Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait Bust of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) 1880c.

Richard Belt 

Portrait Bust of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), Richard Belt
19th Century
height 15 inches 38 cm
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Disraeli was first elected to Parliament as a Tory in 1837. His early career was hampered by a clash of personalities with Robert Peel, but the latter''s resignation in 1846 removed these impediments, and by 1848 Disraeli was de facto leader of the Tory opposition. In 1852 the Prime Minister Lord Derby appointed him Chancellor of the Exchequer. A disastrous budget brought about the fall of the Tory government, but Disraeli prospered in Opposition and was an effective thorn in the side of Lord Palmerston''s administration.

Lord Derby again became Prime Minister in 1866 when he apppointed Disraeli once more to the Treasury. Ill health forced Derby''s resignation two years later and Disraeli was asked to form a government. Though this was only intended to be a caretaker administration and lasted only nine months it enacted significant reforming legislation, such as the Capital Punishment Within Prisons Act, which ended Public Execution. Disraeli was elected Prime Minister again in 1874, when he continued his programme of reforms, enacting legislation covering trades unions, public health, the sale of food and drugs and factories. In 1879 persitent ill-health forced Disraeli to move to the Lords, and he was enobled as the Earl of Beaconsfield. He continued to lead the Government from the Upper House, where he enjoyed several diplomatic triumphs relating to the Russo-Turkish war, not least an exemplary role at the Congress of Berlin, which closed the conflict. The great stateseman Bismarck observed of Disraeli''s key role in these proceedings: ''Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann.'' Despite these successes the Liberal Party won the 1880 General Election and Disraeli led the opposition to the new government for the last year of his life.

By virtue of his charm and affability Benjamin Disraeli enjoyed far greater personal popularity than the drier merits of his rival Gladstone. At the first anniversary of his death Quenn Victoria sent a wreath of primroses, bearing the legend ''His favourite flower'', as a gesture of personal friendship. The custom soon spread, and members of all political persuasions could be seen wearing primroses in their buttonholes. Gladstone''s acid observation that the gilded lily should have been his flower placed him firmly in the minority. When in 1883 a statue of Disraeli was erected in Parliament Square, primroses were sent from all parts of the country and in a latter-day rite of spring bedecked the pan-like statue of the hero.

Belt's sculpture was executed in the last year of Disraeli's life, and portrays the politician in old age yet -in his apparent nudity- with a suggestion of antique heroism, was himself no stranger to portraits of great men or, indeed, to the public eye. In 1875 he had brought a celebrated libel case against the Vanity Fair proprietor Charles Lawes, who had suggested that the sculptor''s statue of Lord Byron was chiefly the work of his studio assistant Pierre Verhyden. Belt won his case, not least through the extreme difficulty of finding any useful, legal distinction between the work of the master and of the supervised studio hand, but the episode did not enhance Belt's reputation, and, as the number of bronze and marble figures in the courtroom began to outnumber human beings, the proceedings tended towards farce. Similar allegations were made concerning Belt's work on the restoration of the statue of Queen Anne, which was reinstated at the West Front of St Paul's Cathedral in 1886, although Belt's retirement from the public arena was eventually brought about by a jail sentence for selling fake jewellery.
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