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Simon Morgan, ‘Material Culture and the Politics of Personality in Early Victorian England’

2012 November 8
by lucinda matthews-jones

My article on ‘Material Culture and the Politics of Personality in Early Victorian England’ explores the role and meaning of things in the development of nascent personality cults around politicians, particularly those involved in extra-parliamentary campaigns such as the free trade and anti-slavery movements.  Such objects ranged from mass produced items like medals, ceramics or popular prints, to more intimate and personal artefacts such as locks of hair.  It is my contention that, by studying these artefacts, historians can gain greater insight into the process by which popular narratives were constructed about the role of individuals in political events and campaigns.  In particular, material objects tell us something about popular responses to politicians from those who are otherwise silent in the written historical record.

As a case study, the article examines the material productions relating to Richard Cobden, leader of the Anti-Corn Law League.  It identifies a convergence of interest between the organizers of the League, who saw the value of promoting Cobden as the emotional focus of the League campaign, and the manufacturers and artists who exploited Cobden’s image for commercial gain.  During the League campaign itself, Cobden was promoted as ‘first among equals’, reflecting his personal distaste for the limelight as well as the League’s relatively democratic outlook.  However, once the Corn Laws had been repealed the narrative shifted to focus on the unlikely partnership between Cobden, the extra-parliamentary agitator, and the Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in achieving the reform.  This divorced Cobden’s image to some extent from the dangerously democratic League campaign, associating it instead with an act of parliamentary statesmanship which gave him a broader, if more diffuse appeal.

The article forms part of a broader project looking at the connections between popular politics and a nascent early Victorian culture of celebrity.  Some theorists view celebrity culture as essentially a product of the last few decades.[1] However, I would argue that the concept offers useful insights into the conjuncture between increasingly democratic forms of political engagement and a growing culture of consumerism, exemplified by the emergence of genuinely popular politicians: a convergence identified by John Brewer in relation to the Wilkite demonstrations of the 1760s and 1770s.[2] Popular politicians, like preachers, actors, singers and other public figures with broad popular appeal, were nodal points in this emerging culture.  Their images appeared on a range of media, while their reputations acquired national and even international reach.  This latter facet of celebrity culture is particularly significant.  This not only meant that popular British politicians fêted abroad, as was Cobden during his European and American tours of 1846-7 and 1859 respectively.  International figures such as the anti-slavery campaigners Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison built loyal followings in the United Kingdom, promoted and maintained by the regular exchange of news and material gifts, while the visits of anti-slavery author Harriet Beecher Stowe and Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi elicited rapturous receptions from the élite and the public alike.  These events are often seen as footnotes in British cultural and political history.  However, such outpourings are also revealing of the way in which the British liked to imagine themselves as international champions of liberty.  As Harriet Martineau observed: ‘the character of the times is seen in the character of the idols of the day, however the nation may be divided in its choice of idols, and however many sects there may be in the man-worship of the generation’.[3]


[1] For example, Ellis Cashmore ‘Celebrity in the Twenty-First Century Imagination’, Cultural and Social History, 8, 3 (2011), pp. 405-13; Cashmore’s essay is a response to Simon Morgan, ‘Celebrity: Academic “Pseudo Event” or a Useful Concept for Historians?’, Cultural and Social History, 8, 1 (2011), pp. 95-114.

[2] Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: the Commercialization of Eighteenth Century England (London: Europa Publications, 1982), pp. 197-262.

[3] Harriet Martineau, How to Observe Morals and Manners (London, 1989 [1839]), pp. 128-9.

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