The National Portrait Gallery is home to pretty much the world’s finest collection of Victorian gents. I was there recently on a research trip and I had forgotten quite how well the exhibition space is used to delineate the different ‘styles’ (to use James Eli Adams’s term) of nineteenth-century masculinity. For the first few posts, I’ll be doing some selected highlights from the NPG.
Room 23: Kitchener
Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum.
“Erm, Mr Kitchener?”
“What is it, man? Can’t you see I’m busy? Do you have any idea how much concentration it takes to look THIS DAMN MANLY?”
My god, have you ever beheld a more glorious specimen of imperial masculinity – or a more glorious moustache? This portrait shows Kitchener in the khakis of a Colonel of the Royal Engineers outside of Cairo in 1890. By the time this portrait was painted Kitchener had already served as a volunteer in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), done survey work in Cyprus and Palestine, and distinguished himself in the campaign to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum, but his career-defining victories at the Battle of Omdurman, Sudan (1898) and in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) were still ahead of him. You’d hardly know it to look at this portrait. This is a man who KNEW he was going to terrify an entire nation into signing up to serve their country in 1914, dammit. It is also the only portrait in the room which lists two separate artists – Frederick Goodall (1822-1904) and Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914). You can imagine the scene: poor Fred expiring, paintbrush in hand, in the fifty-degree heat, being carried off by aides and Sir Hubert stepping into the breach, while Kitchener stares on undeterred, power by pure MENERGY.
He is the centrepiece of the ‘Expansion and Empire’ room, which also features a wonderful portrait of Sir James Brook (1803-1868) looking every inch a swashbuckler, and a naval counterpart to Kitchener’s more military masculinity; a beautifully regal portrait of Mary Seacole (1805-1881); and the more-than-a-little-bit-uncomfortable painting ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’ (Queen Victorian presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor’ (1863). There really is only one way around the postcolonial discomfort of this last painting, which is to focus on the lady-in-waiting on the far left side, who is clearly admiring Albert’s bum.