Art Attack – the cleaver and Carlyle

The story of art, and its destruction, in the fight for women’s suffrage.

Thomas Carlyle was a historian and social commentator during the Victorian era and it was he who talked of Great Man Theory – only the sayings and doings of great men were responsible for the progression of society. Understandably, the perfect target for some militant suffragettes…

A group of suffragettes visited the National Portrait Gallery with the intention of vandalising the portrait of Carlyle, painted by Millais, as a act of defiance against, not only a state funded organisation but also a major figure of patriarchy.

The painting’s protective glass was smashed and the canvas gashed with a knife, there was a great deal of publicity given to the event, as can be imagined but it was largely written off as violent thuggery by the elite. But it has remained in history so perhaps it was more than just vandalism.

The event was somewhat overshadowed by the death of Emily Wilding-Davidson at the Epsom Derby that summer of 1913 – a tragic event in it’s own right and something that captured the empathy of many – of all classes.

Both events were significant land marks in the struggle for female suffrage and live on in the history of the National Portrait Gallery, the history of the Derby and the history of 20th century feminism.

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