Room 23: Expansion and Empire
© The National Portrait Gallery, London
Few images testify so strongly to Victorian Britain's confidence in its position as a world power, and belief in the benefits of its evangelising mission on other peoples, as the large painting of Queen Victoria presenting a Bible which dominates this room. Yet Britain's rise to dominance during Victoria's reign was often a story of conflict, whether securing its interests against the other great powers or suppressing unrest in remote parts of the world. The portraits in this room record the disastrous war against Russia in the Crimea from 1854 to 1856. An administrative and military fiasco, the war caused shocking suffering to ordinary soldiers but also produced conspicuous acts of mercy, the theme of Jerry Barrett's two large paintings. Events in India were soon to cause further disquiet. Thomas Jones Barker's 'Relief of Lucknow' represents an incident from the Indian Rebellion of 1857 when British authority over a large area of northern India disintegrated.
Travellers, administrators and military men: the personalities who acted as agents of the Victorian empire were as diverse as the territories over which Britain held influence. Included in the room are men such as the explorer and linguist Sir Richard Burton; Sir James Brooke, whose family governed Sarawak for three generations; the dashing Captain Burnaby, shown in Tissot's stylish portrait, and Robert Baden-Powell, whose defence of Mafeking at the turn of the century inspired a public wearied by the setbacks of the Boer War. For the Victorians, the exploits of such figures exemplified a type of manly heroism which was central to the imperial consciousness.