Dismal Thoughts | Thomas Carlyle on Race

As part of a wider process of reviewing the collection, we commissioned Lisa Williams, Director of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association, to respond to the portraits of controversial nineteenth-century essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) currently on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. In this short talk recorded at home, Williams takes an in-depth look at Carlyle’s racist ideology, its contemporary reception and the individuals who critiqued his ideas in his own time. 

Carlyle was a celebrity of his day, whose published writing had a huge contemporary cultural impact. His writing and ideas were central to the founding of Scottish National Portrait Gallery which opened its doors in 1889. Symbolically, Carlyle leads the procession of significant historical figures around the frieze in the gallery’s Great Hall, in his words, ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’. Many of Carlyle’s ideas are now discredited, the limitations of the partial historical narrative his writing represents have been challenged for many decades.

This is part of our regular programme of talks that has gone online whilst our galleries are currently closed.



By Lisa Williams, 23 November 2020