Benjamin Disraeli: ‘I particularly dislike sitting for my portrait’

Last year I came across this letter in the Palace of Westminster Archives, written by the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to Sir Joshua Walmsley MP Mayor of Liverpool (1794 – 1871):

Hughenden Manor 

October 30th 1869

Dear Sir,

I particularly dislike sitting for my portrait for it is always a long affair; & I especially distrust artists, “who only require two sittings”; but I am unwilling to appear ungracious when I am honoured by a flattering proposal.

I shall not be in town permanently until next year, but if then I can arrange to meet your wishes, I shall be glad.

I trust you are well.

Yours faithfully,

Disraeli

Sir Joshua Walmsley

Parliamentary Archive GB61 MER 1 59

The letter refers to this painting in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Charles Lucy (1814 – 1873), Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli 1st Earl of Beaconsfield KG (1804 – 1881), oil on canvas 25 3/4 x 19 1/4 inches
(c) Victoria and Albert Museum

Disraeli’s portrait is part of a series of small-scale portraits of great men, one of the last examples of a genre dating back to the corridor sets of the Tudors. It is the only portrait of a Conservative. The other sitters in Walmsley’s set – viewable here on the V&A catalogue – were John Bright, Richard Cobden and Joseph Hume, the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Oliver Cromwell. The set also includes a portrait of Horatio Nelson, a national hero, tho far from a radical. Bright died in 1865 and his portrait is based on a photograph. Hume died in 1855 and his portrait is posthumous, as, of course, are Cromwell’s and Nelson’s. Disraeli’s letter is key evidence that Walmsley was keen to secure life sittings if possible.

Disraeli won his place in this gallery of Liberal icons because the Earl of Derby’s Tory Government – led by Disraeli in the Commons – had passed the Second Reform Act in 1867, giving the vote to all male householders. Disraeli had time to be painted in 1869. He had briefly been Prime Minister in 1868, but he was in opposition again after the General Election in December. The new electorate voted him out in favour of Gladstone’s Liberal Party. As well as sitting for his portrait, Disraeli published his fifteenth novel Lothair in 1870. He returned to Downing Street in 1874.

Disraeli’s letter to Walmsley, a radical Liberal, shows that ‘Dizzy’ had political appeal, and a gift for friendship that crossed party lines. A Tory/Radical affinity in the years after the Second Reform Act surfaces in another document in the Palace of Westminster Archive, an 1872 letter from Major T Baker the Conservative agent in Bath to Earl Cadogan. After listening to speakers including Lilian Ashworth Halett, John Bright’s niece, Baker argues that the Conservatives should naturally support Votes for Women as a ‘simple act of justice’.

The set is dated by the V&A c.1860-1868 (the date of Hume’s portrait), suggesting that Disraeli’s portrait may have been one of the last to be painted. Walmsley bequeathed the set to the Victoria and Albert Museum at his death in 1871. Charles Lucy was a very popular artist in 1869, but Victorian art has yet to recover from the boom of the 1980s/90s. Some of Lucy’s history paintings remain iconic, such as The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers (National History Museum, Lexington, Massachusetts) while paintings like The Burial of King Charles I in St George’s Chapel Windsor (Bonhams October 10th 2006 lot 256) and The Forced Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots (Christie’s November 5th 1993 lot 188) were a staple of old history books in my day and still appear on history documentaries, thanks to commercial image libraries.

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