Artifact Corner: Parliament Portrait

Hi everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a painting that was done sometime between 1832 and 1833. This painting is of British Parliamentarians and the King, and was done to commemorate the reforms to being made to Parliament and voting. This portrait is done on ceramic, which is then housed in a wooden frame. We believe that this piece was acquired by Frances Henrietta and her husband Henry Webb on their European honeymoon. The two traveled Europe in 1832 and 1833, with them being in England in 1833. Unfortunately, the piece is not signed, so we do not know who the artist was. Let’s learn a bit more about painting portraits on porcelain, and the reforms that this Parliament were making.

People have been painting on porcelain and pottery for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and romans decorated their pottery with portraits of heroes and gods. Their portraits were glorifying and idealistic, rather than trying to be realistic. Throughout the Middle Ages portraiture on pottery basically disappeared. In the 14th and 15th Centuries, during the Renaissance portrait painting on pottery began to come back into fashion. Portrait painting on porcelain really came into it’s heyday in the 18th Century. The bulk of the paintings on porcelain were miniatures, small pieces meant to be displayed on a pice of furniture or carried with you on your person, rather than hung on a wall. Our piece is large and framed, meaning it was meant to be hung and displayed on a wall.

So, what was so important about the reforms being made that a portrait was painted to commemorate it? In 1832, Parliament passed a law that changed the British electoral system. It was known as the Great Reform Act, which basically gave the vote to middle class men, leaving working men disappointed. The Reform Act became law in response to years of criticism of the electoral system from those outside and inside Parliament. Elections in Britain were neither fair nor representative. In order to vote, a person had to own property or pay certain taxes to qualify, which excluded most working class people. There were also constituencies with several voters that elected two MPs to Parliament, such as Old Sarum in Salisbury. In these ‘rotten boroughs’, with few voters and no secret ballot, it was easy for those standing for election to buy votes. Industrial towns like Manchester or Birmingham, which had grown during the previous 80 years, had no Members of Parliament to represent them. In 1831, the House of Commons passed a Reform Bill, but the House of Lords, dominated by the Tory party, defeated it. This was followed by riots and serious disturbances in London, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Exeter and Bristol and other cities throughout England.

This portrait is in very good condition. The frame is in rougher shape, and has had some repair work done to it. It is the original frame though, which is great. We’re not sure why Frances and Henry decided to purchase this painting and bring it back with them, but we’re glad they did. It is a fascinating glimpse into British history and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
Free download:
License (CC BY 4.0):
Artist website: