The Graphic Parliament: Picturing the House of Commons 1880-1920

At the end of June, History of Parliament Director Dr Paul Seaward joined House of Commons photographer Jess Taylor to take part in a British Academy summer showcase event about picturing the House of Commons, comparing her work to the innovative and evocative illustrations published in a generation of illustrated magazines published from the 1880s to around 1920. You can see a recording of the full event on YouTube here, and in today’s blog Dr Seaward summarises his part of the conversation.

Some of the most dramatic scenes of the heated Brexit Parliament of 2017-19 were captured for posterity by the House of Commons’ own team of photographers. The images were immediately striking because they showed parliament as the public had never seen it before: not just the sort of overall view of the chamber that you might get from the public gallery, or the TV images, usually just focused on the current speaker; but a sense of constant movement and action in all parts of House – of immediate reaction to speeches, the separate sotto voce conversations going on in every corner, people plotting, arranging, arguing. This is relatively new. The House has historically been very wary of still photography, refusing to allow it in the chamber (or indeed in most other parts of the palace), so it’s not surprising that the images came as a revelation. Our views of parliament at work have often been rather static, dull pictures taken from directly in front of the chamber and often looking like a rather messy school photograph, or the grainy freeze-frames from the television feed, usually focused, boringly, on individual speakers.

Harry Furniss, ‘Kodaking the Commons’ an image to illustrate a passage from a speech made by Joseph Chamberlain in 1893 commenting on how if photography were allowed it would just how how few people routinely attended.

But it’s not quite unprecedented. The extraordinary boom in illustrated weekly magazines, particularly from the 1880s onwards, created a market for lively pictures of life in all its variety – the more dramatic the better: and for a time, those editing these magazines looked for some of their copy in the peculiar goings-on at the Palace of Westminster, to put alongside the pictures of the Army in Sudan, Burma, Afghanistan or South Africa, the dazzling splendour of the royal family or the desperate poverty and anti-landlord violence of Ireland and the misery of the London streets, or illustrations for long-running serialised novels by Thomas Hardy or H. Rider Haggard.

The Illustrated London News, the world’s first regular illustrated newspaper, had started printing occasional pictures of parliament from its beginnings in 1842, but they were usually fairly static views of the Palace, only occasionally of what was actually happening in the chamber. A handful of big prints were available, derived from paintings made of a debate, but these were normally staid affairs of the school photograph variety. The ILN had managed to see off successive competitors until the arrival of The Graphic in 1869. Making full use of advanced technology in the photographic reproduction of artwork, The Graphic specialised in high quality graphic art, treating its artists with considerably more respect and giving them much more scope than the ILN, notoriously, had done.

Sydney Prior Hall, ‘ “Vice Versa” -the Old Chancellor of the Exchequer and the new’, from The Graphic, 25 Sept. 1886: the first day after the House after the 1886 election had delivered a Conservative landslide, with Lord Randolph Churchill as Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer and relegating Gladstone to the opposition benches

Other magazines, such as The Sketch or Black and White followed suit, and in the end the ILN had to improve its act as well. Between them the number of images they published of parliament’s proceedings was probably greater in the 1880s and the 1890s than at any other time, ever. There were big full page, or double page spreads showing a big parliamentary occasion. There were also the page or half-page of little sketches, done from the gallery, covering the colourful incidents of a particular debate. And when The Graphic started in 1890 publishing a cheap sister daily magazine, The Daily Graphic, there would be a weekly half-page of sketches, accompanying a written commentary by a parliamentary correspondent.

The pictures were done either on the spot or worked up afterwards, or sometimes, one imagines, largely done from the imagination, by a highly professional group of artists, men like the New Zealander Sydney Begg, who worked a quarter of a century at the ILN; the Frenchman, Paul Renouard, who worked on both sides of the channel, producing powerful images of the trial of Captain Dreyfus and working as a war artist; the landscape artist Thomas Walter Wilson; the Glaswegian Alexander Boyd; the well-connected Oxford graduate Sydney Prior Hall. The great exponent of the art of the parliamentary sketch was Harry Furniss, who graduated from illustrating the parliamentary commentaries of Sir Henry Lucy to writing his own, and whose more straightforward drawings of goings-on in the chamber were complemented by a signature menagerie of deftly satirised favourites – the enormously rotund Sir William Harcourt, a windmill-armed Gladstone, the serjeant-at-arms, Captain Gosset, as an Egyptian beetle.

Reginald Cleaver, ‘The Budget’, from The Daily Graphic, 1893

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that during the 1880s and 1890s and well into the 1900s the House of Commons must have been the most frequently illustrated interior in Britain. In the 1880s the illustrated magazines are providing the first really lively, realistic images of parliament at work, providing a detailed idea of what is going on, providing a sense of the reality of the chamber. It was a development that went with what was called at the time the new journalism: newspapers started to give their readers much more colour, printing articles which would devote as much attention to setting a scene and sketching a picture in words, rather than simply report what happened. It coincided with the huge upheavals of politics in the 1880s and 1890s: the Home Rule debates, the Liberal party’s split, the convulsions of the Irish party split over Charles Stewart Parnell. Though ironically, it was also at a time when the government was coming to exercise a much closer control over parliamentary business, and was gradually stifling the activity of independent-minded MPs.

The interest of the newspapers in depicting parliament didn’t last, and it’s difficult to say why. The images published from around the mid-1900s tend to be rather less lively and interesting; and during and after the First World War they practically disappear. Perhaps that’s because of the passing of the fascinating political figures of the 1880s and 1890s; perhaps the war itself made shenanigans at Westminster seem indecent and uninteresting; most likely, the magazines themselves increasingly felt they needed to supply photographs, rather than paintings or drawings, to satisfy their readers. Since members continued to dislike the idea of photographs being taken in the chamber, the pictorial coverage of parliamentary proceedings almost ceased entirely: until now.


Follow Dr Seaward’s research project ‘Reformation to Referendum’ on this blog.

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