Room 25: Portraits and Politics
© The National Portrait Gallery, London
Portraits of politicians reveal much about how the Victorians regarded their great public figures and record political allegiances between the sitter and those who commissioned the paintings. For Sir Robert Peel, seen to the left painted by John Linnell, portraiture served as a way of permanently honouring those with whom he had worked most closely during his political career. During his last administration, from 1841 to 1846, Peel commissioned a number of portraits of his political associates and built a gallery for their display at his country house, Drayton Manor. Three of these – Derby, Ellenborough and Newcastle – now hang outside this room in the central corridor which is itself intended to evoke the idea of a formal ‘statesmen’s gallery’.
On the end wall hangs Sargent’s great portrait of the statesman and Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour. Painted in 1908, it captures both the seasoned and astute politician and the aesthete and philosopher. In spite of its grandeur, the portrait also evoked for contemporaries something of the political pessimism of the times. As G.K. Chesterton wrote: ‘in its presence we feel the sober truths about the English governing class, its wide and ruinous scepticism... the tones of the picture are grave with grey and silver, as of the end of a day not wholly either of failure or victory’.