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Thomas Carlyle

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Thomas Carlyle

by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt
oil on canvas, 1877
46 in. x 34 3/4 in. (1168 mm x 883 mm)
Purchased, 1894
Primary Collection
NPG 968

Sitterback to top

  • Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Historian and essayist; Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Sitter associated with 84 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt (1829-1896), Painter and President of the Royal Academy; ex-officio Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Artist associated with 41 portraits, Sitter in 76 portraits.

This portraitback to top

The artist was dissatisfied with the progress of this portrait, and did not finish it, however Carlyle sitter described it as ‘strikingly like in every feature.' In 1913 it was attacked by suffragette Anne Hunt with a meat cleaver.

Linked publicationsback to top

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  • Funnell, Peter; Warner, Malcolm, Millais: Portraits, 1999 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 19 February to 6 June 1999), p. 165 Read entry

    When Millais painted the Scottish social critic and historian Thomas Carlyle, one of the great sages of Victorian Britain, he was eighty-one years old and had written little of importance in the eleven years since the death of his wife Jane Baillie Welsh. The first two sittings took place on 26 and 28 May 1877, and Millais claimed that there were only three.1 After the second, Carlyle wrote to his brother: ‘Millais seems to be in a state of almost frenzy about finishing with the extremest perfection his surprising and difficult task; evidently a worthy man.’2

    Carlyle was accompanied to the studio for sittings by his friend, disciple and biographer James Anthony Froude, who later recalled:

    In the second sitting I observed what seemed a miracle. The passionate vehement face of middle life had long disappeared. Something of the Annandale peasant had stolen back over the proud air of conscious intellectual power. The scorn, the fierceness was gone, and tenderness and mild sorrow had passed into its place. And yet, under Millais’s hands the old Carlyle stood again upon the canvas as I had not seen him for thirty years. The inner secret of the features had been evidently caught. There was a likeness which no sculptor, no photographer, had yet equalled or approached. Afterwards, I knew not how, it seemed to fade away. Millais grew dissatisfied with his work and, I believe, never completed it.3

    It was supposedly on arriving for a sitting that Carlyle made his much-quoted remark about the artist’s luxurious home: ‘Millais, did painting do all that? … Well, there must be more fools in this world than I had thought!’4

    Since the beginning of May 1877, J. M. Whistler’s portrait of Carlyle (1872-3; Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum) had been on show at the Grosvenor Gallery, and Millais may well have undertaken his own in a spirit of competition. Why he failed to finish it is uncertain, although the problem may have been the lack of a commission: it is not clear that Froude or anyone else had promised to pay for the portrait when and if it was finished, and Millais had probably begun it as a speculative venture. If so, he would have been especially sensitive to unfavourable opinions, and there were certainly visitors to the studio who took a strong dislike to the work. Carlyle’s friend Mrs Anstruther felt that it showed ‘merely the mask; no soul, no spirit behind’, and ‘looked modern’.5 According to a story told by the Earl of Carlisle, another lady told Millais: ‘you have not painted him as a philosopher or sage but as a rough-shire peasant,’ at which he ‘laid down his palette and never touched the work afterwards.’ 6 With neither a commission nor apparently any great liking for Carlyle,7 Millais may indeed have thrown up his hands at such comments.

    The portrait was eventually bought from the artist in its unfinished state by an old friend, Reginald Cholmondeley, who sold it to the National Portrait Gallery in 1894. On 17 July 1914, it was slashed with a butcher’s cleaver by the suffragette Anne Hunt: she inflicted three gashes across the face, which are still visible.

    1 Letter to George Scharf, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, c.1894 (NPG archives).

    2 Alexander Carlyle, ed., New Letters of Thomas Carlyle, 1904, vol.II, pp 332-3.

    3 James Anthony Froude, Thomas Carlyle, A History of his Life in London 1834-1881, 1884, vol.II, pp 460-61.

    4 D. A. Wilson and D. W. MacArthur, Carlyle in Old Age, 1934, p 406.

    5 Ibid., p 405.

    6 Note by George Scharf, 30 November 1894 (NPG archives).

    7 See Walter Sichel, The Sands of Time, 1923.

  • Ormond, Richard, Early Victorian Portraits, 1973, p. 87
  • Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 226
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 104

Subjects & Themesback to top

Events of 1877back to top

Current affairs

Trial of social activists Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh following their publication of a book by the American birth-control campaigner Charles Knowlton, which suggested that working class families should be able to practice birth control. Although found guilty, the case was thrown out on a technical fault.

Art and science

The Grosevenor Gallery opens, founded by Sir Coutts Lindsay, as a rival to the Royal Academy. It exhibited work by artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Crane, outside of the British mainstream, and became famous as the home of the Aesthetic movement.
The first Lawn Tennis Championship is held at Wimbledon with around 20 male competitors, witnessed by a few hundred spectators. Spencer Gore the first singles champion, wins 12 guineas.


The American inventor Thomas Edison invents the tin foil phonograph, combining the technologies of the telegraph and telephone. Experimenting with a stylus on a tinfoil cylinder, he recorded and played back the short message 'Mary had a little lamb'.

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