“When I took over security there were no measures for MPs. There was so little for us. We didn’t matter. I hope that people will recognise what I have done, and stood up, and made sure that we can feel safe.” So began Lindsay Hoyle’s Speakership of the British House of Commons. Hoyle came to the role at the tail-end of the constitutional crisis over Brexit – which had its symbol in the fractious and imperial Speakership of John Bercow, his predecessor. Here was Bercow’s big idea: to conflate the administrative procedures of the House of Commons with the ‘rule of law’. In this way, an inflated Speakership and its parliamentary allies were able to hold the body in stasis for two years – unable to move legislatively, and unable to dissolve itself. By late 2019, this wrangling had failed. If the parliamentary opposition to Brexit had wanted to continue the fight, then it could have elected Chris Bryant, who offered to carry on with Bercow’s bumptious style. It did not.
Hoyle’s rise to the Speakership, then, was an aesthetic choice, not a political one. It was an acknowledgement of defeat and exhaustion. Hoyle, who had served as Bercow’s deputy, was far more circumscribed both personally and politically. With the arrival of a Brexit parliamentary supermajority, Hoyle promised to return the office to its traditional role: clerkship, not power. Hoyle the man had a number of appealing characteristics. He was old. His voice – endearingly – would haltingly stop, start, and loll from side to side. He was quaintly old-fashioned: the ‘at home’ photoshoots, of which there were many, revealed a riot of quilted couches, doily flaps, and floral carpets. Significantly, he was Northern – almost parodically so. The ‘Left Behind’ of the North would deliver Boris-Cummings its majority; Hoyle would be the ‘Left Behind’ Speaker, their spiritual representative.
Every Speaker has an official portrait made, and Hoyle’s appeared last month. We may have expected something in line with his own pipe-and-slippers style; something akin to the portrait of Neil and Glenys Kinnock in which both are sat comfortably in their kitchen, surrounded by an assortment of staring knick-knacks.
Little could prepare us for what was instead unveiled. The portrait, the handiwork of Australian artist Ralph Heimans, slams you in the face. It has a dull, throbbing intensity. It is painted in the realist style, but there’s nothing natural about it. It’s more real than real: the metal looks more like metal than metal; Hoyle looks more human than a human. No one feature pops out; every detail is accented and accented again, keyed up to its absolute limit and often well beyond it. There is nothing for the eye to rest on. It is matte, dense, and headache-inducing. It is insane. This is the painterly maximalism of a chocolate box, stretched across an entire canvas.
But it would be lazy and wrong to dismiss this as kitsch – though it certainly is. The portrait owes a certain debt to Norman Rockwell, maybe. But that isn’t the whole story. The glazed mania of this picture moves well past mere schmaltz.
For one, there’s the treatment of its subject. Hoyle’s Northern jollity is gone. This is someone in his full swagger, at the height of his secular powers. This Hoyle is a man of action and policy, and knows it. Our first comparison surely isn’t Rockwell, but royal portraiture – in particular, Hans Holbein the Elder’s lost rendering of Henry VIII. But even Henry disarms himself a little for us. In his arched eyebrows, in his small half-smile, we see something playful and self-aware about his own brittle arrogance.