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Exhibition of Chartist leaders at the National Portrait Gallery

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Rab MacGibbon, the curator of an exhibition about the Chartists, spoke to Socialist Worker
Issue 2014
Feargus O’Connor, from the exhibition
Feargus O’Connor, from the exhibition

The Chartist movement of the mid-19th century was the first attempt to build a political party representing the working class. Central to the movement was the radical newspaper the Northern Star. In 1839, the paper sold 50,000 copies a week, rivalling the circulation of the Times.

The left wing Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor used the paper to build the influence of the radical wing of the movement. As part of this, he commissioned a series of portraits.

Some of the portraits are on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. “This display reassembles ten portrait engravings produced for an innovative subscription offer for the Northern Star newspaper,” says Rab MacGibbon, the exhibition’s curator.

“The prints of Chartist leaders represented a powerful tool for developing a shared understanding of the movement among its supporters. For O’Connor, it enabled him to promote his own vision of Chartism at the same time as boosting the circulation of his paper.

“This amalgamation of radical politics and financial incentives offer a fascinating insight into this period of debate and confrontation.

“The portraits were used by the movement to give a face to the names of the Chartist leaders who appeared in the Northern Star. They helped give the movement an identity.

“The portraits are very much drawing room portraits. By using a traditional mode of representation of well-dressed men, the portraits are showing the credibility and respectability of the Chartist leaders.

“It is a deliberate contrast to the incendiary words included in the newspaper articles.

“The original oil paintings for the engravings were also used as a promotional tool. O’Connor organised for the paintings to tour the country as a way of building support for the Northern Star.

“The oil paintings visited the heartlands of the Chartist movement and large crowds would greet their arrival.

“The Illustrated London News was first printed in 1842, so illustrations with newspapers were not exclusive to the Chartists.

“But O’Connor was leading the way with this. There is no other example from the time of this sort of mass organised distribution of a supplement to a newspaper.

“The portraits were used as a subscription offer for the Northern Star. Because of the way the steel engravings were done, they could only be printed separately from the newspapers. The printers could only print around 4,000 in a week, but the circulation of some of the portraits was 25,000.

“Using a subscription offer to increase the spread of radical ideas was a radical act. The use of the portraits in the Northern Star is the first real newspaper supplement.

“The prints were discovered in the National Portrait Gallery by Dr Malcolm Chase. The ten prints in the exhibition were all in the National Portrait Gallery, but up until now no one had made the link about how they were used. We think there are at least 30 more prints to be uncovered.

“For the National Portrait Gallery this is an important, if small, exhibition. Portraiture focuses on individuals, the achievements or otherwise of extraordinary people. This exhibition enables us to portray a mass movement – it breaks through a traditional view of history and portraiture.

“The ability to tell the story of ordinary people is one reason why the exhibition is significant.”

Making the rulers tremble

Taking its name from the People’s Charter of 1838, the Chartist movement brought working people in Britain into confrontation with the government.

Their central demand was for universal suffrage, but the radicalism didn’t stop there – solidarity with the people of Ireland and opposition to slavery also mobilised Chartism’s followers.

At its height, Chartism involved hundreds of thousands in mass strikes, demonstrations and uprisings. The radical newspaper, The Northern Star was at the movement’s heart, publishing reports and accounts from those involved in the struggle.

Workers gathered to share a copy, discuss the stories or read it to those who couldn’t read.

The ten portraits gathered here depict the movement’s leaders. In a time before mass media, many workers would never have seen the likeness of the key radicals depicted here. They include figures such as the Northern Star’s editor Feargus O’Connor and John Frost, who was deported to Australia for his campaigning.

The portraits show the challenges that the movement faced too. In the wake of the unsuccessful uprising in Newport, former Chartist and radical MP Joseph Stephens denounced Chartism.

His portrait was burnt by working people across the country.

These ten pictures offer us a glimpse of the people at the head of one of the world’s first mass workers’ movements. But looking at them, we must always remember that the movement was made up of huge numbers of ordinary men and women – who certainly made the “privileged orders” tremble.

Gary Lamont

Chartist Portraits is on until 17 January 2007, National Portrait Gallery, London. Free admission. Dr Malcolm Chase will speak at the gallery on Saturday 28 October at 1pm.


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