Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, Esq., Member of Parliament for Preston, 1835 

Sir George Hayter (1792-1871)

Portrait of Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, Esq., Member of Parliament for Preston, 1835, Sir George Hayter
Oil on Panel
19th Century
13 ½ x 11 ½ in (34.3 x 29.2 cm)
Julian Adler Antiques & Africana, Cape Town; Private Collection, USA
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The present three works by Sir George Hayter are ad vivum oil sketches produced in preparation for inclusion in his monumental painting, ‘The House of Commons, 1833’ (1833-43), a magnificent historical scene now in the National Portrait Gallery, which depicts the very first meeting of the newly elected parliament following the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832.

Although the name Hayter first and foremost evokes the triumphal imagery of Queen Victoria, he was also celebrated for his large, grand paintings of historically momentous events. The effort Hayter required to complete The House of Commons, 1833 is most impressive given he undertook the project without any prior financial backing. It was a task of considerable physical and financial strain which nearly reduced him to bankruptcy, yet he persevered after receiving a studio visit from Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Kent during its progress, which inspired him ‘with unceasing zeal to overcome the difficulties’ and the piece was finally bought by the Tories in 1858 who donated it to the National Portrait Gallery. Hayter spent a decade compiling a vast portfolio of preparatory head sketches of 375 of the total 658 members of the Reformed Commons, which he later used as observational records for the final masterpiece measuring nearly eleven by eighteen feet.

The meeting took place in the House of Commons on 5th February 1833, marking the successful implementation of a Whig-led campaign which aimed to improve the government of England and Wales through the introduction of a fairer electoral system. Although the bill increased the populous of British voters by more than 310,000 (equivalent to one in every five males) as well as initiating major changes to wider social, industrial and work-related issues, it was ultimately considered a series of compromises that caused widespread discontent in Britain. Hayter’s scrupulous approach to producing these oil sketches from life resulted in a painting that bridges the void between public art and graphic journalism and his efforts ensured that the final work lacked none of the realism and excitement of the actual event. Discipline and perseverance were critical to accurately record the gathering, which the Prime Minister, Charles Grey (1764–1845), described as the most ‘supreme achievement’.

The first work portrays Charles Christopher Pepys (1781–1851), 1st Earl of Cottenham, seated and facing to the right. Pepys was educated at Harrow School then Trinity College, Cambridge, and later entered parliament as a Whig M.P. for Higham Ferrers and Malton. By all accounts he was a short man, rather blunt and somewhat cold mannered, characteristics perhaps discernible in Hayter’s present sketch. Famously described by a fellow Whig as a ‘plain, undistinguished man’, Pepys was nonetheless valued for his dedication and logic making him a formidable background figure in the Commons. Given his great-grandfather was none other than the loquacious diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), his aversion to speaking in Parliament seems quite strange. Nevertheless he was made solicitor-general and later Lord Chancellor of England in 1834, the year Hayter painted this oil sketch.

The second work shows, in almost full-profile to the right, Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood (1801-1866), 1st Baronet, a descendant of the ancient Lancashire family, Hesketh and Fleetwood, who studied at Trinity College, Oxford, and went on to become High Sheriff of Lancashire in 1830 and M.P. for Preston (1832-47). Hayter has inscribed, signed and dated this work ‘Sketch, George Hayter 1834’ in the bottom right corner, which suggests this was completed in the early stages of his ambitious project and is further supported by an old label affixed to the reverse which states: ‘For my large picture of the/ House of Commons/ George Hayter 1834’. As a strong advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, Hesketh-Fleetwood wrote a preface entitled ‘Observations on Capital Punishment’ for his translation of Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned. Besides his political writings, he invested exorbitant time and money planning a town at Rossall. Designed by Decimus Burton, it was an early prototype for towns based around a railway.

The third portrait shows Henry Richard Vassall-Fox (1773-1840), 3rd Baron Holland, in full-profile and was painted, according to his hand-written label on the reverse, in 1835. Vassal-Fox was an important figure in Whig politics who was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, and later took a seat in the House of Lords in 1796. A man of letters, he wrote several texts, including Foreign Reminiscences (1850), which comprises of amusing anecdotes and gossip from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era and his Memoirs of the Whig Party (1852) which remains an important point of reference. Vassal-Fox described himself as ‘no great reformer’ and believed that the ‘Great Reform Act’ was merely ‘substituting constitutional improvement for disaffection & revolution’, but when the bill was passed, he was among the six commissioners chosen to convey the royal assent to the bill.
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