Parliament Week Curator's Choice: A porcelain figure of radical MP John Wilkes at the Buckinghamshire Museum

By Will Phillips, Buckinghamshire County Museum | 03 November 2011
a porcelain figure in eighteenth century attire
John Wilkes introduced the first Bill for parliamentary reform© Buckinghamshire County Museum
Parliament Week Curator's Choice: Will Phillips, Collections Officer (Social History) at Buckinghamshire County Museum Resource Centre, introduces a porcelain figure of John Wilkes, a radical 18th century MP who had an eventful parliamentary career...

"John Wilkes was one of the most colourful and controversial figures of the 18th century, best known for his prominent political career and eventful personal life.

This porcelain figure, made by the Derby porcelain company in about 1780, was one of many representations of Wilkes produced during and after his lifetime. 

As a magistrate, country squire, politician, journalist, man about town, political exile and Mayor of London, Wilkes was a man who excited strong emotions in his contemporaries.

This porcelain figure presents quite an attractive image of him, but many prints and caricatures (such as Hogarth's famous engraving) represented Wilkes with a horrific squint and a demonic, lecherous air (he was a member of Sir Francis Dashwood's notorious Hell Fire Club at Medmenham and wrote the infamous Essay on Woman). 

The right hand of the porcelain Wilkes rests on two documents, the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights - a reference to Wilkes' challenging stand against government authority and the ban on parliamentary reporting.

To one side a chubby cherub holds up a cap of liberty - a further symbol of Wilkes' support for parliamentary freedoms and a reference to his supporters' call for 'Wilkes and Liberty'.

During his career Wilkes was associated with many calls for liberty including the freedom to report parliamentary debates, the rights of the American colonies to be exempt from taxation and tolerance of different religious groups. 

Aylesbury played an early but significant role in Wilkes' career. He was appointed as MP for the town in July 1757 after an unopposed by-election, but his connection with the town began with his marriage to Mary Mead, whose dowry was the manor of Aylesbury. 

The marriage, arranged by Wilkes' parents, was an unhappy one, not least because Mary, who was 10 years older, had education, tastes and morals widely different from those of her husband. Although they had a much-loved daughter in 1750, the marriage broke up in 1757. 

Wilkes retained the Aylesbury estate, including Prebendal House, and was re-elected as MP for the town in 1761 after heavily bribing the electors. He finally had to sell the Aylesbury estate in 1764 while in exile in Paris, as his debts mounted up.

This porcelain figure forms part of the collections at Buckinghamshire County Museum and will be on display, with other Wilkes material, at the Museum in Aylesbury during Parliament Week 2011."

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