Monday, 20 June 2011

Bite 127: Sir George Hayter - The House of Commons, 1833-43

The House of Commons, 1833-43, oil on canvas, 300 x 500 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London
Painted to commemorate the passing of the first Parliamentary Reform Bill in England in 1832, Sir George Hayter took 10 years to complete the work, which depicts the opening session of the new House of Commons on 5 February, 1833.

Of the 658 in parliament at the time 375 are present in the portrait and 323 can be definitively identified, including a self-portrait of the artist himself, kneeling in the bottom right corner. Highly figurative, each representation has been given specific painstaking attention, with individual sittings taking place in most instances, of which many preparatory oils survive.

After completion, interest in the Reform Bill having waned, Hayter had great difficulty in finding a buyer for the monumental work. It was 15 years later that he succeeded in selling the work to the, ironically, then Tory government (who originally opposed the commemorated reforms) for ₤2,000. It was presented to the newly founded National Portrait Gallery in London and was for many years hung in the Houses of Parliament, rebuilt following a fire in 1834 - a year after Hayter completed preparatory sketches of the space.

While the painting remains a record of a moment in the extension of democracy in Britain, it must be remembered that it was not until 1919 that the first woman joined the House and 1928 that women gained equal rights to vote. Looked at today the work is a stark reminder that power, global, has historically been held primarily by straight, well-off, white males.