material culture

A portrait of Peter Murray McDouall

Portrait of Peter Murray McDouall in court. He has long dark hair and has his papers in front of him.
Peter Murray McDouall. Click for larger image.

The portrait of Peter Murray McDouall is one of thirty-four engravings given away by the Northern Star between 1837 and 1851. A steel engraving some 20 inches by 141/2, it shows Dr McDouall, the delegate from the Chartist stronghold of Ashton under Lyne to the First Chartist Convention at his subsequent trial for sedition in 1839. It was issued in 1840 after he had served a prison term.

Though the Northern Star made a regular practice of publishing such portraits, especially in the years before the second petition for the Charter was rejected in 1842, it is hard to describe them as a series since they took a number of different styles and sizes. The late Professor Malcolm Chase, who identified the thirty-four prints and listed them in his chapter ‘Building Identity, Building Circulation’ in Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press (edited by Joan Allen and Owen R Ashton, Merlin Press: 2005) described them as ‘powerful visual statements, in terms of technological accomplishment and aesthetic qualities’.

Twenty-seven of the engravings were of notable figures, beginning with one of two portraits of the Chartist leader (and proprietor of the Northern Star) Feargus O’Connor (a small one in December 1837; a larger one, similar to that of McDouall, in December 1840). All but five were of living individuals, and of these around half were of Chartists.

The portraits served both a political and a business purpose. For Malcolm Chase, they were an attempt to create ‘an anticipated near future, a pantheon of Chartist MPs to whom would be transferred the political authority presently enjoyed by the traditional elite’. But they also helped O’Connor to build and sustain the paper’s circulation, and particularly to reward those who stayed loyal to the paper through thin times.

The prints were produced using steel engraving, which could sustain larger print runs than the old-style method of copper engraving, which being a softer metal wore away with heavy use. But this took longer and could be more complex to do. The Nineteenth Century Serials Edition website, which reproduces thirteen of the prints, adds: ‘O’Connor announced each portrait with much fanfare through the columns of the Star, but then often had to revise both the description of the forthcoming image and the estimated date it would be ready as it encountered difficulties in production. Although these repeated amendments to the promised image frustrated readers, they also contributed to a sense of anticipation. As only about 2,000 images could be produced a week, it was necessary to distribute them by region, furthering the sense of occasion.’

Alongside the portraits, the Star gave away prints showing a meeting at Leeds Cloth Hall during the 1832 Reform Act crisis (January 1839); the First Chartist Convention (May 1839); the trial of the Newport Chartist leaders (July/August 1841); the 1842 petition (July/August 1842); the O’Connorville land settlement January 1847); and towards the end of its run, two images of the Great Exhibition (December 1850 and April 1851).