I have long been interested in the career of Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), radical MP for Northampton, atheist, republican, secularist, pioneer birth controller and and first President of the National Secular Society which he founded in 1866. He was also known as “The Member for India” and was a champion of Irish and Indian independence. Arguably, he was the most important radical politician of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Bradlaugh had the power of personality and oratorical skills to mobilise a huge working class following. Harry Snell, later a Labour MP, described him thus:
“I have never been so influenced by a human personality as I was by Charles Bradlaugh. The commanding strength, the massive head, the imposing stature, and the ringing eloquence of the man fascinated me…”
Bradlaugh is best remembered for two great struggles. The first concerned a birth control pamphlet “Fruits of Philosophy” by an American, Charles Knowlton. In 1877 the authorities threatened to prosecute the publisher who withdrew it from publication. Bradlaugh, together with his colleague Annie Besant, republished inviting prosecution which duly followed. They believed that one of the most important reasons for poverty and other evils was over-large families. Bradlaugh and Besant defended themselves in court and eventually won their case on appeal. The publicity arising ensured a huge increase in sales thus enhancing and spreading knowledge of birth control technique. A steady and marked decline in the birth rate followed and a landmark case in the story of press freedom had been won.
Second is Bradlaugh’s six year struggle (1880-1886) to take his seat as an MP for Northampton, when he was denied the religious oath on grounds of his atheism. During this period he was forbidden to take his seat on several occasions triggering four by-elections, all of which he won. On one occasion he was removed by force from the Commons Chamber and on another he was arrested and imprisoned within the Palace of Westminster. In 1886, amidst growing public outrage, a new Speaker reversed his predecessor’s ruling and Bradlaugh took his seat. Two years later he secured passage of a new Oaths Act, which enshrined into law the right to affirm for members of both Houses of Parliament. A vital democratic advance had been secured.
Walter Sickert (1860-1942) is difficult to categorise. Some describe him as an impressionist, some a realist and others a tonalist. He draws from all these traditions. As a young, aspiring artist he began by painting landscapes and scenes from the music halls but by the late 1880s he wanted to expand into portraiture. Bradlaugh gave him the opportunity. By the time of his death Sickert had already completed two Bradlaugh portraits. Soon afterwards he was commissioned to paint a huge portrait by the Manchester Branch of the National Secular Society depicting him speaking from the Bar of the House of Commons, appealing for the right to take his seat. This now hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery. The portrait was a substantial challenge and was controversially painted from a photograph, but it helped establish him as an artist of note.
The present canvas was also painted soon after Bradlaugh’s death in a style that was to become characteristic. It measures 65 x 76 cm. and is a depiction of Bradlaugh’s empty study at his home above a music shop in St. John’s Wood. . Spontaneously sketched, Sickert has noted the tools of Bradlaugh’s trade; the books, papers and writing desk as the light from the window highlights the empty chair from which where he acted as an unpaid “poor person’s lawyer”. The perspective is from the seat where Hypatia, his surviving daughter and first major biographer, sat when she acted as his secretary. The painting was dedicated and gifted to her.
I could not resist it when it came up in auction. I enjoy the way the mood changes in different lights. For me, it is best at dusk when the reflected light seems to glow most strongly and poignantly on that empty chair.
Robert Forder is a former teacher who now acts as historian to the National Secular Society, the oldest radical campaigning organisation in the UK, founded by Charles Bradlaugh in1866. Bob has accumulated a large library of radical, secularist and freethought books over a lifetime and says his mission is to ensure that brave radicals and the causes they championed are not forgotten and their significance continues to be recognised.