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1888 Gladstone's Portrait and the Changing Iconography of Liberalism

In 1888, the portrait of William Ewart Gladstone by Frank Holl, an artist who enjoyed great fame as a society portraitist, was a much talked about exhibit (Fig. 1).1 Gladstone, a Liberal politician and four times prime minister of the United Kingdom, had a considerable impact on the visual arts in Britain.2 A fine art collector himself, he was also influential in the founding of the South Kensington Museum (now V&A) and in the formation of the National Gallery collection.3 Gladstone was directly involved with the Royal Academy: he acted as its honorary Professor of Ancient History from 1876 to 1898, and the RA Archive holds a scattering of his letters on administrative matters.4 Almost unfailingly, in every year of his four premierships, Gladstone attended the Summer Exhibition’s inaugural banquet and gave a speech.5

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In 1888, Holl depicted the seventy-nine-year-old Gladstone, but his earlier likenesses had been displayed many times before at the Summer Exhibitions.6 The Grand Old Man, as Gladstone was nicknamed in later life, elicited a popular devotion that has been compared to a cult, and his supporters’ demand for Gladstone-related objects resulted in an extraordinary supply of images, which increased sharply from the mid-1870s onwards, when he was Leader of the Opposition after his first premiership.7 Sculpture busts, paintings, drawings, engravings, and caricatures: Gladstone’s representations were near ubiquitous in the 1880s.8 As the Liberal journalist and writer, Thomas Wemyss Reid, commented in 1888: “no face in England has more frequently engaged the attention of the portrait painter than that of Mr Gladstone.”9

Contemporary commentators stressed the difficulty of capturing Gladstone’s likeness, as his face was mobile and his expressions varied.10 This feat, however, was thought to have been already accomplished: a portrait by John Everett Millais, exhibited at the 1879 Summer Exhibition, was reputed to be Gladstone’s most faithful image (Fig. 2).11 Millais’s portrait showed the seventy-year-old statesman standing, in a three-quarter view. It was a sombre portrait, in colour and tone: black clothing, dark skin tones, and a dark umber background. Gladstone’s famous turned-up collar, a feature endlessly exploited in his caricatures, provided the only lightly coloured note in the picture.12 Millais captured the intensity of expression and fierce eyes of Gladstone, but he succeeded also to convey modesty and gravity, even kindness, through his clasped hands and averted gaze.

Nine years later, Holl attempted to equal and surpass Millais, taking inspiration from the latter in the standing, three-quarter pose of Gladstone and his sombre dress.13 The portraits were also equal in size. As a writer commented in The Times, the portrait of male sitters limited the artist’s “genius”, because there is no costume through which one could show pictorial virtuosity, but concentrated the artist’s “power”: “where a statesman consists of a face and a black frock coat the artists can give all his attention to the face.”14 Holl, again, like Millais, focused on Gladstone’s head, leaving the right side in dramatic shadows and rendering his eyes in a deep black, almost glossy charcoal colour, which evoked the statesman’s oft-cited demoniac expression.15 Holl’s Gladstone was a visibly older man, but a more energetic character than Millais’s: his incipient movement captured by his hands clasping a vivid red book. If in Millais’s portrait Gladstone seemed to be intent in listening, Holl’s picture appeared to have captured him in the instant just before speaking.16

It was not only the more advanced age of Gladstone that contributed to the visibly different atmosphere of the two portraits. In 1879, Gladstone’s career was at a high point of success, on the brink of the 1880 electoral landslide, hence his assured gravitas; whereas in 1888 Gladstone was a much more tormented figure and a caged lion. He had been in Opposition for two years, having lost the electoral majority following his support of Home Rule for Ireland.17 Gladstone did not compromise his progressive position, continuing to support the Irish cause and taking a radical humanist stance.18 Holl strived to capture Gladstone’s nervous optimism and determination, writing in his diary: “[Gladstone’s] (especially now) is a restless life, still retaining all the ambition of youth, even I should think, more than youthful restlessness.”19

Historians of popular Liberalism have stressed that Gladstone’s images exercised an important influence on his political success, and that Gladstone himself knew well the iconic powers of his likeness.20 Certainly, the 1888 Academy portrait did not have the same popularising power of reproductive engravings, photographic prints, and newspapers supplements. Nevertheless, especially in 1888, it still fulfilled an important function of Gladstonian propaganda: it illustrated liberal values within a higher society setting and represented a domesticated and less radical Gladstone, who would appeal to the bourgeois readers of The Art Journal, The Athenaeum and The Magazine of Art. It is not a coincidence that this aspect of the statesman was reinforced on that year also in the painting by Henry Jamyn Brooks, The Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, 1888, where Gladstone was included among the fashionable and high-powered crowd of the London art world.21 The 1888 atmospheric portrait by Holl, which simultaneously glorified and tamed Gladstone’s edgy, radical nervousness, also contributed to the modern refashioning of the statesman’s political identity of the late 1880s, which subsequently led to his fourth, and last, electoral victory in 1892.

  1. Holl was to die after a few weeks, aged only forty-three. See his obituary “Death of Mr. Frank Holl, R.A”, The Times, 1 August 1888; Mark Bills (ed.), Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 154–155.↩︎

  2. In the vast bibliography on Gladstone’s politics, possible starting points are: Eugenio Biagini, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860–1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Peter John Jagger (ed.), Gladstone (London: Hambledon, 1998); Roland Quinault, Roger Swift, and Ruth Clayton Windscheffel (eds), William Gladstone: New Studies and Perspectives (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).↩︎

  3. Gladstone’s collection sold at Christie’s, London, on 23–26 June 1875. Ninety-seven paintings and drawings achieved £3,861. For Gladstone’s painting collection, see Marcia Pointon, “W. E. Gladstone as an Art Patron and Collector”, Victorian Studies 19, no. 1 (September 1975): 73–98. For the National Gallery, see the Gladstone papers and diaries, British Library, Add MS 44654 89; H.C.G. Matthew (ed.), The Gladstone Diaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 11, 143. Barbara Pezzini is currently preparing a publication on Gladstone, William Agnew, and the Marlborough sale.↩︎

  4. See, for example, Royal Academy correspondence from non-members 1879–1963, Royal Academy Archive, RAA/SEC/6; and Correspondence relating to Parliamentary returns 1884–1885, RAA/SAC/8/17.↩︎

  5. For examples of full transcripts of Gladstone’s speeches at the Academy, see “Banquet at the Royal Academy”, The Times, 3 May 1869, 6 May 1872, and 2 May 1881.↩︎

  6. For a complete list of works representing Gladstone exhibited at the Royal Academy, see Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904, 7 vols (London: Graves and Co. & George Bell and Sons, 1906), for instance, see vol. 1, 9, 98 and 220; vol. 2, 323; vol. 3, 195; vol. 5, 101, 111, and 247; vol. 7, 254 and 355.↩︎

  7. On the “cult” of Gladstone, see D.A. Hamer, “Gladstone: The Making of a Political Myth”, Victorian Studies 22, no. 1 (Autumn, 1978): 29–50. On the image of Gladstone, see Asa Briggs, “Victorian Images of Gladstone”, in Peter John Jagger (ed.), Gladstone (London: Hambledon, 1998), 33–49; Ruth Clayton Windscheffel, “Politics, Portraiture and Power: Reassessing the Public Image of William Ewart Gladstone”, in Matthew McCormack (ed.), Public Men: Masculinity and Politics in Modern Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 93–122; Joseph S. Meisel, “Gladstone’s Visage: Problem and Performance”, in Roland Quinault, Roger Swift, and Ruth Clayton Windscheffel (eds), William Gladstone: New Studies and Perspectives (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 73–98; and Mark Nixon, “Material Gladstones”, in Roland Quinault, Roger Swift, and Ruth Clayton Windscheffel (eds), William Gladstone: New Studies and Perspectives (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 99–128. ↩︎

  8. Meisel reports that at least 366 commercial photographic images of Gladstone were registered under the Copyright Act between 1862 and 1901, putting Gladstone in the top tier, just behind the actress Ellen Terry and some members of the British Royal Family. Meisel, “Gladstone’s Visage”, 74.↩︎

  9. Thomas Weymiss Reid, “Mr. Gladstone and His Portraits”, The Magazine of Art 12 (1888), 82. See also Meisel, “Gladstone’s Visage”, 74–76.↩︎

  10. Harry Furniss, “Portraits and Portrait Painting: The Unpaintability of Mr Gladstone”, The Pall Mall Budget, 11 October 1888, 13; Reid, “Mr. Gladstone and His Portraits”, 82; Meisel, “Gladstone’s Visage”, 82–83.↩︎

  11. Henry Colin Grey Matthew, “Portraits of Men: Millais and Victorian Public Life”, in Peter Funnell, Malcolm Warner et al. (eds), Millais: Portraits (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 137–161.↩︎

  12. On Gladstone’s collar, see Meisel, “Gladstone’s Visage”, 96.↩︎

  13. Holl presented a portrait of Millais in 1886 as his diploma work. See Ada M. Reynolds, The Life and Work of Frank Holl (London: Methuen, 1912), 20–24.↩︎

  14. “Mr. Millais’s Portrait of Mr. Gladstone”, The Times, 26 May 1881.↩︎

  15. Meisel, “Gladstone’s Visage”, 76–77.↩︎

  16. Holl was aware of the impact that his picture would have caused, and on 28 April 1888, he wrote to the Academy President and Council to request that the position of his two portraits (Gladstone and Sir William Jenner) be switched to give Gladstone’s more prominence. Royal Academy Archive, RAA/SEC/4/71/5.↩︎

  17. John Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone (London, Macmillan, 1903), 593–596; David Brooks, “Gladstone and Midlothian: The Background to the First Campaign”, The Scottish Historical Review 64 (April 1985): 42–67; Eugenio Biagini, “Gladstone’s Midlothan Campaign of 1879. The Realpolitik of Christian Humanitarianism”, Liberal History 42 (2004): 6–12.↩︎

  18. For the question of the Home Rule, see James Loughlin, Gladstone, Home Rule and the Ulster Question 1882–93 (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1986); more recently, Graham Goodlad, “British Liberals and the Irish Home Rule Crisis: The Dynamics of Division”, in D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day (eds), Gladstone and Ireland: Politics, Religion and Nationality in the Victorian Age (Basingstoke: Springer, 2010), 86–109. On Gladstone’s humanist philosophical position and its debt to Homer, see David W. Bebbington, “Gladstone on Classics”, in Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray (eds), A Companion to Classical Receptions (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2008), 95.↩︎

  19. Reynolds, The Life and Work of Frank Holl, 279.↩︎

  20. Henry Miller, Politics Personified: Portraiture, Caricature and Visual Culture in Britain, c. 1830–80 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2015), 208–209.↩︎

  21. Henry Jamyn Brooks, Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, 1888, oil on canvas, 1889 (1545 mm x 2715 mm), Inventory no. NPG 1833; see David Saywell and Jacob Simon, The National Portrait Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue (London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2004), 714.↩︎

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