Our final ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of term took place last week. Tom Crewe, of Pembroke College, Cambridge, spoke on ‘The politics of image and the image of politics: visual representations of politicians and portraiture in the press, c.1840-1906’. His paper was based on one chapter on his upcoming PhD thesis, due to be completed in the next year.
Crewe began by noting that despite the amount of academic attention paid to late Victorian electoral culture, relatively little has been written on the images used to depict politicians, especially the illustrations that appeared in the popular press (as opposed to caricatures or cartoons). Throughout his paper he used many fantastic depictions of Victorian politicians in portraiture and the popular press.
Crewe discussed these two distinct but linked types of images. He demonstrated that the style of both changed dramatically in the second half of the 19th century, and argued that this helped to shape popular perceptions of the political class. Firstly, political portraiture, following broader artistic trends, became much more realistic, with artists such as John Everett Millais abandoning the formal, idealised compositions of the early nineteenth century to instead depict politicians ‘as they really were’. Instead of being represented in idealised, statesmanlike poses, parliamentarians were shown at work – speaking, or in the House of Commons itself.
A similar change occurred in images in the popular press. Technology improved enormously in the late nineteenth century and allowed speedy reproduction of subtle and detailed drawings. As the reproduction of photographs was still problematic and their compositions extremely formal, ‘special artists’ enjoyed a golden age, with better access to politicians and a large illustrated press eager to use their work. Once again the style of the images changed. Politicians were represented in strikingly candid ‘snap-shots’ of their activity in parliament, or at home, in intimate and personal poses – for example, we see William Gladstone laughing or yawning during a Commons debate, and Arthur Balfour playing golf.
Crewe argued that this demonstrates a broader trend. Ordinary people became more interested in politicians as figures possessed of ‘human interest’, and a real celebrity culture emerged. Parliamentarians had a more intimate and open relationship with the public, and visual images played a significant part in constructing this change.
There were many questions after Crewe’s extremely interesting paper. Some asked about the position of imagery both in wider Victorian culture and political developments in particular (for example, the ‘domestication’ of party politics). Others were interested in the process of creating the drawings and how this affected the relationship between politicians and the press.
‘Parliaments, politics and people’ returns next term on the 13th May. Our full summer term programme will be available shortly – watch this space!