Spirit of an age

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Regency England witnessed an outburst of creativity. Stephen Allen looks at the changes that inspired artists, scientists and reformers

The period from the French Revolution in 1789 to the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832 was one of political and social upheaval, of scandal and notoriety, and of enormous cultural creativity. "This is, emphatically, the Age of Personality!" Coleridge wrote. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the National Portrait Gallery's refurbished Regency galleries. The new displays show the leading figures in the shaping of modern Britain, including major events such as the Napoleonic Wars, the abolition of the slave trade, and parliamentary reform, as well as the great writers, artists, industrialists and scientists of the day.

Historically, the Regency itself lasted less than a decade, from 1811 when George III was declared officially "mad" and the Prince of Wales became Regent, until he was crowned George IV in 1820. The first gallery focuses on this period. In Sir Thomas Lawrence, the Prince Regent found an artist willing to create an image, style and sense of celebrity around the Prince and his court. Lawrence's flattery - depicting a handsome roue when the Prince was 53 years old, weighed 300 lbs and was in bad health from years of many vices - is in sharp contrast to the contemporary vicious caricatures by James Gillray of a monarchy described by the poet Byron as "these dregs of humanity".

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted the actress Marie Anne Fitzherbert, known as Perdita, who was George IV's secret wife; this portrait, and the painting of the divorce "trial" of the King's official wife Queen Caroline, provide echoes of much more recent royal scandals. Nearby portraits of Lord Nelson and his mistress Emma Hamilton glitter with high society glamour and scandal.

Two galleries examine art, invention and thought. Prominent are the Romantic poets, including Coleridge, the Shelleys and the youthful Keats, painted by his friend Joseph Severn. Dominating the scene, as they did in life, are Wordsworth, shown deep in thought on Helvellyn by Benjamin Robert Haydon in 1842, and an iconic Lord Byron. Byron cultivated his image and achieved a celebrity in his lifetime maybe surpassing that of David Beckham today: he was painted in an exotic Albanian costume by Thomas Phillips. In contrast, a more intimate pencil-and-watercolour portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra recalls a writer who said she worked on "a few little square inches of ivory". Such great literary figures share space with the scientists, inventors and industrialists who shaped 19th-century British capitalism. The interrelation between the worlds of the arts and sciences is exemplified by a portrait of Sir Humphry Davy, President of the Royal Society, inventor of the miners' safety lamp and close friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

The main gallery considers the road to social and political reform. On opposing sides, reactionaries - opponents of parliamentary reform at home and self-determination abroad - are arrayed against radicals and liberals.

This contrast culminates in Sir George Hayter's epic depiction of the Reformed House of Commons in 1833, the starting point for our modern parliamentary democracy. Contrasting the heroic poses struck by great statesmen such as Canning, Castlereagh and Wellington, are portraits of social reformers. Such people as Hannah More, the educational reformer, embodied the influence of Christian evangelism, social concern and moral conservatism.

Much prominence is given to the campaign to abolish slavery. Two key portraits celebrate this momentous movement. "The Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840", by Benjamin Robert Haydon (pictured) shows the elderly campaigner Thomas Clarkson addressing a 500-strong meeting in London called to promote worldwide abolition (Britain ended its slave trade in 1807).

Identifiable figures include the Irish Radical Daniel O'Connell (top left, furthest left in back row), the novelist Amelia Opie (in bonnet behind speaker) and the liberated slave Henry Beckford (foreground). Haydon wrote of "the African sitting by the intellectual European in equality and intelligence", sentiments that seem patronising perhaps in the 21st century, but radical for his time. Haydon's composition was political as well as artistic - those complaining about the prominence of Beckford were moved to the background.

The unfinished portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1828, hints at the energy and vitality of the man whom the House of Commons stood to cheer when his Abolition of Slavery Bill was passed in 1807 - a rare parliamentary reaction, echoes of which were seen in Robin Cook's recent resignation speech over the war in Iraq. An evangelical Christian, Wilberforce dedicated his life to "the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners" and was a leading figure in causes opposing such evils as duelling, animal cruelty and the use of children as window sweeps. His stiff pose may suggest moral certainty, but it can be explained by the fact that he was forced to wear a steel and leather support girdle as he entered old age.

The Regency can be a rich cross-curricular resource. Portraits of explorers, scientists and inventors are useful reference points for KS3 groups looking at the British Empire and Industrial Revolution, while AS and A-level students can explore 19th-century politics and parliamentary reform. Art at all key stages can focus on portraiture, the use of pose, costume and fashion. English teachers and students will find that the images and biographies of Romantic poets and writers add new dimensions to the study of their works. Social and political reform in the making of a modern democracy are central themes in the new citizenship curriculum, while the abolition of slavery is an essential part of Britain's multicultural history.

The development of the new galleries was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and several private donors. As well as text panels, the touch-screen Woodward portrait Explorer enables visitors to search a database of all Regency portraits and associated material, including more than 800 Gillray illustrations. There are interactive features on the large group portraits.

Audio, large print and Braille guides, as well as raised outline versions of several portraits, provide useful special needs resources.

Stephen Allen is head of education at the National Portrait Gallery

Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846)

A history painter and diarist, Haydon was intensely ambitious and opinionated. He was an ardent campaigner for public patronage of the arts and for the purchase of the Elgin Marbles in 1816. He studied under Fuseli and was a friend of Wordsworth, Keats and Lamb. Convinced of his own towering genius, his career - apart from one or two successes - was a failure. Unwilling to compromise his ideals, he was endlessley in debt and was driven to suicide in 1846.

Lesson ideas Key stage 1: history and art

Compare the clothes and costumes worn by people in the portraits for different occasions with those worn for similar occasions today. Copy and act out some of the poses in the portraits. How do they make you feel?

KS2: history and citizenship

Look at 'The Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840'. Find out more about the history of black people in Britain in the 19th century.

KS3: citizenship

Study the poses and faces of the people in 'The Anti-Slavery Society Convention'. Write a speech about something you passionately believe in.

Photograph or draw the scene of the debate.

KS4: English

Look at the portraits of the Romantic writers and poets and read some of their works. Discuss how you think the artists have tried to show literary qualities of their subjects.

Resources The National Portrait Gallery Shop has a range of useful resources, including books, postcards and a CD-Rom, Woodward Portrait Explorer, enabling you to view the Gallery's collections.

The Regency can be seen in the Weldon Galleries at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Open daily, admission free. For further information and to make a group booking contact: Education Department, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2H 0HE. Tel: 020 7312 2483; Email: education@npg.org.uk

You can search the online database of more than 44,000 portraits at www.npg.org.uk

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