Exploring parliamentary history through art

Today’s blog contains details of the Art UK online exhibitions that our researchers have curated during lockdown…

The History of Parliament’s researchers have been trying out the Curations tool recently launched by Art UK, which enables anyone to create a digital exhibition from the artworks on its site. With art galleries and museums currently closed, it is an excellent way to visit their collections online. It also has the advantage of being able to see works from geographically dispersed collections side by side. The Art UK website hosts almost 250,000 artworks from over 3,250 locations. This gave us plenty to choose from in putting together a variety of exhibitions to share different aspects of our research, which can be accessed through the links below.

Dr. Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords, 1558-1603 section, used Art UK’s excellent range of portraits to focus on a key figure in the early modern Lords: George Villiers (1592-1628), 1st Duke of Buckingham. A favourite of James I, he was showered with lands, offices and titles by the king, but also acquired many parliamentary enemies, before dying at the hands of an assassin in 1628. Find out more about him in the exhibition here.

van Miereveld, Michiel Jansz., 1567-1641; George Villiers (1592-1628), 1st Duke of Buckingham
George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (image credit: Cambridge University Library, via artuk.org)

The exhibition put together by Dr. Robin Eagles, editor of the House of Lords, 1715-1790 section, accompanied his blog on the eighteenth-century garden, taking us on a virtual tour of the key features of the gardens created for Viscount Cobham at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. This landscape was not just a place for recreation; its design also reflected Cobham’s political stance as a ‘patriot’, as the exhibition explains.

Wilson, Richard, 1713/1714-1782; Kew Gardens, Surrey, Ruined Arch
Kew Gardens, Surrey, Ruined Arch (image credit: Gloucester Museums Service, via artuk.org)

Although he suggests that ‘Parliaments can make bad paintings’, Dr. Paul Seaward, our British Academy/Wolfson Research Professor, has chosen some of the ‘hits’ in paintings of the House of Commons from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. An important theme in his exhibition is key moments of parliamentary change, from the first Parliament to assemble after the 1832 Reform Act, as painted by Sir George Hayter, to the first Labour prime minister addressing the Commons in John Lavery’s 1923 work (seen below). Discover what other paintings he chose here. Complementing this selection of images of the Commons, his second curation looks at depictions of the Lords.

Lavery, John, 1856-1941; The Right Honourable J. Ramsay Macdonald Addressing the House of Commons
The Right Honourable J. Ramsay Macdonald Addressing the House of Commons (Image credit: Glasgow Museums via artuk.org)

Hayter’s depiction of the reformed Commons is the starting point for an exhibition from Dr. Kathryn Rix, assistant editor of the House of Commons, 1832-1868 section. This selection looks at the major changes to Parliament’s buildings during this period, as the old Palace of Westminster captured on canvass by Hayter was destroyed by fire in 1834. This forced MPs into temporary accommodation while the new Houses of Parliament designed by Charles Barry were being constructed. For more on these buildings and the people who made and used them, see her exhibition.

unknown artist; The Burning of the Houses of Parliament
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (image credit: Parliamentary Act Collection, via artuk.org)

With so many paintings to choose from, our 1832-1868 project also moved beyond Westminster to the constituencies, looking at depictions of elections and electioneering. Some of these artworks show imagined election scenes; others portray actual events in constituencies ranging from Bedford to Blackburn. All of them give a good flavour of the vibrancy and colour of elections in this period, with widespread popular involvement in proceedings, despite the limited franchise, as seen here.

unknown artist; The 1832 Blackburn Election
The 1832 Blackburn Election (image credit: Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, via artuk.org)

Finally, Dr. Emma Peplow showcases the work of our Oral History project, which has interviewed over 170 former MPs since it began in 2011. Her curation includes depictions of some of the MPs who have been interviewed, among them Denis Healey, Michael Heseltine, Tam Dalyell and Helene Hayman, as well as large-scale works such as June Mendoza’s 1986 painting of the House of Commons. From the chamber to the tea-room, our archive, which has been deposited at the British Library, provides illuminating insights into parliamentary life, as the exhibition explains.

Brason, Paul, b.1952; Conservative Party Conference, Brighton 1982 (Geoffrey Howe; Cecil Edward Parkinson, Baron Parkinson; Ann Mary Parkinson, Lady Parkinson; Margaret Hilda Thatcher, nee Roberts, Baroness Thatcher; Sir Denis Thatcher, 1st Bt; Francis Les
Conservative Party Conference, Brighton 1982 (image credit: NPG, via artuk.org)


K. R.

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