Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Ewart Gladstone PM (1808-1898) 1877

William Thomas Roden 

Portrait of William Ewart Gladstone PM (1808-1898), William Thomas Roden
Oil on canvas
19th Century
26 x 22 inches 66 x 56 cm
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Gladstone recounts his sitting for this portrait in diary entries of 11th and 12th September, 1877: ''Mr Roden came with his remarkable portrait of me. He prosecuted his task while I worked peaceably at Thesauros Homerikos'' and later ''Mr Roden again watched, worked and departed. We had however some conversation''.

The resulting work now exists in two versions - a 30 x 25 inch canvas that forms part of the permanent collection at Birmingham City Art Gallery (originally presented to Birmingham Council House in 1879), and this slightly smaller variant. It is not known which of the two was the primary work, and this portrait could thus form either a preliminary likeness later worked up to the Birmingham painting, or a subsequent version. There are, however, evident signs of self-correction as the artist has restretched the canvas to balance the composition, perhaps an indication that this version was preparatory.

Roden was born in Birmingham and apprenticed to an engraver. He subsequently moved to London to become apprentice to George Thomas Doo, R.A. and practised as an engraver for the next ten years before returning to his native city and abandoning engraving for portrait painting. Obtaining plenty of emploment there, ''as he succeeded in producing very good likenesses''(1), Roden further painted Lord Tennyson, Joseph Parkes and J.H.Chamberlain, returning to London in order to exhibit at the Royal Academy on six occasions between 1856 and 1879. Gladstone''s portrait sitting of 1877, the same year that he was to sit for Millais, was certainly the most important of the artist's career.

Roden captured Gladstone on the brink of war between Russia and Turkey. Gladstone, out of office and in between his first two terms as Prime Minister, attacked Disraeli's advocation of military support for the Turks, and addressed the House of Commons to pronounce the Eastern Question the most solemn that the House had ever had to discuss. His opposition to Disraeli's foreign policy and the nationalistic inclinations of public opinion earned him both public adoration and intense loathing.

In an astonishing career of over sixty years, he had no serious rival as an orator and as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister he reformed the public finances, helping to create Britain's mid-nineteenth century prosperity. Gladstone's greatest strength was his command of the House of Commons, which he would address, often without notes, for five hours or more on the great issues of the day, especially the Irish Question. Not everyone approved his style: Queen Victoria objected to Gladstone addressing her as though she were a public meeting.

Gladstone's wife commented on the pathos of expression in the Millais that ''Mr Gladstone was thinking at the time how terrible a sin would be committed if England should to go to war for the Turks'' (2), and whilst one cannot translate her thoughts to this work directly, the sense of concentration is equally prevalent in this portrait. T.Wemyss Reid commented of Gladstone that ''there are few men of distinction whose likeness it is more difficult to fix upon canvas. For the expression - which alone can give life to the portrait - varies in the case of Mr.Gladstone from hour to hour, almost, one might say, from moment to moment''(3).

2)''Mr Gladstone and his Portraits'' Published in THE MAGAZINE OF ART, 1888
3) Ibid
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