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Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, 1877 -NPG 968 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Early Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Thomas Carlyle

by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt
46 in. x 34 3/4 in. (1168 mm x 883 mm)
NPG 968

This portraitback to top

William Allingham recorded the following entry in his Diary for 11 April 1877: 'Millais is to paint him [Carlyle]'. On 29 May of the same year, Carlyle wrote to his brother (New Letters, II, 332-3):

'I confidently meant to have written on Saturday last, but found myself in the hands of Millais, the Painter, and without time for that or any such operation. Millais still keeps hold of me for four days more now, this and Sunday my only holidays from him hitherto, and I see not yet what will be the day of my deliverance. 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. Mary went with me yesterday to see, and had doubts privately as to what the success would be; but indeed it can, with my complete acquiescence, be what it will. For the third and last time I am in the hands of a best Painter in England (Watts, Legros, Millais), and with that I will consider the small quasi-duty of leaving some conceivable likeness of myself as altogether finished.'
Froude, who had commissioned the portrait, wrote about its development (Froude, II, 461):

'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/or 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.'
Millais' failure or refusal to finish the portrait was not entirely due to his own sense of dissatisfaction. Mary Carlyle and a friend, Mrs Anstruther, visited Millais' studio to look at the unfinished portrait. According to Mrs Anstruther (Wilson and MacArthur, p 405):

'The picture was in Millais' usual style, - hard, clever, forcible painting. The outline, the features, all correctly given, and with great power of brush. But merely the mask; no soul, no spirit behind. I said it looked modern, and in fact I did not like it.'
It was apparently following this particular visit that Millais stopped working on the portrait, refused to show it to anyone else, and talked of starting afresh. A similar story of Millais' refusal to continue with the portrait was told to George Scharf by the Earl of Carlisle, though with no mention of Mrs Anstruther (memorandum by Scharf, 30 November 1894, NPG archives):

'A lady, unknown, came with Millais while he was painting Carlyle & looking at the picture said why you have not painted him as a philosopher or sage but as a rough - shire peasant. Millais laid down his palette and never touched the work afterwards.'
The portrait remained unfinished (see particularly the hands), and was never offered to Froude. It was bought by an old friend of Millais sometime after 1877. Millais wrote to Scharf on 2 September 1894 (NPG archives), at the time when he was one of the trustees of the NPG: 'I remember painting both the Carlyle, & Collins. The former was done in 3 sittings & I rather think it a goodish portrait.' Carlyle himself was moderate in his comments on this likeness, compared with the spleen which he vented on his portrait by Watts (NPG 1002) (Wilson and MacArthur, p 406):

'The picture [he said] does not please many, nor, in fact, myself altogether, but it is surely strikingly like in every feature, and the fundamental condition was that Millais should paint what he was able to see.'
Ruskin later made similar reservations, only more explicitly. Alfred Lyttleton had remarked how Carlyle's face was 'far finer than his pictures had led me to hope. Pathos was the abiding characteristic'. Ruskin commented, 'Millais may represent the pathos of a moment, not of a lifetime' (Wilson and MacArthur, p 423). On one of his visits to Millais to sit for his portrait, Carlyle stopped on the staircase, and, looking round the palatial interior, asked: ''Millais, did painting do all that?' 'Yes, painting did it all.' 'Well, there must be more fools in this world than I had thought!'' (Wilson and MacArthur, p 406).
On 17 July 1914, this portrait was slashed by a militant suffragette, Anne Hunt, as a protest against the re-arrest of Mrs Pankhurst. She received six months imprisonment. The three gashes she inflicted on the portrait, all across the face, are still visible.

Referenceback to top

William Allingham, Diary, edited H. Allingham and D. Radford (1907), p 255.

Carlyle (ed.) 1904
New Letters of Thomas Carlyle, edited A. Carlyle (1904), II, 332-3.

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 540, and section D ('Commentary' by J. L. Caw), p 551.

Froude 1884
J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle: a History of his Life in London, 1834-81 (1884), II, 460-1.

Wilson and MacArthur 1934
D. A. Wilson and D. W. MacArthur, Carlyle in Old Age (1934), pp 405-6, 423.

Physical descriptionback to top

Ruddy complexion, brown eyes, grey hair and beard. Dressed in a white shirt, dark stock, black suit. Seated in wooden armchair, holding brown stick. Background colour dark brown.

Provenanceback to top

Commissioned by J. A. Froude; left unfinished in the possession of the artist; purchased by the Rev R. Cholmondeley; his sale, Christie's, 16 May 1885 (lot 76), bought in; purchased from Cholmondeley, 1894.

Exhibitionsback to top

Millais Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, 1886 (13).

Reproductionsback to top

J. G. Millais, Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (1899), II, 159, 89; D. Piper, The English Face (1957), p 290, plate 127.

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 Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt



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