Gladstone the prime minister

<em>William Ewart Gladstone</em>

William Ewart Gladstone, taken by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, July 23, 1861, albumen print 

William Ewart Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone, taken by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), 1890, platinum print 

At age seventy-four, William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) sat for his portrait by J. P. Mayall in either January or June 1884, according to Mayall’s account of the sessions, at Hawarden Castle, Wales, where he lived with his wife, Catherine Glynne (1812–1900).[1] A father to eight children as well as a busy grandfather, Gladstone was not the type of man to happily welcome retirement. At the time of Artists at Home, he was in the midst of serving the second of his four terms as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. After Gladstone began his second term in 1880, he decided to take on the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, or head of Her Majesty’s Treasury. Under his orders, the United Kingdom passed both the Irish Coercion Act and the Second Land Act, in efforts to suppress the violence exhibited by rebellious Irish workers. His ardent support for a self-governing Ireland continued, but the failure of a number of his Irish Acts, combined in 1885 with the British loss of the Battle of Khartoum in Egypt, led to Gladstone’s resignation from both Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1882 and Prime Minister in 1885. He was offered an earldom by Queen Victoria that same year, but he ultimately declined, exhibiting a powerful display of character as he valued integrity over unearned accolades. 

Considered a controversial politician, Gladstone was also known to artists as a difficult sitter due to his constantly changing facial expressions and refusal to sit for a portrait anywhere but Hawarden Castle. Because of the Victorian belief in phrenology, which held that the size of the head was a direct result of a larger brain capacity and increased intelligence, he was proud of his abnormally large head. Gladstone possessed other disproportionate features, such as his ears, which were placed unusually far back on his head, and his cynical-looking eyes. He sat for over forty-five portraits, making him one of the most photographed celebrities of the Victorian era, with over 366 commercial photographs registered under the Copyright Act between 1862 and 1901.[2] Gladstone insisted that the photographs be inexpensive to make them more accessible to all social classes, a key theme also throughout his political campaigns.

Vanessa Pike


[1] J. P. Mayall, “The Whole-Hearted Homage of a Hero Worshipper,” The Grand Old Man, The Pall Mall Gazette “Extra,” No. 44 (November 5, 1888): 26.

[2] Roland E. Quinault, Roger Swift, and Ruth Clayton Windscheffel, William Gladstone: New Studies and Perspectives (Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2012), p. 74. 




Gladstone the prime minister