About this artwork

To the essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’. The best way to gain a greater understanding of them was by seeing their faces in portraits painted during their lifetime. It is an indication of how influential Carlyle was that his advocating for the establishment of a national portrait gallery soon led to the foundation of such institutions in both London and Edinburgh. However, his worship of history’s natural-born ‘heroes’ was not underpinned by a belief that all humans are equal, as he critiqued the idea of universal male suffrage and blamed the decline of Britain’s West India colonies on the ‘laziness’ of emancipated slaves.