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  • 'Pictorial Lies'?—Posters and Politics in Britain c.1880-1914*
  • James Thompson

In 1906, Joseph Chamberlain rose in the House of Commons to reply to the King's Speech on behalf of the Opposition. Herapidly came to the question of 'Chinese slavery', and the use made of it by the Liberals at the recent general election. Chamberlain displayed a series of posters to the House, beginning with one issued by the National Liberal Federation, and argued that 'these men have their hands behind their backs' and that the picture was intended to represent a case of slavery. He proceeded to show a poster published by the National Press Agency featuring Chinamen in chains. His pictorial climax was provided by an image of a Chinaman: 'a ghostly looking figure … strung up by a rope with his toes just touching the ground'.1

Throughout the debate on the King's Speech, Conservatives returned to the cry of 'Chinese slavery' and, more particularly, to the posters in which it had been embodied. Burdett-Coutts argued that 'it was a Chinese majority', gained through resort to 'the disgraceful pictorial weapons that were now so well known'.2 Sir Gilbert Parker claimed that 'those pictures and posters practically won the election', while Lord Robert Cecil traced the process whereby more explicit unofficial cartoons had enabled official productions to imply slavery by allusion rather than direct representation.3

Liberals did not, of course, simply accept such claims. Augustine Birrell offered a lengthy defence of his party's record. Alfred Mond went on the attack, recalling a poster 'in which the Prime Minister was depicted as a columbine dressed in a beautiful [End Page 177] pair of tights and frills'. Mond informed the House that 'he did not believe anyone ever looked at a poster, and he believed they all wasted their money'.4 Conservatives were not persuaded, preferring to follow Houston's emphasis on the efficacy of visual appeals for swaying the masses.5 It was not argument that had garnered Liberal votes, Chamberlain told Churchill; 'what did gain the honourable Gentleman votes was the production of these posters and placards, and the parading of every street in his constituency by a gang of men dressed as Chinamen and accompanied by some agent got up as a slave-driver'.6

This altercation about Liberal posters was not the first time that pictorial propaganda had been castigated in the aftermath of a general election. In 1900, Balfour had taken umbrage at a Liberal poster reproducing a Carruthers Gould cartoon, which showed him ignoring the claims of starving Indians in favour of doles for landlords and the Church.7 In reply, Liberals cited such Conservative posters as that issued in New market, which pictured Rose, the Liberal candidate, 'pulling down the Union Jack and announcing he was a pro-Boer', when he was in fact visiting the last-surviving of his three sons at the front.8

The intense parliamentary debate about posters reflected the centrality of pictorial propaganda to political conflict in Edwardian Britain. Modern political historians have, however, devoted rather little attention to posters. In contrast, historians of earlier periods, and of countries other than Britain, have proved to be more interested in relating visual and political cultures. Over the last thirty years, historians of the French Revolution have compiled perhaps the most developed and multifaceted analysis of the relationship between the visual and the political currently available.9 Increasingly, historians of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain have sought to recover the visual politics of Britain before and after the Reform Act of 1832. The graphic satire of the late eighteenth century has given rise to an extensive [End Page 178] and growing literature.10 The work of Frank O'Gorman on the theatre of unreformed politics and that of James Vernon on the imagery of the post-reform period have shown the importance of the visual in charting the character and extent of participation in the polity. Indeed, Vernon draws upon his reconstruction of the visual politics of the mid-Victorian period to offer a challenging account of the 1860s and 1870s which emphasizes the 'taming' of popular politics in the era of the...


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pp. 177-210
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2007
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