Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Burns and Aged Hypotheses

September 6, 2010 · 1 Comment

John Elliot Burns, whose portrait was painted by John Collier, was a labor leader in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was also the first member of the working class to be elected to a cabinet.

photo courtesy of NPG website

In the piece, Burns has his hands on his hips and a somewhat contemplative yet subtly stern expression. To me, the hands-on-hips symbolizes his discontentment with the conditions for the working class of London, those whom he led as a labor leader. This is a classic position of humans to show malaise. The angle of his head and raised eyebrows seem to suggest a bit of a “what of it” attitude. To some degree, these features balance his bodily position. If he were to have a furrowed brow and straightened head, he may appear too antagonistic to those he was trying to persuade (members of parliament, etc.). The profound facial features reinforce his strength of character, with defined cheek bones and dark eyes, beard, hair, and eyebrows. His beard also makes him look older and more experienced in life.

Lastly, the relatively simple suit, shirt, and tie combination shows that he is not a man of superfluous extravagance. This simple attire reflects the plain dark brown background. As opposed to many of the other portraits in the galleries, where many posed in front of extravagant rooms, by the lake, or the countryside. Burns was not one for such extravagance, or at least he was not portrayed in this portrait as such. This again helps reinforce the idea that he was a man working for increased rights for laborers, a man of the people.

Overall, I think this is a great portrait that casts Burns as a strong man working for workers’ and laborers’ rights.

As to who was and was not in the gallery, as everyone else has concluded: it is primarily rich white people. To me, this makes quite a bit of sense. For the vast majority of British history, older affluent white people have been in power, subjugating the rest of everyone else. I find it highly unlikely that any of these aforementioned people thought “wow, I should really get a portrait painted of my lowly dockworkers, that would be a great piece for that national portrait gallery one day.” In no way do I endorse the absence of a wider variety of people. Though getting later into British history, i.e. after the mid 19th century when there has been less rampant subjugation, yes, there should have been more portraits included of other races/economic classes.

However I’m not quite sure who to blame for this. I believe (I may be wrong) that the vast majority of the portraits were done privately and then donated to the museum. These portraits are probably quite expensive to have painted, and thus most could not afford them for quite some time. Perhaps certain groups of people simply choose not to have their portraits done, even if it has become lately feasible for them. I feel like portraiture has certainly become less popular over the past century, which may explain the absence of the groups of people who have lately gained rights/power/money/etc. recently. Though I find it unlikely, another possible explanation is that perhaps the curators have many portraits featuring minorities and simply choose not to display them. I certainly hope that is not the case.

Categories: 2010 ChristopherB
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1 response so far ↓

  •   mattg // Sep 6th 2010 at 17:41

    If you read my blog about the portrait gallery you can see that I too was on a quest to find a lower class of person rather then a person of a different race. This is a very well informed blog and gives a good example of the very few who are able to take advantage of England’s limited social mobility.

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