New book: Politics Personified

9780719090844img01One of our former Research Fellows on the 1832-68 project, Dr. Henry Miller, has just published his first book, with Manchester University Press, entitled Politics Personified: Portraiture, Caricature and Visual Culture, 1830-1880. He shares some of the key insights from the book in this blog:

Politics Personified examines the remarkable popularity and cultural resonance of political portraiture and likenesses during the 1830 to 1880 period. Utilizing a variety of interdisciplinary methods, the book analyses a huge and diverse range of visual and material culture, including photography, prints, ceramics, banners, coins and tokens, sculpture and paintings. These sources shed new light on a number of long-standing historiographical debates including the 1832 Reform Act, the development of party politics and parliamentary government, the popularity of radicalism, and the careers of leading politicians such as Lord Palmerston. In all these ways, the book explores how visual culture shaped public perceptions of politics and politicians in a pre-democratic era distinguished by vibrant popular politics and an expanding media.

The development of new visual technologies, such as steel and wood engraving, lithography and photography, meant that massive quantities of images could be produced by the mid-nineteenth century. Surprisingly perhaps, the overwhelming majority of political likenesses were produced commercially for a paying audience. Portraits of politicians were eagerly awaited by the public and the press and carefully scrutinized for the quality of their likenesses and what they revealed about their character.

Statue of James Oswald MP, George Square, Glasgow

Statue of James Oswald MP, George Square, Glasgow

Portraiture was the dominant mode of visualizing Victorian politics. Georgian-style caricature fizzled out in the 1830s, while portraiture was better suited to an era when Parliament and politicians were viewed respectfully and positively. MPs were frequently depicted as independent representatives, and on their retirement or death, their public service was often commemorated through statues or portraits funded through public subscription by their constituents.

Political likenesses, I argue, fulfilled a number of important roles. Firstly, they allowed people to express and reaffirm their political identity through the public or private display of individual likenesses. Series of individual likenesses were produced by the mighty movements of the time like Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League to project broad, diverse yet coherent political identities to supporters and the wider public.

Secondly, portraits, particularly group portraits, formed broader narratives linking the past, present and future. For example, George Hayter’s The House of Commons, 1833 (NPG 54, 1833-43) presented a Whiggish narrative of peaceful constitutional progress achieved by an enlightened aristocratic elite.

Thirdly, political likenesses clearly addressed a very real need for people to ‘see’ those who sought political leadership in a pre-democratic era. When the Birmingham mayor Joseph Chamberlain was about to stand for Sheffield in the 1870s he was informed by a local that ‘people are anxious to see what you are like’. It was suggested that the ignorance about Chamberlain in the constituency could be countered through publicly displaying photographs of him in shops. In an era obsessed with the ‘character’ of public figures, likenesses seemed to offer unique personal insights into individual politicians, which could be accessed through the intuitive folk wisdom of physiognomy.

Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston

Fourthly, likenesses were an important form of communication and means of constructing public images of politicians. For example, in the 1850s the prime minister Lord Palmerston was frequently portrayed as younger than his seventy-odd years in cartoons and portraits, projecting an image of vigorous manliness in contrast to his rivals. Even photographs of Palmerston, which portrayed his age more accurately, seemed to preserve the ‘old jaunty air’ that had been characteristic of earlier pictorial representations.

Politicians could influence their portrayal in visual media through controlling access to sittings and their interaction with artists and publishers. A good example of this would be the Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli. Early images of Disraeli in the 1830s and 1840s presented him either as a dandyish, Romantic writer (reflecting his career as a novelist) or he was caricatured in anti-Semitic cartoons. To counter this, Disraeli rationed the number of sittings he gave and cultivated an impassive, sober appearance, with restrained gestures, in later portraits, thus exercising a degree of control over his public image.

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli

Overall, the book highlights the profound importance of visual forms of political communication as well as print and oratory and the relationship between portraiture and political identity. More specifically the book engages with a number of historical debates around popular and elite politics in this period. I hope that the book stimulates further discussion, debate and research.

For more information about the book, see here.

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