The First Special Exhibition of National Portraits of 1866 – Richard Lane’s Last Public Appearance?

One key artifact gives a clear account that a portrait of Sir Richard Lane once existed – a copy of a “catalogue” of the portraits available to visitors of the 1866 Special Exhibition of National Portraits in London.  Interestingly, I have recently come across evidence indicating this “catalogue” wasn’t originally planned to be provided by the organizers of the event!  If it hadn’t been, I suspect his portrait (and with it any chance of knowing what the man looked like) would have been truly lost to the larger world…

The First Special Exhibition of National Portraits of 1866 was intended to provide a rare opportunity for the citizens of England to meet their forebears – bringing together a constellation of portraits otherwise scattered across the land in private ownership.  What would it be like to see them all laid out together? To see the work of different artists side by side?  To see famous individuals at different times in their lives?  To see them in the context of their contemporaries?  And perhaps to see a portrait of someone you know about, but have never seen before? For posterity, this exhibition happily occurred at a time when photography  was evolved enough to provide a black and white visual record of these portraits. And I have found some of these photographs….

The story of the First Special Exhibition of National Portraits of 1866 begins 15 years earlier with the wildly successful Great Exposition of 1851 in London.  This exposition is regarded as the first “World’s Fair”, and it generated a significant profit.  This profit was largely put in trust, eventually funding projects including the International Exposition of 1862, and the Gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society (both in South Kensington).  Both of these projects would literally lay the groundwork for the  National Portrait Exhibition a few years later.

The Gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in South Kensington was a pet project of Prince Albert, who was husband and Prince Consort to Queen Victoria. Heavily involved in the Great Exposition of 1851, Prince Albert was an important driving force behind the creation of these spectacular gardens.

I found a handbook describing the gardens in great detail, but it required some digging to find more visual records of what these gardens were actually like.  They were described as some 20 acres of “an elaborate, heavily architectured Italian garden, which fell away in terraces to a southern boundary…”  With some research, I worked out that the gardens were intended to form a vast inner courtyard within a halo of surrounding taller buildings, all taking advantage of the view onto the carefully tended expanse within. The grounds of the gardens themselves were surrounded by a perimeter of “arcades”. Through investigation, I have come to understand these arcades were a continuous brick and terra cotta structure of 27 foot wide and 20 foot tall galleries, with sun terraces on top. The covered space within these arcades was open to the gardens at ground level through large archways all along their nearly 3/4 mile total circumference.

The Gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) were as spectacular as they were short lived.  As a bellwether of events to come, the opening of this expansive venue in June 1861 would be the last public appearance of the handsome Prince Consort.

Prince Albert become ill and died at the end of that same year at the age of only 42.  His death was a stunning blow to Queen Victoria. The Queen went into a deep mourning from which she never emerged, though she lived another 40 years. Widespread and enduring public sympathy for the Prince Consort and the dignified grief of his stricken widow elevated the royal couple from a previous lukewarm popularity to glowing level of endearment in the hearts of the English people that lasts to this day.

Stripped of Prince Albert’s leadership mid stride, both the International Exposition of 1862 and the Gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society nonetheless seem to have proceeded on their courses, achieving moderate successes on momentum.  But both were diminished without their champion, and they seemed fated to surrender their ground to the visionaries that came after.


The immense and controversial 1862 Exhibition Building with its two giant glass domes was widely regarded as “hideous”.  Following the moderately successful exposition, this building lingered for only a few years before it was disassembled (with apparent public relief) in 1865.  The only portion that persisted was the former “refreshment areas” which formed the northern face of the building adjacent to the Gardens of the RHS.  The Gardens of the RHS themselves would survive only another 17 years, closing in 1882.

It was an interesting exercise piecing together where these grounds were actually located, as the only surviving influence of the original grounds are the arched streets that lay across the top of the RHS gardens where the old conservatory was located.  I originally made several incorrect suppositions about the relative scale and placement of the RHS grounds, before I realized one of the street names had changed.  But, as I studied various artifacts and read descriptions I was ultimately able to piece it all together.

One aspect that I’d struggled with was the question of which parts of the exhibition building survived to house the picture galleries of the portrait exhibition. The 1862 Exhibition Building specifically included large picture galleries on its East, South and West sides, and I had read that those picture galleries were designed to remain after the center of the building was converted to other use.  But finally, upon re-reading the introduction of the 1866 National Portrait Exhibition booklet, I found the following paragraph making it clear these picture galleries had been removed with the bulk of the building, leaving only the rooms of its back wall behind.  The key was the reference to “refreshment rooms” which I understood from my study of the Exhibition Building floor plans were those adjacent to the RHS Gardens.  Question answered!

An excerpt from the Catalogue of the First Special Exhibition of National Portraits of 1866 indicating where the portraits were actually hung.

There were a total of 1030 portraits in the First Special Exhibitoin of National Portraits in 1866.  They were arranged in chronological order of their subjects at the time each image was captured.  The first (and oldest, c 1150) portrait was of Rosalund Clifford, the favorite mistress of Henry II.  Interestingly, portrait #2 was of Sir William Wallace (c 1300), the tragic hero of the 1995 movie, “Braveheart”.  The last portrait (#1030) was of Lord George Saville, circa 1680.  The portraits’ chronological sequence began on the main (upper) floor at its easternmost end, proceeding across to the other side. The arrangement then continued in the two lower galleries, starting from the eastern end of the lower east gallery and making their way across to their completion at the westernmost end of the lower western gallery (as shown in the figure below).  By this arrangement, it can be deduced that Richard Lane’s portrait would have hung approximately mid-way through the eastern of the two lower galleries.

Analysis indicating the layout of the 1866 portrait exhibition.
SouthEast corner of RHS Gardens-1862
A view from the Gardens facing to the southeast, showing the eastern half  of the “refreshment” galleries in 1862

Note: subsequent analysis of photographs of the exhibition in a single known album show that the portraits on the lower level proceeded chronologically in the opposite direction. This would have allowed visitors to simply walk downstairs to pick up where the upstairs galleries ended.  So, Lord Keeper Richard Lane’s portrait would have hung on the eastern side of the lower galleries.

Humorously, an April 28 article reviewing the portrait exposition in The Spectator was scathing (see the article), describing the exhibit with excruciatingly pithy regard:

“Up to far too great a height, in endless wooden lobbies of endless wooden galleries, stretch a multitude of portraits, arranged apparently without any principle beyond an exceedingly vague chronological idea.   …   The collection is worth a visit, or many visits, but it is far too large, it needs weeding and arrangement, and wants a catalogue with a history of each picture, as well as of the subject of each. If Mr. Cole would employ competent persons to select some 300 portraits, all of them authentic, obtain permission to photograph them, and sell the collections in unbroken set, he would confer a real and great benefit upon students of history, and probably obtain as large a revenue as visitors will yield, revenue which he may devote if he likes to putting up some more ugly sheds as homes for art upon the most sterile, treeless, dusty, and inherently vulgar site in Western London. “

In this quote I found the clue I mentioned earlier.  This article was a review after the exhibit was opened, critically recommending that a catalogue should be provided, and describes what it should contain.  This clearly suggests that such a catalogue did not exist at the time the exhibition opened.  It appears that the exhibit’s management took the suggestion to heart – thereby in afterthought producing the historical artifact (the catalogue) that has become one of the most enduring legacies of the exposition itself!

Although I have so far been unable to find any photographs that include the portrait of Sir Richard Lane, I was able to find one that claims to be of the portrait that hung next to it.   Below is an 1866 photograph asserted to be that of portrait #723 (Thomas Howard).

Excerpt from a book containing photographs of a selection of portraits from the 1866 portrait exhibition, reportedly showing portrait #723.

Of course, regarding this portrait, more investigation is clearly warranted, as the photograph and its descriptive tag (above) do NOT match the description of the portrait in the exhibit catalogue entry (below). The man pictured is neither in armor nor leaning upon a baton! It would also be interesting to translate the latin text in the bottom half of the painting…  Perhaps the photograph and the note it was reproduced with inadvertently became mixed up with others during the assembly of that book for printing?  Unfortunately, I have not so far been able to find my reference to the book this photograph came from…

Excerpt from the Catalogue of the 1866 First Special Exhibition of National Portraits showing the entries for portraits #723 (Thomas Howard) and #724 (Richard Lane).

There may be a way to settle this discrepancy: I have identified the existence of a book I cannot access online – it is apparently a set of photographs of the various groups of portraits from the portrait exhibition titled the “Galleries and Bays of the National Portrait Exhibition, 1866, shown in seventy-seven photographs” (see the reference). The only copy of this book I can find record of is in the custody of the Royal Collection Trust in London.  Given its unambiguous title, this book may well contain one or more photographs of Richard Lane’s portrait as it hung in the 1866 exhibition!

Such a photograph would help answer many questions, and could also be used to confirm whether the watercolor in the Ashmolean collection at Oxford (see the preceeding article) is of the 1645 Mytens portrait, or perhaps of some other, previously unknown portrait of Sir Richard Lane…  And yes – of course I have already sent an inquiry to the Royal Collection Trust hoping they would be willing to help out!

Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed.  I admire great writing, but have to approach this task as one of grinding a workable author’s edge onto a rough blade – with my thanks for your generosity of spirit and firm critique in the meantime! 

-Greg Sherwood


3 thoughts on “The First Special Exhibition of National Portraits of 1866 – Richard Lane’s Last Public Appearance?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: