Sir George Hayter (1792-1871)
The meeting marked 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 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 particularly impressive given that he undertook the project without any prior financial backing. It was a task of considerable physical and financial strain and one that nearly reduced him to bankruptcy. Yet Hayter persevered following a studio visit from Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Kent whilst he worked on the commission, which inspired him ‘with unceasing zeal to overcome [his] difficulties’. The work was finally bought by the Tories in 1858 who donated it to the newly-founded 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 population 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 oil sketches from life, of which this is one, 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 in order to record the gathering accurately, which the Prime Minister, Charles Grey (1764–1845), described as the most ‘supreme achievement’.
This portrait shows Henry Richard Vassall-Fox (1773-1840), 3rd Baron Holland, in full-profile and was painted, according to a hand-written label on the reverse, in 1835. Vassall-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. He was heavily influenced by his uncle, the Whig leader Charles James Fox, whose principles came greatly to shape his own. A 1791 journey to France during which he met high-profile figures in the revolutionary government, including Talleyrand and Lafayette, inspired his lifelong Francophile sentiments. Born Henry Richard Fox, Vassall-Fox’s scandalous affair with Elizabeth Vassall, whom he subsequently married, caused him to adopt his wife’s name in order to protect his rights to her plantation fortune. The affair resulted in the suicide of Elizabeth’s previous husband. A man of letters, Holland’s Kensington home played host to the glittering Holland Park Set, one of the most centres of intellectual society in all Europe. He was the author of 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.
 Hayter, George, ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of the Great Historical Picture of the Interior of the British House of Commons in 1833, Painted by Sir G. Hayter’, (London: pl. VII. Cook & Co., 1843).
 Smith, E. A., Lord Grey: 1764-1845, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990), p. 278.