Jo Briggs, “1848 and 1851: A Reconsideration of the Historical Narrative”


The revolutionary year of 1848 has been seen as producing little effect on art in Britain. However, the turn to visual culture, which considers a broad spectrum of material including prints, illustrated periodicals, advertisements and other popular and ephemeral forms of visual production, allows this assumption to be rethought. By decentralizing the notion of an originary moment of formal innovation among a select group of avant-garde painters, as has been emphasized with regard to Paris, and turning to British visual culture, the effects of revolution become diffuse and plural. As a result, chronologies need to be rethought, and the revolutions of 1848 and the Great Exhibition of the Work of Industry of All Nations of 1851 reconnected.

On 15 April 1848, the following paragraphs appeared in Punch under the title “To the R.A.’s [Royal Academicians] in General and Artists in Particular.” They gave recommendations for the subject matter of paintings destined for the annual exhibition at the map iconRoyal Academy:

We beg, as a special favor, that there will be no pictures of the French Revolution in the next exhibition. We are already saturated with takings of the Tullieries [sic], and the avalanche of furniture from the windows of the map iconPalais Royal, and gentlemen with fancy whiskers and classic blouses doing duty as Garde Mobiles. . . Artists . . . should prohibit their brushes from mixing in scenes of fire, and smoke, and bloodshed. . . . There is Gil Blas, and the Vicar of Wakefield, and many other subjects which have not yet been sufficiently explored. All politics should be thrown into the shade, . . . that is to say, they should not be seen at the Royal Academy at all. (161)

Apparently light-hearted, it is worth weighing these words carefully as in several important ways they shed light on the historical and methodological problem of exploring 1848 in relation to British art. They were published five days after the Chartist rally on map iconKennington Common, which had intended to deliver a petition to Parliament calling for the recognition of the six points of the People’s Charter. The Charter demanded an extension of franchise to all men and electoral and Parliamentary reform, because Chartists believed that once the working man was properly represented government would be responsive to their plight. As the Chartist leader James Bonterre O’Brien put it, “Knaves will tell you that it is because you have no property, you are unrepresented. I tell you on the contrary, it is because you are unrepresented that you have no property. . . your poverty is the result not the cause of your being unrepresented” (qtd. in Jones 109).

In the aftermath of revolutions across Europe, in spring 1848 there was real fear among policy makers and real hope for some Chartists that the mass demonstration planned for 10 April would spark a revolution in Britain.[1] For safety, the Royal Family moved to the map iconIsle of White, the Bank of England and other key locations were fortified with sandbags, and troops were surreptitiously deployed in the capital. Although estimates vary, somewhere in the region of 25,000 people attended the Kennington Common meeting, while 85,000 were sworn in as special constables to assist the police with maintaining order and protecting property.[2] Ultimately, the government dealt easily with the would-be revolt: the police broke up the marchers by keeping them contained on the south side of the map iconThames, away from key landmarks and the center of government.[3] Order was preserved and three years later Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were perhaps the first British monarchs to walk freely among their subjects at the opening of the map iconGreat Exhibition of the Work of Industry of All Nations on May Day 1851.

The scholarship on British visual culture in the mid-nineteenth century has to date focused on the impact of the Great Exhibition far more than the impact of revolutions abroad or the threat of revolution at home in 1848.[4] A key reason for this is implied by the quotation from Punch. Although the author could hardly claim credit for it, no works at the Royal Academy depicted the momentous events of 1848. The lack of art dealing with the politics and events of this year has for a long time rendered British painting incompatible with the major trajectories of modern art and modernism as defined most notably by T.J. Clark in The Absolute Bourgeois (1973) and Image of the People (1973). In this model of art history, art “worth looking at” aligns itself and is deeply concerned with radical politics to the extent that this engagement becomes a prerequisite for formal innovation and avant-gardism (4).[5] The situation in Britain is therefore problematic: there is no revolution, so it follows no formal innovation in art; equally no formal innovation in art is a sign of retrograde politics.

British painting has been seen as more concerned with literary genre scenes and revivalism than radical politics, as the author in Punch attests when he directs artists to take subjects from Alain-René Lesage and Oliver Goldsmith. Yet, historians of British art have successfully countered the perception of conservatism in at least some work which falls under these categories, with groundbreaking research on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their circle, and more recently on Walter Crane and Edward Burne-Jones.[6] Work by these artists has been shown to be formally complex as well as politically engaged. This is a stimulating vein of enquiry that can be pursued further through somewhat different means with a turn to visual culture.

Despite the lack of paintings at the Royal Academy depicting recent revolutions, as Punch pointed out, the illustrated press in Britain had produced “more barricades on paper than we shall be able to get over during the remainder of our lives” (161). Images of revolutionaries and Chartists were ubiquitous (including, somewhat ironically, in Punch). Indeed, if visual culture produced in Britain is surveyed across the boundaries of “high” and “low” art, far from being ignored, revolution was a dominant theme in 1848. For example, from the outbreak of unrest in map iconFrance in February to the end of the year and beyond, the pages of the Illustrated London News were filled with images and text detailing revolution and counter-revolution across Europe and further afield. Based on the sketches of foreign “special” artists, who were often on the spot, the coverage was dramatic, even lurid, and in many cases designed deliberately to shock the viewer. Satires of revolutionaries, special constables, Chartists and exiled kings appeared on stage and in song, as well as in images. A broader definition of art through the turn to visual culture, encompassing prints, advertisements, and other popular and seemingly more ephemeral forms of visual production as a serious area of study, has therefore opened the way for a reexamination of 1848 and British culture.

Yet beyond the numerical abundance of images of revolt and revolution in Britain, all of potential interest to historians of visual culture, a focus on a different set of sources challenges scholars to break away from some of the methodological restrictions of current approaches to the artistic impact of revolutionary events. Replicating that approach, risks repeating arguments about formal innovation and political content. Rather than attempting to find some essence of the revolutionary, either in one work or the oeuvre of one particular artist or group of artists, an alternative way to approach British culture in 1848 is to reject this canonical focus, clearing the way for a consideration of the plurality of revolutionary effects located in and dispersed through popular and visual culture.

This approach also invites a reflection on the received chronologies of mid-Victorian Britain. The Great Exhibition has been read as propaganda aimed at the artisan and working classes, as argued by Francis D. Klingender and John Golby, for example. More generally, scholars have briefly touched on the exhibition’s role as a response to or a tool for overwriting the tensions of 1848.[7] The two events have been placed within a more complex framework by John Saville, Jeffery Auerbach, Kylie Message and Ewan Johnston.[8] However, a still richer understanding of this period can be envisaged. Although the fact that, almost exactly three years after the Kennington Common meeting, Queen Victoria walked among the crowds at the opening of the exhibition appears to be a remarkable reversal, it is a misrepresentation to single out these two events as representative or symptomatic of the mid-nineteenth century, or the changes occurring at this time. Clearly, the Great Exhibition cannot be explained as simply a reaction to the unrest which occurred both in London and across Europe in 1848, nor can it be argued that the revolutions of 1848 were forgotten by the spring of 1851 or negated by the widespread perception of the exhibition’s success. Many other issues lent continuity to this era: the woman question, slavery in the map iconUnited States, the repeal movement and increasing violence in map iconIreland, sanitary reforms, the regulation of work hours, Catholicism and religious tolerance, map iconIndia and the colonies, to name a few. But what, then, is the significance of the relative proximity in time of the moment that Britain came nearest a revolution in Queen Victoria’s reign and the moment when the country appeared to many to have taken its place as the world leader in industrial development and the global economy?

Rethinking chronology helps with this question. The chronologies of Chartism, revolution and the Great Exhibition are complex and overlapping. Auerbach traces the origins of the Great Exhibition back to the highly successful exhibition held by the Society of the Arts in 1847, which around 70,000 people visited. In January 1848, Henry Cole sent a prospectus to Prince Albert outlining the Society’s plans for a national exhibition. At this point, Cole also began to solicit government backing for the scheme. Then, at a meeting in map iconParis in the summer of 1849, Cole and Herbert Milton, with Matthew Digby Wyatt, decided to make the planned exhibition international in scope. Thus, the Great Exhibition has a history that stretches back through the revolutions of 1848. Equally, Chartism and the revolution of that year threw a long shadow, much longer than the twelve months of a single year. The Chartist movement did not end (or begin) in 1848, although it suffered a heavy set back with the perceived failure of the presentation of the petition and the subsequent arrest of many of the movement’s leaders in the months that followed. After 1848, the movement entered a new phase, focused on Feargus O’Connor’s Land Plan, and, from around 1851, converged with socialist ideas from the continent. Equally, revolutions in Europe continued to fill the columns of the periodical press over an extended period. For example, in December 1851 after the Great Exhibition had closed, Louis Napoleon dissolved the National Assembly and took the title of emperor, an act that brought the Second Republic to an end and began the period known as the Second Empire. Equally, it was in April 1849 that the title of emperor was given to King Frederick Wilhelm IV, an event which was followed by the disintegration of the German National Assembly. The historian W.L. Burn in The Age of Equipoise (1964) goes further, writing that “For two or three generations the English mind was vitally affected by the idea of revolution (whether as the ultimate hope or the ultimate terror), by the prevalence of the revolutionary mystique” (66).

Image of headless dummies

Figure 1: Albert Smith, _The Natural History of the Idler Upon Town_, 1848. Courtesy of Yale University.

Reading these expanded chronologies allows us to re-conceive the revolutions of 1848 and the Great Exhibition of 1851 as occurring concurrently rather than consecutively. Contemporaries experienced these events through the mediation of words and images in the press and popular culture where facets of each event were presented side-by-side. A better metaphor for the mid-nineteenth century can be found in Novelty Fair; or, Hints for 1851 (first performed in 1850). In this play, characters personifying 1848 and 1851, the “Red Republican” and “The Year 1851 (a little in advance),” occupy the stage simultaneously, and alongside other years (“Revolution, 1830” and “The Year One”), and a variety of historical figures (Oliver Cromwell and Julius Caesar), that join in a cacophony of voices, in dialogue, conflict or harmony with each other in turn. It is these encounters that we must attend to when weighing up this key moment in British history. In visual culture, this is manifested in the extent to which depictions of the revolutionary working-class male body and the noble artisan body differed or overlapped at this time; how satirical ballads pictured the Great Exhibition as an unruly fair, the traditional fantastic description of things for sale in these songs mirroring and subverting the taxonomies of objects on display in the exhibition; the extent to which consumerism itself could have revolutionary consequences, for example in the Gents’ and snobs’ performance of class enabled by cheap consumer goods, the tensions around which are registered in the depiction of tailors’ dummies as guillotined victims in a popular “Physiology” by Albert Smith (fig. 1). Through the investigation of such sources a more complex understanding of the mid-nineteenth century begins to be possible.

Jo Briggs is Assistant Curator of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. She completed her PhD in the History of Art at Yale University in 2008 and is currently working on a book project for Manchester University Press on revolutionary and exhibitionary visualities in mid nineteenth-century Britain.


published August 2012

Briggs, Jo. “1848 and 1851: A Reconsideration of the Historical Narrative.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Anon. “To the R.A.’s in General and Artists in Particular.” Punch 14 (15 April 1848): 161. Print.

Aldershot, Hants, and Burlington. Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Ed. Jeffrey A. Auerbach and Peter H. Hoffenberg. VT: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Auerbach, Jeffrey A. Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999. Print.

Barringer, Tim. Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. Print.

Burn, W. L. The Age of Equipoise: A Study of the Mid-Victorian Generation. London: Unwin University Books, 1968. Print.

Clark, T.J. Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. Print.

Clark, T.J. The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848-1851. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. Print.

Gurney, Peter. “‘A Palace for the People’? The Crystal Palace and Consumer Culture in Victorian England.” Victorian Prism: Refractions of the Crystal Palace. Ed. James Buzard, Joseph W. Childers and Eileen Gillooly. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2007. 138-150. Print.

Jones, Gareth Steadman. Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832-1982. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. Print.

Message, Kylie and Ewan Johnson. “The World within the City: The Great Exhibition, Race, Class and Social Reform.” Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Ed. Jeffrey A. Auerbach and Peter H. Hoffenberg. Burlington: Ashgate, 2008. 27-46. Print.

O’Neill, Morna. Walter Crane: The Arts and Crafts, Painting, and Politics, 1875-1890. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Publishing, 2000. Print.

Purbrick, Louise. “Introduction.” The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays. Ed. Louise Purbrick. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. Print.

Rager, Andrea Wolk. “‘Smite this Sleeping World Awake’: Edward Burne-Jones and The Legend of the Briar Rose.” Victorian Studies 51.3 (2009): 438-450. Print

Saville, John. 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.

Short, Audrey. “Workers under Glass in 1851.” Victorian Studies 10.2 (1966): 193-202. Print.

Taylor, Thomas and Albert Smith. Novelty Fair; Or, Hints for 1851. An Exceedingly Premature, and Thoroughly Apropos Revue. London: T.H. Lacy, 1850. Print.


[1] Two days after the Kennington Common demonstration, a journalist for the Times wrote, “It cannot be denied that the public mind, stunned and confounded by the events on the Continent, had become, as the ancients would have expressed it, meteoric, unsteady, open to strange impressions and diffident of its own most habitual beliefs” (qtd. in Saville 107).

[2] Saville writes that the “outstanding feature of 1848 was the mass response to the call for special constables to assist the professional forces of state security. This was the significance of 1848: the closing of ranks among all those with a property stake in the country, however small that stake was” (227).

[3] As Saville points out, the British government was well placed to suppress the Chartists having honed their skills on colonial subjects in Ireland (27-51).

[4] Louise Purbrick warns in relation to the literature on 1851 more broadly, “Histories which begin by using 1851 to summarize the mid-nineteenth century cannot help but continue to diminish the significance of 1848.” She elaborates, “Historical interest in the Exhibition has not. . . attempted to avoid a discussion of state power and class structure, but using 1851 rather than 1848 to address the issues of the mid-nineteenth century has reflected a significant shift in the disciplines of history about what count as a key historical event” (4-5).

[5] This is Clark’s off-the-cuff, but nevertheless significant comment from the preface of Image of the People about the art he writes about in The Absolute Bourgeois.

[6] See for example Prettejohn, Barringer, O’Neill, and Rager.

[7] See Short, Gurney, and Chapters 1 to 4 in The Great Exhibition of 1851, edited by Louise Pubrick.

[8] See Saville 202 and 205; Auerbach 128-158; and Kylie Message and Ewan Johnson.