have been produced. Ryall's series was eventually completed in 1846, after the publication of seventy-two portraits and biographies.

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From caricature to portraiture

This chapter shows how important visual culture and portraiture in particular was, not only to Chartism, but to other radical movements. Although the torrent of pro-reform prints published between 1830 and 1832 is usually regarded as the last outpouring of the single-sheet caricature tradition, a radical brand of caricature flourished in the 1830s, much of it produced by Charles Jameson Grant. The most important reason for the waning of radical caricature was the advantages offered to radicals by portraiture, which was valued for its ability to project a positive image and identity. Portraits allowed a positive projection of individuals and through them political movements. Although portraiture and caricature are opposites in theory, in practice the gap between the two diminished in this period as politicians were more 'realistically' and respectfully portrayed in political cartoons and other visual media.

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Political group portraiture and history painting

This chapter shows how group portrait paintings could recast political events as part of a celebrated national narrative. It focuses on how portraits could function as aides-memoires to political partisanship or identity. Eminent artists such as Sir George Hayter and Benjamin Robert Haydon sought to capitalise on the popular enthusiasm for reform. Contemporary attitudes towards Hayter's and Haydon's paintings were partially influenced by political feeling. When Haydon's commission was first announced, the Whig Morning Chronicle hailed the commemoration of the new charter of liberty for the people. The problems encountered by Haydon and Hayter provided ample warning about the difficulties of monumental political group portraiture, and pictures on that scale were not attempted again. However, the genre was adaptable, and in the 1840s two of the most important middle-class pressure groups, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) and the Anti-Corn Law League, commissioned smaller group portraits.

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MPs and portraiture

This chapter shows how portraits of MPs presented them as independent representatives and parliamentarians rather than merely party hacks or delegates. The proliferation of parliamentary portraits shows that the popularity of political likenesses was not limited to leading figures. The development of visual technologies after 1830 meant that likenesses of ordinary backbench MPs, as well as those of the leading politicians, were increasingly available. Many public roles, including that of MP, were unsalaried, and a sense of public duty was an important motivation in serving in such positions. The testimonial depended upon voluntary efforts and subscriptions, reflecting the free and independent approbation of the community. Long-serving MPs came to be personally identified with their constituencies and their distinctive political cultures. Photographic portraits of MPs, increasingly common from the late 1850s as cartes de visite or in other formats, provided another medium for the projection of their individuality.

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This chapter shows how a highly favourable persona of Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, Liberal prime minister 1855-58, 1859-65, was projected through a range of visual media. It demonstrates how Palmerston's favourable image was strengthened through comparisons with his political rivals in the period between 1850 and his death in 1865. While images and popular portraits of William Ewart Gladstone have been noted by historians of popular liberalism, little or no attention has been given to the visual imagery associated with his contemporaries and predecessors. The chapter shows how these images were shaped by political developments and the visual technologies available. Comparisons and contrasts were frequently made in visual media, most notably cartoons, in ways that were to Palmerston's advantage. Presenting Palmerston in sporting roles, for example as a pugilist, was something that cartoons could do better than conventional, straight portraits.

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This chapter shows how Benjamin Disraeli, who was created 1st Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876, and William Ewart Gladstone came to personify the Conservative and Liberal parties after the 1867 Representation of the People Act. It focuses on how they symbolised the two parties and the extent to which they had any control over their images, and places these in the context of political developments after 1867. The chapter considers the extent to which Disraeli and Gladstone were able to present a favourable public persona through commercially produced imagery. National party leaders such as Disraeli and Gladstone gave a greater steer to electoral politics through platform speeches outside London that were widely reported in the press. Painted and photographic portraits provided both Disraeli and Gladstone with opportunities for self-fashioning, allowing them to project a particular public image or perform a particular role.

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The period from 1830 to 1880 was characterised by a vibrant visual culture in which political likenesses were central, and without understanding this, it is impossible to understand the broader evolution of political culture in this period. Changes in visual culture were critically influenced by developments in technology that allowed likenesses to be circulated in greater numbers, more widely and with greater frequency than ever before. The new technologies that emerged at the start of the period were much more productive than existing visual media. There were a number of overlapping reasons why portraiture, as opposed to other genres, proved to be the most suitable form for visually representing politics between 1830 and 1880. The widespread popularity of parliamentary portraits helped to provide a public face for the political system during this period of transition.

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