The Glorious Reform in Parliament is a political engraving about the 1831 Reform Bill, composed by artist and illustrator Robert Cruikshank. It conveys a strong anti-Tory and pro-Whig message. Famously, the Tory party sought to block the Bill, which led to the chaotic dissolution of parliament and the calling of a general election.
During 1831 and 1832 political tension was high as the demand for political reform grew ever stronger. Within the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings collection, Dorothy George has catalogued over 700 political prints published in these two years alone.
Originally, this engraving was published as a single sheet. It went on sale in late April or early May 1831, having been composed, drawn and published in less than a month after the first Bill was overturned. It was later adapted and re-published in other forms. The copy shown here, published in 1832, is inserted as a fold-out frontispiece plate to a pamphlet of satirical political poetry by radical author and publisher William Hone, entitled Constitutional parodies, of nursery tales, adapted for grown up gentle folks.
What does the image show?
Simply put, Cruikshank’s design is complicated. There are four separate images at play.
In the top-left corner, ‘Vox Populi’ depicts the dissolution of parliament, where King William IV orders the MPs away from him. Cruikshank portrays a range of reactions. Lord Brougham, a Whig peer and advocate of Reform, remains standing, knowing that he has not offended the King; others, probably meant to be Tory peers, run away in shock or cowering fear. One figure bears the head of an ass, which was intended as an insult in the same way as we use the term today.
In the top-right corner, ‘Speed the Plough’ looks to the future: ‘The Country as it will be’. This is an image of England as tranquil, prosperous, industrious, and strong – all because of Reform. As the sun beams across smoking cottage chimneys and grand sailing ships, traditional rural agriculture is flourishing, the windmill and ploughman happily at work. Their presence also implies that hunger is unknown in this land, a promise made by the Whigs. Horns of plenty, or cornucopias, a symbol of inexhaustible abundance, frame the image.
Dividing the whole print is a tall pillar that lists some of the 60 rotten boroughs and also figuratively stands for ‘King and Constitution’, inscribed at its base. Topping the pillar is a celebratory figure representing Lord John Russell, a Whig politician and passionate champion of Reform. He holds the Reform Bill in his left hand.
This pillar plays an important role in dividing and contrasting the anti-Reformers on the left from the Reformers on the right. Wielding axes and menacing banners that declare ‘war’, the anti-Reformers, mainly Tories, are violent and lawless. The two prominent figures in the foreground are the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel. To reinforce the print’s message yet further, a devil sits in the background to the right, urging Peel and the others on as they attempt to destroy the emblematic pillar. Radical orator Henry Hunt, at this time an independent MP, also stands in the background. He can be identified by a top-hat and bludgeon. This grouping may seem odd, but Hunt was associated with the Tories because he was also the Whigs’ opposition and therefore an impediment to their aims – although Hunt criticised the Bill on the grounds that it did not do enough, whereas the Tories opposed any form of enfranchisement.
In stark contrast to this group stand the Whig politicians, dignified, calm and sober. A scroll, listing the names of ‘good fellows’ – leading reformers – is held up by Lord Grey, on the left, and Lord Brougham, on the right. Text is used to repeatedly associate the Reformers with the King, the law and the interests of the public. This distances the Whigs from radical reformers such as Hunt, who were often portrayed in the press as threatening, criminal and lacking English morals and values. Instead, this print tells us, the Reformers are loyal and honest patriots to the King and country, wholly deserving of the public’s support. At the top of the scroll, for instance, is a Latin inscription of 'for the King, law, people'.