Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: February 2018

Three whacks at Carlyle

Speaking of militant suffragettism, the centenary of the Vote brings an interesting little display at the National Portrait Gallery, itself on the receiving end at the time. In July 1914 suffragette Anne Hunt took out a butcher’s cleaver and proceeded to remove three slices from Sir John Everett Millais’ portrait of the suitably miserable looking Sir Thomas Carlyle, philosopher, misogynist, apologist for slavery and proto-fascist. Sir John’s pre-Raphaelite vision had long since bitten the dust, and one can only regret that Hunt wasn’t also able to take a chunk out of Millais’ “Bubbles”.

 

A photo, in the NPG’s display, of the canvas “as damaged by Suffragette”, taken in the aftermath, shows clearly three substantial cuts across Carlyle’s pate; Hunt certainly had good aim. The painting itself, a piece of dark brown pomposity that my Grandma would have loved, is, unfortunately, still in the Victorian Gallery, annoyingly restored.

Among other fascinating pieces in the display is a Scotland Yard circular to art galleries with details and surveillance photos of two other women with a record in iconoclasm, one being Mary Richardson, who had taken a “chopper” to the backside of Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus” at the National.  There’s a particularly good page on all this at the NPG website, by their archivist Bryony Millan. Recommended.

 

Such incidents prompted one of the less likeable broadsides in the Vorticists’ first (1914) edition of Blast, applauding the energy of the attackers but asking suffragettes to “stick to what you understand”. Like knitting and fluffy kittens, perhaps? “Soyez bonnes filles” (Be good little girls), advised Wyndham Lewis or Ezra Pound, whichever was responsible for this unsigned and unfortunate piece of condescension dressed up as affectionate irony. The boys just couldn’t quite stop themselves from sniggering, could they? “Yes, but we don’t really mean it.” Ah, but I think they do. (“You might some day destroy a good picture by accident” is not a bad joke, though.)

Mary Richardson, along with a number of other ex-suffragettes, later joined the British Union of Fascists, with whom Lewis briefly flirted at one point. And we all know about Pound and Mussolini. Carlyle, exponent of the “Great Man” theory of political history, seems to have had the last laugh in all this. Well, you can’t have everything.

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The arrest of Dora

I’ve narrowly missed the anniversary of the legislation to allow (some) women to vote, but here’s a wonderful photo of the arrest in 1909 of Dora Marsden, women’s rights campaigner and individualist anarchist, for disrupting the chancellor’s speech at Manchester University, of which she was a graduate, hence her academic robes. A few months later she had a go at Winston Churchill. This extraordinary image is lifted from the flickr photostream of Greater Manchester Police, no less – but who was the photographer? Looking at this photograph, its perspectives so marvellously constructed around the focal point of Marsden’s serene and confident gaze, you can’t help but feel a profound admiration for her.

There are women bystanders in the background, but none of their faces are visible. Dora Marsden’s entourage is all male – a fine assortment of bemusement, amusement, embarrassment, condescension and stern disapproval. Someone really ought to make a poster out of this photo.

Marsden is a thoroughly interesting person, who broke away from the Pankhursts’ WSPU to form the Women’s Freedom League, becoming editor of The Freewoman, The New Freewoman and The Egoist, and in the process promoting and publishing the work of Pound, Joyce, Lewis, Eliot, HD and many other literary modernists. Her Stirnerite individualism later gave way to a personal form of syncretic religious belief. In 1935, sad to say, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Dumfries, where she died in 1960.

Interestingly, according to the flickr blurb, members of her Women’s Freedom League later supplied the first of the Women’s Police Volunteers, an organisation that included many former suffragettes who had seen the insides of police and prison cells. I don’t suppose Dora was among them.