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Response to Review of Politics Personified: Portraiture, Caricature and Visual Culture in Britain, c.1830-80

Firstly, I would like to thank the reviewer for her detailed and close engagement with my book. One of the aims of the book was to speak to political historians, but also art historians, literary scholars and cultural historians, and the review will hopefully draw the attention of a diverse scholarly audience to this work. The book’s focus on the specifics of how political likenesses were produced, circulated, and used, and the political culture in which they were embedded, attempted to ground the analyses of images within the context of the time. As the reviewer notes, this was a response to the rather vague invocations of imagined readers or viewers in some works which, I think, are unsatisfactory.

It was a pleasure to read such a positive review, and in my response I have limited myself to addressing a few of the critical points raised in the review. In response to the reviewer’s question, the reputation and standing of artists and engravers was closely linked to the prestige of prints and series of engravings, particularly in the earlier part of the period covered by the book. Engravings after eminent painters, like Sir Thomas Lawrence, were trumpeted in advertisements and were a key component of marketing such prints in a competitive publishing environment. One of the themes of the book is that press and public could be exacting critics of political likenesses if they felt that they did not come up to the mark. The Reformers’ series (discussed in chapter two) attracted some criticism, as five of the 27 prints were after paintings by B.E. Duppa. These paintings seem to have been specially commissioned, but Duppa was regarded as an inferior artist compared to contemporaries like Hayter.

On reflection, some of the analysis regarding Disraeli’s attitude to his image seems contradictory, as the reviewer notes. My view is that there was a difference between Punch’s depictions of Disraeli in the late 1840s (for example, as a viper or hat-seller) and its more respectful treatment of him in the 1870s, when his reputation as a statesman was at its highest. There was also a difference in the 1870s between Punch’s depictions and cartoons in other periodicals (especially Liberal ones), which could be unpleasantly anti-Semitic. His attitudes towards cartoons, then, depended on which ones we are talking about. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Disraeli was rather sensitive about his image, perhaps not surprisingly given how frequently he was caricatured. Yet it would be interesting to know more about the reception of cartoons and other images among politicians such as Disraeli. The book provides some evidence, but examining personal papers, correspondence and diaries may shed more light on this area.

Regarding the use of images and their afterlives, this would be a promising area for further research. I have not come across portraits used to extra-illustrate political texts or speeches, but I was not systematically examining those sources. Portraits, did of course, function as frontispieces in many of the tombstone auto/biographies of the Victorian great and good. In this way they preserved a particular portrait, raised it to iconic status for posterity and gave these images a semi-official endorsement. The practices associated with collecting, arranging and preserving carte de visites, as the reviewer suggests, would again repay further study. Cartes seem relatively understudied given their vast popularity and that this was probably the way that most politicians (not to mention other categories of celebrity) were ‘consumed’ as images in the 1860s and 1870s.

I hope the book is not the last word on this subject, but stimulates debate, interest and further research in this field. The areas identified by the reviewer would all be worthy of further study, as would further research on the intersection between politics and material culture.