Rudolph Lehmann, 1819 - 1905
Portrait of Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke, GCB, PC, 1811 – 1892
Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke, GCB, PC,

inscribed on a label on the reverse " The Rt Hon Robert Lowe"

oil on canvas
30 x 25in. (76 x 63.5cm.)


Caroline Sneyd, second wife of Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke , and thence by descent


There is a study for this portrait in the British Museum catalogue number : 1906,0419.26  head and shoulders turned almost to right, and looking to right. 1874 Black, red and white chalk, on brown paper


Lowe, Robert, Viscount Sherbrooke (1811–1892), politician, born at Bingham, Nottinghamshire, on 4 December 1811, was the second son of Robert Lowe (1780–1845), rector of that parish and prebendary of Southwell, and Ellen (d. 1852), second daughter and coheir of the Revd Reginald Pyndar, rector of Madresfield in Worcestershire. He was an albino, and his eyes were extremely sensitive to light; moreover, he had imperfect vision in both eyes, and one was useless for reading. At Winchester College, which he entered as a commoner in 1825, he was much bullied, and unable to identify his tormentors; later in life, too, he suffered from his inability to recognize people, especially in large groups. Lowe was, however, very intelligent and very determined. Conscious that his logical mind and taste for scholarship would be his best assets in life, he responded to his affliction by developing great powers of memory and labour. He also became very self-reliant. Confident in his superior intellectual ability and the correctness of his views, he quickly developed a talent for blunt, fearless assertions, and never lost the clever schoolboy's pleasure in undermining established orthodoxies and pricking complacency. He matriculated at University College, Oxford, on 16 June 1829. At Oxford he spoke often at the union, adopting unpopularly radical opinions and relishing the controversy and notoriety that this brought him. He retained his intellectual ambitions too; but though he took a first class in classics in 1833, he achieved only a second in mathematics, which he later claimed was unsuited to his questioning mind and imperfect eyesight.

Seeking a career

The church was among the institutions against which the young Lowe rebelled, and so that career was closed to him (in 1841 he was to conduct a pamphlet war with the Tractarians about the interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles). He decided to read for the bar, and so remained in Oxford as a private tutor until a lay fellowship at Magdalen College, for which he was eligible, became vacant in 1835. But he resigned this after his impetuous marriage to Georgiana (d. 1884), second daughter of George Orred of Tranmere, Cheshire, on 29 March 1836. In order to make a living, he had to return to private tutoring. He quickly developed a reputation as the most efficient coach in the university, but the work was hard. His experience of it intensified his contempt for the low general standard of university education and his animosity to the complacency of college fellows, which he thought was caused by the protection given to them by lavish college endowments. It also convinced him that teaching was drudgery. Having failed to be appointed professor of Greek at Glasgow University in 1838 he gave up hope of an academic career, and in 1840 went to London to resume his law studies. He was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn on 28 January 1842. Shortly afterwards he decided to emigrate to Australia in the hope of making a quick fortune at the Sydney bar, a decision which he later claimed was the consequence of mistaken medical advice that he must expect to be blind in seven years.

In Australia

Lowe spent eight years in Australia. He was quickly drawn into New South Wales politics, at first in the hope of benefiting his legal practice. He was a member of the legislative council from November 1843, nominated by the governor, Sir George GippsLowe justified this allegiance on the grounds that Gipps's opponents were supporters of tariffs and the manipulation of interest rates in order to benefit vested interests; but he soon came to quarrel with Gipps, and in August 1844 resigned his nominated seat, claiming that Gipps was abusing his powers by taxing graziers in order to pay immigrants to come to the colony. In the following year he returned to the council as an elected representative, but quickly became a vigorous opponent of his former allies, the graziers, who used their influence to acquire quasi-permanent tenure of many thousands of acres under an act of 1846. Lowe's opposition to this assertion of vested influence in turn made him a hero of the populace, and he was elected for Sydney as their candidate in 1848. However, he then refused to support many of their demands. Though abused for lack of principle throughout his Australian political career, Lowe was in fact consistent in his stand against the potential domination of powerful interests, wherever he encountered them. He opposed the Australian constitutional reforms brought in by the British government in 1850, partly on the ground that they failed to provide guarantees against such domination. His major legislative achievement was the abolition of imprisonment for debt; he battled with less success to establish a system of non-denominational schools. He also acquired substantial sums from his law practice, which he judiciously invested in the purchase of real property at Sydney. In 1850 he returned to England with enough money to be able to afford a small country house at Warlingham in Surrey as well as a town residence.

Early career in British politics

Lowe aimed at a political career in Britain, and was elected to the Reform Club soon after his return. From April 1851 he was a regular leader writer in The Times, and moved in the circle of its editor, John Delane. Like most of that group Lowe was a Liberal but not an admirer of the government of Lord John Russell, which seemed too socially exclusive, dominated by ‘the family system’ and other manifestations of patronage, and insufficiently attuned to the sentiments of middle-class administrative reformers. Through his contacts with this group, Lowe was returned MP for Kidderminster at the general election of 1852, presenting himself to Lord Ward, whose influence carried the seat, as an independent Liberal beholden to neither Russell nor Lord PalmerstonThe Times was then at the height of its influence, and the need to conciliate it probably explains his appointment as joint secretary to the Board of Control in the Liberal–Peelite coalition government formed by Lord Aberdeen in December 1852. In this post Lowe was largely responsible for the India Act of 1853, which threw open all writerships to public competition. But he quickly became bored by the routine of subordinate office, and when, on the break-up of the Aberdeen ministry in early 1855, he was offered the same post by the new premier, Lord Palmerston, he declined it.

This decision may not have been unconnected with the fragility of Palmerston's position and the vociferous public criticism of the military and political conduct of the Crimean War. Lowe joined in this criticism, blaming the patronage system for the appointment of so many incompetents. However, he did not work against Palmerston, believing that the war must be won and that he was by far the best man to do this. (Lowe's attitude to foreign policy in the 1850s was that Britain had a major role to play in Europe; that a strong, reformed, professional army was needed in order to assert her place; and that Russia was the enemy of civilization and progress.) In August 1855, after the clamour had died down, and with Palmerston still in place but needing to strengthen his position, Lowe was offered and accepted the vice-presidency of the Board of Trade, and was sworn of the privy council. His most significant achievement in this post, which he held until the fall of Palmerston in early 1858, came in 1856, when he had charge of the act allowing associations of seven or more shareholders to become limited liability companies. Previously the Board of Trade had had discretion over the award of limited liability status. Lowe hoped that the reform would liberate capital for investment and allow poorer men access to the benefits of free enterprise. In the same session he demonstrated his shortcomings as a parliamentarian by an ill-fated attempt to reform the structure of shipping dues, offending many representatives of shipping interests by casting aspersions on their motives and causing Palmerston to abandon the reform. None the less, his combination of Palmerstonianism in foreign policy and advocacy of administrative reform at home gave him a high profile among commercial men and led to a request to be the Palmerstonian candidate for Manchester at the 1857 general election. Lowe declined this request on account of the difficulty he faced in seeing large audiences and deputations. He was elected for Kidderminster in 1857 and in 1859 for Calne (by most of its 174 electors), which he held until 1868.

Education and the revised code

When Palmerston returned to power in June 1859 Lowe was again—to his resentment—given a difficult but non-cabinet post, this time at the privy council. His major responsibilities were to the committee of council on education and to the medical department, which had taken over the bulk of the state's duties in the sphere of public health on the demise of the General Board of Health in 1858. Health and education were difficult areas for central government, since social conditions supplied weighty reasons for an assertive approach but this generated a great deal of local jealousy. As he was not in cabinetLowe could not change broad policy in either area, but he was determined to use his powers to the utmost to improve efficiency and attack complacency. In dealing with health, this meant strengthening the hand of the civil servant who was secretary to the medical departmentJohn SimonSimon's position was subject to annual review by parliament, which greatly reduced his scope for innovation. In 1859 Lowe persuaded the Commons to give him permanent tenure. Thereafter he gave Simon substantial independence, which he used in a number of ways, such as by building up a powerful vaccination inspectorate. By these means government influence over sanitation could be improved without enduring risky divisions in parliamentLowe and Simon also raised public consciousness about sanitary matters through the publication of official reports and through Lowe's leading articles in The Times.

Lowe's task in education was harder. There was great opposition in parliament to the idea of a national system of elementary education imposed by central government, yet there was also strong feeling against the ever expanding annual grant given to assist existing voluntary schools, while it was believed that the only alternative, local rating, would create too many tensions between sects about the kind of religious teaching which the locality should offer. Lowe and the civil servant in charge of education, Ralph Lingen, did not wish to increase substantially the power of the central educational bureaucracy, but were anxious to raise the committee's profile, to improve standards, and to prevent public money being wasted on inefficient teaching, mostly in church schools protected by over-sympathetic inspectors. In 1861 they responded to parliamentary pressure for cost cutting by issuing a revised code. This laid down that the grant would in future be allocated on the basis of the number of children in each school passing an examination by inspectors in reading, writing, and arithmetic, a system notoriously known as ‘payment by results’. The code was greeted with great hostility by schoolteachers, inspectors, and Anglican and dissenting opponents of state activity, a hostility all the more intense because it had, provocatively, been published just as the parliamentary session ended.

Palmerston ordered a delay in the introduction of the code until 1862, when it was amended so that some money would be paid no matter how badly children performed. Between 1862 and 1866 the grant fell by 16 per cent, while average attendance increased by 18 per cent. But the opponents of the code depicted Lowe in an unfairly philistine and anti-clerical light. Its object was not to save money at the expense of standards, since the cost to government was potentially open-ended. The ‘three Rs’ were chosen not because these were deemed to be the only proper components of an elementary education but because they could be examined most easily and provided a good basic test—a test which many schools failed. The grant continued to depend on schools satisfying inspectors about the general quality of their education, including religious instruction.

Opposition to the code was motivated primarily by clerical hostility to the assertiveness of the committee of council on education, exacerbated by anger from inspectors and schoolteachers at the extra workload imposed on them. Relations between the government and the voluntary schools did not improve, and in April 1864 Lord Robert Cecil persuaded the Commons to censure the committee of council for heavily editing inspectors' reports before publishing them. The charge was not quite justified, and a select committee subsequently acquitted the committee of impropriety; but Lingen frequently returned offending reports to inspectors for amendment as part of a mission to infuse professionalism into a self-indulgent corps of amateur, strongly Anglican gentlemen. Lowe resigned his post immediately on the censure.

Lowe was out of office until 1868, and free to speak his mind. During these years he came to acquire an extraordinary reputation as a parliamentary debater; Gladstone later said that in 1866 Lowe was 'at the very top of the tree'. He had believed since 1859 that he deserved cabinet office but was being sacrificed to the 'domination of cliques and coteries' in the Liberal–Peelite coalition government and forced to tackle the dangerous and thankless tasks which aristocrats would not touch. His resentment partly explains his vehemence in the mid-1860s, especially after the advent of Earl Russell to the premiership on Palmerston's death in October 1865. But the basic cause of his behaviour was his increasing determination to make a controversial name for himself by opposing what he saw as the illogical and dangerous fad of parliamentary reform.

Electoral reform, 1866–1867

Why did Lowe's views on government lead him to oppose the reform bills of 1866 and 1867? His aim for politics can be deduced from a definition he later gave (1877) of the 'ideal of the Liberal party': 'a view of things undisturbed and undistorted by the promptings of interest or prejudice, … a complete independence of all class interests, and [a reliance] for its success on the better feelings and higher intelligence of mankind' (A new reform bill, Fortnightly Review, Oct 1877, 441). Lowe was an admirer of Bentham and Adam Smith (he was elected a member of the Political Economy Club in 1852). He believed that men tended to be selfish and pleasure seeking, and that while their search for pleasure was in general to be encouraged, because it was the motor of human progress, there was a constant temptation for powerful men to advance their own interests, sometimes in ways contrary to the general good. Government should provide security and justice, and restrain these anti-social tendencies by opposing monopolies, oligarchies, and other vested interests. Lowe disapproved of government interference where it distorted the workings of the natural laws which determined human progress, but not if it worked to uphold them. Government had to be conducted by someone; ideally, it should be entrusted to those committed to empirical, unprejudiced analysis of data and human behaviour in order to identify those natural laws. 'The cause of true progress' could be promoted only 'by pure and clear intelligence' (Martin, 2.263). Lowe was a meritocrat.

In the 1850s Lowe's meritocratic image had driven him to team up with radicals in criticizing the social exclusiveness and legislative timidity of official Liberalism. He remained an opponent of the patronage network all his life. But Lowe was never a fully-fledged radical. He preferred to promote his ideas anonymously through the columns of The Times (and later in periodicals) rather than through mass meetings. When he became a minister and mixed with men like Palmerston, he quickly saw that the greatest threat to good government was not the selfishness of propertied Liberals but the unpredictability and narrow-mindedness of parliament, much of which was caused by ignorant and obstructive pressure from popular representatives. Appreciating the merits and sharing the prejudices of his leading civil servants at the Board of Trade, such as Thomas Farrer and Henry Thring, he wrote an article in 1857 criticizing parliament as venal and superficial, and advocating giving more power to central regulatory agencies staffed by disinterested officials—'true votaries'. His experience at the privy council intensified these views, as did the furore over the cattle plague of 1865–6, when he criticized, on the one hand, the delay in response caused by the selfish behaviour of railways and farming interests in parliament and, on the other, the narrow-minded commercial Liberals who resisted compensation to farmers who had served the public interests by killing their cattle.

In the mid-1860s, then, Lowe was impatient at the obstacles to good government thrown up by parliament even under the existing franchise. He feared that the evils would multiply if the electorate was expanded. Lowe argued that working-class voters would be bound to follow their interests as they perceived them—that is, as trade union leaders and other demagogues portrayed them. A reformed parliament would press for sectional legislation to benefit trade unions against employers at law, to reduce the stringency of the poor law, and to redistribute taxation. The changes would strike at the principles of political economy which Lowe believed that educated men should uphold. And some working-class voters would act in the way that Lowe had witnessed as a candidate at Kidderminster in 1857, when he had stood out against the beer and other wealthy lobbies and had been viciously stoned by the mob, who fractured his skull. In other words, they would respond to bribes and influence, to the benefit of a plutocracy of elderly commercial men who would uphold their own interests in parliament and be useless for administrative work.

Lowe's opposition to the 1866 Reform Bill threw him into alliance with aristocratic Palmerstonian Liberals such as Earl Grosvenor—an alliance which, to some of his critics, appeared inconsistent with his earlier radical politics. Lowe in fact believed that property and intellect stood or fell together. He was a staunch defender of property rights and freedom of contract. For example, he regarded the cry for land reform as outdated, suited to a period when peasants sought land for subsistence but not to a modern economy in which capital investment was as badly needed in land as it was in manufacturing industry.

Lowe was the intellectual leader of the so-called ‘Adullamites’, who irritated the Russell ministry throughout the 1866 session and finally defeated its Reform Bill in June, causing its resignation. Lowe may have hoped that this would lead to a coalition of talented politicians from both parties who were lukewarm about reform, supplanting the patronage-driven party system. But this did not materialize, and Lowe and other Adullamites declined office in the minority Conservative government formed by Lord Derby. In 1867 this government passed a much more radical Reform Bill than the one defeated in 1866. Lowe, impotent to resist it, felt 'deceived and betrayed' by Disraeli, the Commons leader. On its third reading, Lowe told the Commons: 'I believe it will be absolutely necessary that you should prevail on our future masters to learn their letters' (Hansard 3, 188, 15 July 1867, col. 1549); this was soon attributed to him as 'We must educate our masters.' Other such trenchant phrases on the political capacity of working-class voters were widely publicized in exaggerated form by radical reformers, and his political future looked uncertain.

Politics, 1867–1868

In 1868 Lowe was elected for the new London University seat, owing to the support of doctors who admired his work for public health reform, and other intellectuals with whom Lowe's élitist but meritocratic views struck a chord (he was made LLD by Edinburgh University in 1867 and DCL at Oxford in 1870). He further appealed to such men because of his urgent advocacy of education reform in the winter of 1867–8 in speeches at Edinburgh and Liverpool.

Despite his warning to the Commons in 1867, his interest in the next twelve months was not in elementary education so much as in its higher branches, with a view to improving the quality of the political leadership given by the élite and the political judgement exercised by the middle classes. In particular he urged an overhaul of the syllabuses in universities and middle-class schools so as to embrace more science, history, and language work, and to develop the power of dispassionate and discriminating reasoning and criticism. He also advocated the separation of teaching from examining (as in London University) and the rational reorganization and regulation of school endowments by the state.

Lowe's liberalizing educational agenda extended to Ireland; he mounted a fierce opposition to the Conservative government's Irish university policy of 1868, which he thought retrograde in its encouragement of a separate Catholic university. He used this episode to justify his adhesion to Gladstone's alternative policy of Irish church disestablishment. Though Lowe did not believe that disestablishment was a panacea for Ireland, or indeed that any concession compatible with Liberal ideals could conciliate Irish Catholic activists, this return to the party fold made him a strong candidate for a post in the new Liberal cabinet which Gladstone formed after the 1868 election. In order to facilitate this eventuality, Lowe finally broke his connection with The Times in April 1868. Gladstone, impressed with Lowe's expenditure reductions as education minister and his capacity for resisting pressure, made him chancellor of the exchequer in December, supplying him with a detailed list of 'remnants' left from his own chancellorship and needing attention (GladstoneDiaries, 10 Jan 1869).

Cabinet minister, 1868–1874

Lowe's outstanding achievement at the Treasury was the introduction of competitive examinations almost across the civil service by an order in council of 1870. He was single-handedly responsible for the change, for which there had been little public pressure; it developed naturally from his views about the importance of trained administrators and his dislike of the patronage system, which had been only slightly damaged by the introduction of limited competition in 1855. Lowe was responsible for the division of appointees into two rigid classes—policy makers and clerks. The qualifications for the higher grade were set so as to complement university syllabuses, in the hope that the new administrative class would enter a ‘freemasonry’ of educated gentlemen, able to hold their own in parliamentary company. He also devised the machinery for the scheme, which was controlled by the Treasury and greatly increased its dominance of the service. Departments were given incentives to participate, and after Lowe himself ended the Home Office's resistance when he became home secretary in 1873, the Foreign Office was the only significant department to opt out.

Lowe also had considerable influence on government policy in other areas. For example, he approved the mixture of central and local powers created by the 1870 Elementary Education Act. In particular he was responsible for the dual system by which voluntary schools were funded from central taxation while the new board schools were to be supported from local rates. This pragmatic and successful solution to the religious difficulty which had obstructed the development of a national system was the result of Lowe's long-held awareness of ratepayers' unwillingness to pay for sectarian teaching. He influenced the separation of teaching and examining in Gladstone's failed Irish university scheme of 1873 (though he disliked the arrangement whereby subjects like history and philosophy might not be examined in deference to Catholic scruples). But he was dissatisfied with the handling of the reform of middle-class education (1869) and the failure to take English university reform beyond the abolition of tests (1871).

Despite his early successes, Lowe's time at the exchequer became unhappy and unsuccessful because of the controversy surrounding his budget policy. Taxes were cut, but his supervision of departmental expenditure was not rigorous enough to satisfy Gladstone, while his parsimony on small points lowered his reputation among the electorate.

During Lowe's tenure, £12.5 million was cut from taxes and over £26 million from the national debt; income tax was reduced from 6d. to 3d.; the 1s. duty on a quarter of corn was abolished (1869); the sugar duty was halved in 1870 and again in 1873, and that on coffee halved in 1872. But the uncommon economic prosperity of these years played the major part in this success: in 1873 the government's surplus reached £6 millionLowe was over-cautious about cutting taxes and Gladstone complained that he was 'wretchedly deficient' in reducing expenditure. One of the reasons for Lowe's caution was his favouritism for particular civil servants and spending projects, which he probably thought needed defending against popular pressure for economy. Lowe was generous, for example, to both education and health: the number of assistant secretaries in the education department was doubled and many more inspectors were appointed as a result of the 1870 act, while Simon persuaded him to sanction the appointment of five permanent general health inspectors between 1869 and 1871, despite opposition elsewhere in the Treasury. On several occasions he overruled the parsimonious policy of the first commissioner of works, A. S. Ayrton. More important was Lowe's ambivalence about cuts in defence expenditure. Though the prosperity and reforming atmosphere of 1869–70 provided fertile ground for reductions in the army and navy, this mood ended with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, which forced government to budget for a temporary increase in the army. Lowe, who before taking office had hoped for a large trained professional militia and a 'very strong Navy', now indicated his anxieties about Britain's international position; thenceforth he became less aggressive in demanding defence cuts and less confident about the wisdom of tax cuts.

Paradoxically, Lowe's indifference to giving offence and tendency to preach sermons on the merits of self-reliance and political economy encouraged in the public mind the view that he was a brutal cost-cutter of the Ayrton breed; in 1873 they were the subject, with Gladstone, of a memorable burlesque at the Court Theatre, The Happy Land, co-written by W. S. Gilbert. In particular, some of Lowe's policies damaged his reputation among working men already suspicious of his attitude towards them because of the reform debates. This was the effect, for example, of his attempt in 1871 to sell crown land in Epping Forest, depriving working-class voters of access to it; he gave way after an embarrassing defeat in the Commons. His worst mistake also came in 1871, when he needed to raise taxes in order to fund the extra defence spending. He planned to distribute the burden between the classes by increasing the succession duties and the income tax, and by putting a small stamp tax on each box of matches sold. This created fears of unemployment among match girls, many of whom marched on the Commons in protest; Lowe had to be conducted into the Palace of Westminster through the passage from the underground station. He had introduced the tax with a Latin tag, Ex luce lucellum ('Out of light, a little gain'); a Punch writer retorted with the couplet,

Ex luce lucellum, we all of us know,But if Lucy can't sell 'em, what then, Mr. Lowe?

Characteristically Lowe thought this very funny; but the furore did him great damage. He was forced to withdraw his budget (largely, in fact, because of propertied objections to the increased succession duties, which the match tax drama allowed them to disguise), and never recovered his standing.

In 1873 Lowe's reputation was also worsened by financial irregularities at the Treasury involving the Post Office and the Zanzibar mail contract—a legacy of his excessive trust of his officials (this was partly explained by his appalling eyesight). These scandals made it possible and probably necessary for Gladstone to move him. He became home secretary in August 1873, and produced an important plan to revise legislation of trade unions, but the government was defeated at the general election in February 1874.

Final years, death, and reputation

Lowe never held office again. For some time he played an active part on the opposition front bench, where his most important achievement was to amend the Conservative government's trade union legislation of 1875 so as to clarify the legality of peaceful picketing. This solved a major union grievance; Lowe justified it on the ground that the existing law discriminated against union members. He was also a fierce critic of the imperial policy and posturing of Disraeli—whom he disliked intensely. Disraeli's behaviour entrenched his view that democracies could not be trusted to conduct an aggressive foreign policy responsibly, and this led him to cause a pleasurable stir by asserting, in the Fortnightly Review in November 1877, that Britain's colonies brought her fewer benefits than costs. Eighteen months earlier he had unwisely implied in public that Queen Victoria had previously urged her prime ministers to make her empress of India, but that only Disraeli had been craven enough to agree; he was forced to retract.

Lowe expected to be offered a cabinet post on the formation of the Liberal government in 1880, but was not. Despite the queen's reluctance, Gladstone obtained a viscountcy for him; Lowe chose the title Sherbrooke, the name taken by his elder brother on inheriting their great-grandmother's estate. He refused a government pension in 1882 and was made GCB in 1885. His lack of sympathy for Irish grievances about religion and land, his defence of political economy, his distrust of politicians who gave way to populist sectional pressures, and his belief in the crucial significance of the Union for the international standing of Britain all made him a convinced Liberal Unionist in 1886. But he now took little part in politics. His plain-spoken, garrulous, eccentric wife, Georgiana, from whom he had unsuccessfully tried to separate in the late 1860s, suffered a stroke in 1882 which left her partially paralysed; he tended her until she died on 3 October 1884 after another seizure. On 3 February 1885 he married Caroline Anne Sneyd, daughter of Thomas Sneyd of Ashcombe Park, Staffordshire. His sight declined further and in the late 1880s failed completely, a condition which he tolerated with equanimity. After sustained weakness he died on 27 July 1892 at his home, Sherbrooke Lodge, Warlingham, Surrey, and was buried at Brookwood cemetery, Woking. He left no children.

Lowe saw himself as an outsider who had overcome inherited adversity by dint of hard work and intelligence. He accepted his lot without bitterness. Indeed, he had an enormous capacity for enjoying life. He was placid, cheerful, and blessed with great energy, a strong muscular body, and a lack of fear. He relished athletic sports—rowing, horse-riding, skating, and, as he aged, fast rides in carriages and tricycles down Surrey lanes. He was a bright, charming, and stimulating conversationalist with a clear, penetrating voice and a fine head and face, and a great taste for witty epigrams, dexterous repartee, and apt quotations. He was a popular and invigorating member of London intellectual society—an enthusiastic debater at the Political Economy Club, the Metaphysical Society, and the X-Club. He was a trustee of the British Museum and a fellow of the Royal Society. He sat on many royal commissions, especially in the 1860s. Though blunt and sceptical about human nature and incapable of suffering fools gladly, he was neither malicious nor pompous and was always true to himself; in that respect, he was a real Victorian gentleman. He did not disguise his principles in order to curry political favour; but nor was he as dogmatic as he sometimes appeared. In fact he delighted—too much for his own good—in questioning orthodoxies and fashions of the day. His real dislikes were bigotry, injustice, complacency, and inefficiency, especially in the upper classes and in religion (he had no time for London club life and preferred the company of ladies such as the countess of Derby, the countess of Airlie, and the duchess of St Albans, who also provided sympathy and relief from his trying wife). He was, as his niece remarked, a firm protestant. His motivating beliefs were in the need to strive for disinterested government and in the capacity of energetic, ambitious, and open-minded men like himself to offer it.

  • Jonathan Parry  Oxford DNB


Artist biography

Wilhelm August Rudolf Lehmann (19 August 1819, near Hamburg – 27 October 1905, in Bushey) was a German-English portraitist and author. He moved to the United Kingdom in 1866.

Lehmann was born in Ottensen (now part of Hamburg) in the Duchy of Holstein, the son of painter Leo Lehmann. He and his elder brother Henri Lehmann studied in Paris at the École des Beaux-arts, in Rome, and with the painters Peter von Cornelius and Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Lehmann's major painting, The Blessing of the Pontine Marshes by Sixtus V was shown in Paris in 1846 and bought by the French government. In 1866 Lehmann settled in London, became a British citizen, and painted his best-known portraits. He married Amelia Chambers, daughter of the Scot author and naturalist Robert Chambers. Amelia's sister Nina married Lehmann's younger brother Frederick, and the extended social circle of the two couples included Charles DickensGeorge EliotRobert BrowningLord Leighton, and other prominent figures.
Rudolf Lehmann, Leo Lehmann (1851; Cleveland Museum of Art). Portrait of the artist's father.

In 1896, a number of his engraved portraits were collected and published as Men and Women of the Century.[3] Lehmann's memoir was published in 1894 as An Artist's Reminiscences.

On 27 October 1905, he died at Boumemede, Bushey. He was buried in Highgate cemetery.

One of Lehmann's daughters was Liza Lehmann, who became a notable English soprano and composer. Lehmann was the uncle of the British journalist and politician Rudolf Chambers Lehmann.


    Portrait of Miss Emily Leo by Wilhelm August Rudolf Lehmann (1849). Musée d’arts de Nantes, France