The pictures and printed materials in this room were all produced or displayed exactly 200 years ago, in 1819. It was a year characterised by disillusion and culminated in political violence. How did artists respond to the turbulent times?
Britain’s victory over France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 inspired national pride. But it was followed by years of economic struggle, social unrest and growing unease about a political system that involved only a tiny part of the population. Things came to a head in 1819. George III, king since 1760, was known to be close to death, and many people felt it was the end of an era.
On 16 August, a meeting at St Peter’s Field, Manchester calling for political reform was brutally broken up by soldiers. Fifteen people died. There was national outrage. The massacre was dubbed ‘Peterloo’ in ironic reference to Waterloo. This proved to be a turning point in British history. The government became more oppressive. Working-class radicals became embittered and more militant. The middle class claimed moral leadership, calling for limited reform while extending their influence in public life.
Although poems, songs and popular political prints responded to the turbulence of the time, most visual art was not expected to serve as social commentary. Much of the art of 1819 seems detached from this historical moment. However, there are hints of the uncertainty and sense of change which characterised the year. Artistic subjects and styles were mixed up in new ways. Painters tried to appeal to their growing middle-class public with novel elements of comedy and visual spectacle, and images that reflected new enthusiasms for history and travel.
Curated by Martin Myrone and Alice Insley