The House of Commons, 1833
Sir George Hayter (1792-1871)
Oil on canvas, 1833-1843
5420 mm x 3460 mm x 135 mm
National Portrait Gallery, London
This picture commemorates the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. It depicts the first session of the new House of Commons on 5 February 1833 held in St Stephen’s Chapel which was destroyed by fire in 1834. The largely Whig campaign for electoral reform had begun in the mid-eighteenth century and by 1832 it had proved unstoppable, following widespread agitation and economic distress. The Reform Act extended the vote to a larger number of men according to their rate-paying or property ownership. It also redistributed representation more fairly and new boroughs were created so that some new industrial centres had MPs for the first time. The picture includes some 375 figures and although Hayter abandoned the idea of depicting all 658 Member of the reformed Commons he maintained the relative proportions of the parties. In the foreground, he has grouped the leading statesmen from the Lords; Grey (1764-1845), Melbourne (1779-1848) and the Whigs on the left and Wellington (1769-1852) and the Tories on the right. Painted without a commission it took Hayter ten years to complete and another fifteen to sell. Paradoxically, it was the Tories who finally agreed to purchase it, in 1858, for the recently founded National Portrait Gallery.