Pictures of parliaments at work can all too easily look like an end-of-term school photograph, in which getting everyone in is more important than any interest in the whole. I can think of very few pictures of the House of Commons which are much more than a valuable topographical record of the Chamber. The most impressive exception is Karl-Anton Hickel’s The House of Commons 1793-4, well-known from countless reproductions in books about Britain in the eighteenth century, or books about Parliament (and indeed on blogs!), showing William Pitt as prime minister in full flow, with the House in rapt attention. In many ways it’s a surprising picture. For one thing, it’s very unusual at that date. Before about 1780, only two images of the House as a whole had been created in the eighteenth century. For a second, it’s painted, not by a British artist, but by an Austrian court painter temporarily resident in London, Karl Anton Hickel. Why was it painted?
The short answer is that we don’t know: but there is a longer, and more speculative response. The few facts known about Hickel could easily be fitted onto the back of one of the heads in his famous collective portrait. Born in Bohemia in 1745, he was the son of a painter and younger brother of Joseph, who established himself as painter to the imperial court and one of the most successful portrait painters in Vienna. Evidently there was not enough room in Vienna for two Hickels; Anton, or Karl-Anton, left Austria in the late 1770s, spending time in Munich and southern Germany and Switzerland. He obtained an appointment as a court painter to Joseph II in 1785, though he was in Paris in 1786, working for the Queen and her closest friend, the doomed Princesse de Lamballe. Lamballe was to be killed in particularly grisly fashion in the massacres of September 1792 which marked the beginning of a new and very dangerous phase of the French revolution.
If Hickel was still in France in 1791, he might have seen one of the first, and greatest, artistic representations of the early and most hopeful signs of that revolution – Jacques Louis David’s Serment du Jeu de Paume. David’s famous picture – never completed, but exhibited as a worked-up sketch in Paris in 1791 – shows the moment when the Estates General, summoned in 1789 by king Louis XVI and under the impulse of an apparent threat to dissolve it by force, took a collective oath not to break up until a new constitution had been secured (you can view the picture here).
Is Hickel’s picture a response to David’s? It would be nice to be able to prove a direct connection: that Hickel saw David’s great drawing in Paris in 1791, or at least heard about it through reading the French newspapers, and – the portraitist of two French royalist icons, Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe – was inspired to paint an anti-revolutionary rejoinder with his picture of the House of Commons. I think that there’s a hint of this in the stormy skies in Hickel’s painting, but this is the only thing that might be borrowed from David’s drawing: most other aspects of its design appear to be dictated by following the shape of the chamber itself. I can’t prove it, then, but I’m still searching for more evidence to explain why an Austrian court painter might have been interested in painting the British Parliament in 1793-4.