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All Saint’s Church, Northampton, serves as the backdrop to the unopposed re-election of Lord Althorp as county Member of Parliament for Northamptonshire in December 1830. John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp (1782-1845) was the son of Earl Spencer, and later succeeded to his father’s title. He had been a Whig MP since 1806, with increasingly progressive sympathies; his appointment to Lord Grey’s new government necessitated standing again for his House of Commons seat. Althorp became closely involved with the Great Reform Act, passed in 1832 to resolve some major inequities in the British parliamentary system, and with the 1833 abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
Turner’s depiction of the triumphal procession was probably based on contemporary newspaper reports, but rather than being shown in a carriage, Althorp is here carried on a chair – perhaps as an echo of Chairing the Members, one of William Hogarth’s 1754-5 Election paintings owned by Turner’s friend John Soane (Sir John Soane’s Museum, London). Turner’s political allegiances are not clear-cut, but works such as The Northampton Election, and his friendship with his late Yorkshire patron Walter Fawkes, himself a radical Whig MP, suggest sympathy for Althorp. Turner may have intended the woman in French costume at the far left as a reminder of the violent July Revolution in Paris a few months earlier; the wording of the banners carried by the crowd is both less ambiguous and more optimistic for Britain’s future.
Turner had drawn the church on two occasions. In 1794 he recorded its partially-obscured west front in the Matlock sketchbook (Tate D00218; Turner Bequest XIX 12); an engraving of the composition was published in 1796 (Tate T05917). He happened to have passed through the town again while revisiting the Midlands in the late summer of 1830, drawing the church in the Birmingham and Coventry sketchbook (Tate D22352, D22353; Turner Bequest CCXL 17a-18). This time he included more of the west front, but barely indicated the statue of Charles II which still stands above the portico, and omitted it altogether from the watercolour; various other inaccuracies reflect the sketchiness of his source material.
Turner devoted much work from the mid 1820s to the late 1830s to producing watercolour designs for his important print project Picturesque Views in England and Wales, commissioned by Charles Heath, who owned the Northampton watercolour at the time of an exhibition relating to the series in 1833. However, it was never engraved, probably because its subject was so explicitly political compared to the subtler way Turner introduced allusions to contemporary and historical events in other England and Wales compositions. The same reservations may have prevented The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, made soon after Turner witnessed the fire in 1834, being included (Tate D36235; Turner Bequest CCCLXIV a 373), although a view of Nottingham engraved for the series appears to include hopeful symbolism relating to the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.
One watercolour actually engraved for England and Wales is in the Tate Collection (N05236); it shows Aldeburgh and was published as Aldborough, Suffolk in 1827. Merton College, Oxford of about 1835-8, was probably intended as a late addition to the series, but remained in Turner’s studio (Tate D25472; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 349).
Eric Shanes, Turner’s England 1810-38, London 1990, pp.222-3 no.190, reproduced p.222
Eric Shanes, Turner’s Human Landscape, London 1990, pp., 375 note 39, pl.220
James Hamilton, Turner’s Britain, exhibition catalogue, Gas Hall, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery 2003, pp.161-2, pl.135