One of the many eye-openers of this project has been the sheer amount of political memorabilia produced by the Victorians. British politics has of course always been associated with satirical prints and various forms of commemorative art. However, the volume and range of political material that became available in the nineteenth century was unique and unprecedented. Aided by advances in manufacturing, and the sort of popular interest in politics that enabled rival publications of parliamentary debates to be sold commercially, a popular mass market in political memorabilia emerged during the Victorian era, catering for almost every taste and pocket.
The best known items today remain the cartoons, especially the soft satires of HB (John Doyle), Punch and Vanity Fair. These have long been a staple of the political historian’s study wall (and book cover). The celebratory items produced to mark the 1832 Reform Act have also acquired a sort of iconic status – so much so that much of the pottery from this period is usually referred to as ‘reformware’.
Alongside these better known cartoons and reformware, however, there was also an expanding industry in lesser political trinkets and domestic ceramics and objet d’art, which also helped to bring politics into everyone’s home. One of the more surprising features to emerge from our constituency studies (and email inquiries) is the extent to which local political events were routinely commemorated, either by enterprising producers or via political subscriptions. The jugs and medallions made to celebrate municipal reform, for instance, suggest that at least in some boroughs the introduction of an elected town council was a far more significant event than the rather amorphous passage of reform at Westminster. This would certainly fit with the findings of John A. Phillips on this subject in his pioneering book The Reform Bill in the Boroughs (1992).
A similar emphasis on locality is suggested by depictions of local MPs on ceramics and coins issued to mark national occasions. The range of items produced to mark political achievements other than reform, such as the repeal of the corn laws, is also extremely revealing.
In the next few weeks our former colleague Dr Henry Miller (University of Manchester) will be blogging about how visual imagery helped to reshape Victorian politics, both at the popular and parliamentary level. His new book Politics Personified: Portraiture, Caricature and Visual Culture in Britain, c. 1830-80 adds very significantly to a growing body of innovative work on this important subject. In the meantime, please keep the inquiries about any Victorian political curios you come across coming in!
J. Carlisle, Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain (2012)
R. Gaunt, ‘Robert Peel: portraiture and political commemoration’, The Historian (2012), 22-6
S. Morgan, ‘Material culture and the politics of personality in early Victorian England’, Journal of Victorian Culture, xvii (2012), 127-46.
G. Pentland, M. Nixon and M. Roberts, ‘The Material Culture of Scottish Reform Politics, c. 1820 – c. 1884’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, xxxii (2012), 28-49.