Artwork of the month: On 23 March 1832 the House of Commons passed the Great Reform Act
The death of George IV in 1830 triggered a dissolution of Parliament and a general election. Although the electorate in 1830 was chiefly made up of comparatively wealthy men, reform of the political system became a crucial issue in the campaign. The Tory government that had been in power since 1828 with the Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister stayed in office, but his disastrous handling of the reform question when it was first raised in the Commons led to his administration’s swift collapse.
A new government was formed under the Whig reformer, Charles Grey. Their 1831 attempt to pass a reform Act through the Commons failed, and a second election was called. The Whigs were returned with a large majority, leaving them secure in government. However, their second attempt at a reform Act failed to pass the House of Lords.
Grey's government introduced a third reform Bill, which passed the House of Commons with an even larger majority than before, in March 1832. Although the House of Lords was initially resistant, widespread unrest, and the threat of a Whig majority being installed in the Lords, convinced them to pass the Bill. The Great Reform Act nearly doubled the size of the electorate, eliminated the ‘rotten’ boroughs, and gave Members of Parliament to the industrial cities of Birmingham and Manchester for the first time
March’s Artwork of the Month shows the first meeting of the reformed House of Commons. Sir George Hayter (1792-1871) painted this sketch along with hundreds of portraits of MPs and Peers in preparation for a far larger canvas that commemorates this historic event. Produced without commission, it took Hayter a decade to complete the final painting and a further 15 years to sell. Paradoxically, it was the Tories who finally purchased it in 1858 for the recently formed National Portrait Gallery.
Today, the passing of the Great Reform Act is considered one of the central events in the development of our democracy. As part of a year-long series of events commemorating Parliament in the Making, it is one of 18 subjects interpreted by contemporary artists for a large-scale banner exhibition currently on display in Westminster Hall.
Image: Sir George Hayter, ‘The First Reformed House of Commons’ (detail), oil on canvas, 1833 (WOA 363)