The Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. Search over 215,000 works, 150,000 of which are illustrated from the 16th Century to the present day.

Advanced Collection search

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle, by George Frederic Watts, 1868 -NPG 1002 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Early Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Thomas Carlyle

by George Frederic Watts
26 in. x 21 in. (660 mm x 533 mm)
NPG 1002

This portraitback to top

One of three similar versions, the most important of which was commissioned by John Forster, and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (F39), exhibited Charles Dickens, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1970 (I35). The third version was rescued from destruction by Mrs Watts, and is now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, bequeathed by Miss K. Lewis (bought by her at the sale following Mrs Watts' death at Limmerslease, April 1939). The NPG portrait is dated 1877 in the various exhibition catalogues in which it appeared, and also by Spielmann (see his letter of 25 June 1927, NPG archives), on the authority of the artist, but it was evidently begun at the same time as the Victoria and Albert Museum version nine years before. Watts frequently worked on his pictures over a period of several years.
Mrs Watts states that her husband began his portraits of Carlyle in 1867, quoting a letter from Carlyle to the artist of 18 June 1867 (M. S. Watts, I, 249-50). This seems to be a mistake or a mis-reading, for Carlyle wrote a letter on 20 May 1868, which contradicts Mrs Watts' evidence: 'On Friday (3 p.m.) I am to give Watts his "first sitting"’. [1] Forster is known to have commissioned the Victoria and Albert Museum portrait in May 1868 [2] and it seems most unlikely that Watts had begun one of the other two versions a year earlier, particularly as the Forster picture appears to be the prime original. On 20 June 1868, Carlyle again referred to the portrait: 'Watts, too, the Painter, has not quite done with me, I fear; and seems to be making a monster than otherwise. Well, well!' [3] Carlyle and Watts did not get on well together, the latter 'in vain trying to open the eyes of the great prophet to the value of art outside the historical record in a portrait' (M. S. Watts, I, 249). Carlyle thought Watts a 'very wearisome, "washed-out", dilettante man, - though an innocent well-intending and ingenious withal' (Wilson and MacArthur, p 168). Carlyle was an impatient sitter, which acted on the nerves of the artist, and inhibited his powers. When he apologized to Carlyle for making him sit so long, Carlyle doggedly replied (M. S. Watts, II, 232): 'I said I would sit, and so I will do so'. This was not a sympathetic atmosphere for Watts, and in self-defence he put curtains round his easel, and refused to show Carlyle what he was doing. [4] By July 1868, Carlyle felt in need of an escape, and he wrote to Watts (M. S. Watts, I, 249):

'Unexpectedly I find I have to go to Scotland in about ten days, and continue there I know not how long. If you do want me again, therefore, let it be within that time, fairly within; I am anxious to neglect nothing for perfecting of our mutual enterprise, in which I see in you such excellent desire after excellence, and shall be ready within the prescribed limits and times, any time at a day's notice.'
The portrait, however, was not finished before Carlyle's departure. Letters from Watts to Forster during the autumn and winter of 1868-9 plead illness, the weather, and fear of disturbing Carlyle, as the reasons for the delay in finishing the portrait. On 7 June 1869, Watts wrote: 'but now the weather is warm I should at once apply for the sittings I have been every day on the point of asking for, but every day hesitating knowing how much Mr Carlyle dislikes the occupation.' [5]
Finally in the autumn of 1869, Watts obtained a few more sittings, and delivered the finished portrait to Forster on 7 November 1869. When he asked Carlyle for an opinion on his work, the latter remarked, after deliberation, 'Mon, I would have ye know I am in the hobit of wurin' clean linen!’ [6] His later comments were more violent and bitter. He complained that he had been made to look like 'a mad labourer', and wrote to his brother:

'Decidedly the most insufferable picture that has yet been made of me, a delirious-looking mountebank full of violence, awkwardness, atrocity, and stupidity, without recognizable likeness to anything I have ever known in any feature of me. Fuit in fatis. What care I, after all? Forster is much content. The fault of Watts is a passionate pursuit of strength. Never mind, never mind!' [7]
Watts himself regarded all three portraits as failures, but other critics were more favourable. Meredith thought the Forster portrait had the look of Lear encountering the storm on the Cornish coast, and Chesterton wrote:

'The uglier Carlyle of Watts has more of the truth about him, the strange combination of a score of sane and healthy visions and views, with something that was not sane, which bloodshot and embittered them all, the great tragedy of the union of a strong countryside mind and body with a disease of the vitals and something like a disease of the spirit. In fact, Watts painted Carlyle 'like a mad labourer', because Carlyle was a mad labourer.' [8]

Footnotesback to top

1) New Letters of Thomas Carlyle, edited A. Carlyle (1904), II, 249 n.
2) There are eight letters from Watts to Forster relating to this portrait in the Victoria and Albert Museum Library, Forster MSS, F48, F65, XL, letters 15-22. Watts' first letter about the commission is dated 7 May 1868.
3) New Letters, II, 249.
4) See E. R. and J. Pennell, Life of James McNeill Whistler (1908 edition), I, 170.
5) E. R. and J. Pennell, I, 170. A similar story is told by Luke lonides, Memories (privately printed, Paris, 1925), p 10, who records that Carlyle told Whistler: 'I've been painted by a man of note - Watts, his name - and he painted my shirt-collar as if I'd never had a laundress'.
6) J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle (1884), II, 380. Further comments by Carlyle on the portrait are recorded by the artist, Robert Herdman, who painted Carlyle in 1875; Herdman's unpublished notes are in the collection of Miss Herdman, Edinburgh.
7) G. K. Chesterton, G. F. Watts (1904), p 154.
8) See J. A. S. Barrett, 'The Principal Portraits and Statues of Thomas Carlyle', section C of I. W. Dyer, A Bibliography of Thomas Carlyle's Writings and Ana (1928), p 3.

Referenceback to top

Dyer 1928
I. W. Dyer, A Bibliography of Thomas Carlyle's Writings and Ana (1928), section C ('Catalogue of Portraits' by J. A. S. Barrett), p 541, and section D ('Commentary' by J. L. Caw), p 547.

Hannay 1884
D. Hannay, 'Some Portraits of Carlyle', Magazine of Art (1884), p 83.

Magazine of Art (1900), pp 224-5.

Spielmann 1886
M. H. Spielmann, 'The Works of Mr G. F. Watts, R.A.,' Pall Mall Gazette "Extra", no.22 (1886), p 30.

'Catalogue of Works by G. F. Watts', compiled by Mrs M. S. Watts (MS, Watts Gallery, Compton), II, 29.

Watts 1912
[Mrs] M. S. Watts, George Frederic Watts (1912), I, 249.

Wilson and MacArthur 1934
D. Wilson and D. W. MacArthur, Carlyle in Old Age (1934), p 168.

Physical descriptionback to top

Ruddy complexion, grey hair and beard. Dressed in a white shirt and black coat. Background colour dark muddy brown.

Provenanceback to top

The artist, presented by him, 1895.

Exhibitionsback to top

Winter Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, 1882, 'Collection of the Works of G. F. Watts' (125); Inaugural Art Exhibition, City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, 1885-6 (138); Paintings by G. F. Watts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1885 (99); Collection of Pictures by G. F. Watts, R.A., Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham, 1886 (13); Royal Jubilee Exhibition, Manchester, 1887 (517); Paintings by G. F. Watts, Rugby Museum, 1888 (no catalogue); Paintings by G. F. Watts, Southwark, 1890 (no catalogue); VE, 1892 (212).

Reproductionsback to top

D. Hannay, 'Some Portraits of Carlyle', Magazine of Art (1884), p 81; D. Piper, The English Face (1957), pp 289-90, plate 128.

This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Ormond, Early Victorian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1973, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

View all known portraits for Thomas Carlyle

View all known portraits for George Frederic Watts


Scientific techniques

Watch our playlist exploring scientific techniques used by the Gallery to unlock the secrets behind our Tudor portraits.

Watch now

Subjects and themes

Search the collection by themes - from pets to weddings!

Discover the Collection

Black History Month

Take a tour exploring our Collection created by Alayo Akinkugbe for Black History Month in 2020.

Take the tour

A Picture of Health

Learn about pioneers in medicine, health and social reform from 1840 to 1920.

Explore the timeline