Room 18: Art, Invention & Thought: The Romantics

See the portraits currently on display in Room 18 here

Room 18

© The National Portrait Gallery, London

The French Revolution (1789-92) was the catalyst for the first generation of the Romantics; writers and artists like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft and Blake. The Romantics prophesied the dawning of liberty and equality, but as Napoleon swept across Europe many retreated into reflecting on the domestic landscape or their inner feelings, while others were lured by supernatural visions and esoteric beliefs. A second generation of Romantics, most notably Byron, Keats and Shelley, reacted to the repressive political situation at home. Drawn to the exotic, the narcissistic and the classical, they fled to Italy and Greece after the end of war of 1815.

The Romantics revolutionised poetry, prose and painting by developing a language which expressed new ways of knowing the world. They drew inspiration widely - from scientific discoveries which seemed to harness life-giving forces, to agricultural modernisation which changed the social landscape and natural world. The Romantic message was often radical and political - Shelley claimed that poets 'were the unacknowledged legislators of the world'.

Although the Romantics believed that 'genius' lay at the heart of artistic creation, few achieved popular recognition in their lifetime; only Byron 'awoke to find myself famous'. The portraits in this room, many painted for their friends or their publishers, recall the overlapping communities in which affection, collaboration and criticism nurtured the Romantic spirit.

Radicals & Revolution
"We have it in our power to begin the world again" Thomas Paine, 1776

Radical politics in Britain were stimulated by the revolutions in America (1775-1783) and France (1789-1799). Radicals sought government reform based on the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy. These aims were at odds with the prevailing political culture in Britain, in which the aristocracy and the Church held power and only a minority could vote.

Thomas Paine was a leading figure in the age of revolutions. He supported American independence from Britain, hoping it would create the first truly democratic nation. His writings influenced  the leaders of revolution in France, which in them inspired his most famous book ‘The Rights of Man' (1791-2). In Britain, Paine was charged with treason for criticising the monarchy and promoting revolution, and was forced to flee the country.

Paine's ideas were embraced by radical authors and poets. Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) was a feminist development of Paine's Rights of Man. Her husband, William Godwin, promoted republicanism and the redistribution of property. Although such radical publications were condemned by the government, their promotion of democracy and human rights laid the foundations for subsequent reform.