A feature of the 2008 ncse was the publication of a series of portraits issued with the Northern Star. These were displayed using zoomify but, because this no longer functions on the original site, we have republished thirteen of them here.

About the Northern Star Portraits

The Northern Star issued thirty four engravings from its fifth issue in December 1837 until 1851. A full list is given in Chase (2005): below are those we managed to locate and film.

Of these engravings, 27 were portraits of notable figures and all but five were still living. Half of the portraits were of Chartist leaders but others included the poet Andrew Marvell, the radical Henry Hunt, and the radical liberal MP for Leeds Sir William Molesworth. As Malcolm Chase argues, the portraits were significant in that they moved away from the satirical tradition to present a pantheon of notable figures and scenes that helped establish a sense of the movement.1 The portraits were notable for the way in which they placed the figures in classical settings, associating them with a fine art tradition while insisting on the contemporary relevance of those depicted. Cheap periodicals such as the Penny Magazine (begun in 1832 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge) had already demonstrated both the market for images amongst a wide readership and the extant appetite for images that reproduced works of fine art. The portraits in the Northern Star were used to build up and maintain a base of subscribers. To produce the appropriate amount of copies it was necessary to use steel rather than copper engraving, but the process took substantially longer. O’Connor announced each portrait with much fanfare through the columns of the Star, but then often had to revise both the description of the forthcoming image and the estimated date it would be ready as it encountered difficulties in production. Although these repeated amendments to the promised image frustrated readers, they also contributed to a sense of anticipation. As only about 2000 images could be produced a week, it was necessary to distribute them by region, furthering the sense of occasion. As the paper’s circulation grew, O’Connor found himself committed to a scheme that was popular with readers and beneficial to both the paper and movement as a whole; however, as the numbers of readers wanting portraits increased, their demands became harder to fulfil, leading to protracted dialogue in the columns of the Star. As the circulation of the paper fell in 1842, O’Connor reduced the amounts of images that he offered. Between September 1841 and June 1846, only three were issued and these, Chase argues, were a reward for loyalty rather than a bid to boost circulation (p. 42). In 1848 an attempt was made to resume issuing portraits and engravings of the Irish nationalists John Mitchell, William Smith O’Brien and T.F. Meagher were issued. Two more were scheduled to appear, but were replaced by engravings of the European revolutionaries Louis Blanc and Kossuth. The final set of portraits were issued in 1850-1 and featured Robert Peel, a group of the Presidents of the United States and two images of the Great Exhibition.


1 Malcolm Chase, ‘Building identity, building circulation: engraved portraiture and the Northern Star’, in Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press, ed. by Joan Allen and Owen Ashton (Merlin Press), pp. 3-24. [back].