Richard Warren

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

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.

2 responses to “Three whacks at Carlyle

  1. Alan February 20, 2018 at 9:37 pm

    Richard: Lewis didn’t flirt with the BUF! He didn’t have any organisational affiliation. The Hitler book, of course and alas, but that’s not the same.

  2. richardawarren February 21, 2018 at 11:35 am

    Hi Alan. Good to hear from you. Well, I’m always ready to defend Lewis, as you know, and admire his work greatly. I wasn’t thinking of the Hitler thing, nor of Lewis’s visits to Mosley, nor of his portrait of him (twinned, for balance, with that of Stafford Cripps). According to Meyers and O’Keeffe, Mosley readily conceded that Lewis did not agree with him in all things, as confirmed by Naomi Mitchison, a sound socialist. But, let’s face it, his contribution did appear, alongside those of Pound, Campbell and Quisling, in the first number of the ‘British Union Quarterly’ in 1937. By 1939 the ‘Quarterly’ was slamming Lewis’s analysis of anti-semitism, so I agree that the flirtation was brief and not uncritical. Is ‘flirtation’ too strong? A bit of footsie under the table, maybe. Or a discreet wink?

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