Turning the Tables

Thomas Carlyle – racism and memory

This explosive performative lecture explores the moment in 1914 when suffragette Margaret Gibb smuggled an axe into the National Portrait Gallery and attacked a portrait of Thomas Carlyle. 

Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) was a founder of the National Portrait Galleries in both England and Scotland. He was a towering, celebrity intellectual of the Victorian era who was also a notorious racist. He used his influence to call for the return of slavery just a few years after abolition. 

Today his portrait can be found at the entrance to both these institutions. In the performance, Bird calls for the museums to be open and accountable about the divisive history and legacy of founders such as Carlyle.

Still from Turning the Tables. Bird in academic drag standing in front of a large projection of a photo of the foyer of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The mural features the great and good of Scottish history in a linear procession led by Thomas Carlyle. The mural style is neo-gothic.

Suffragette Margaret Skirving Gibb (1877–1954)  claimed her choice of portrait was a mere co-incidence. But given that Carlyle believed in the destiny of great men (there were no great women in his book), Bird begs the question: Was this supposedly random act one of feminist fate?

Bird picks up the where Margaret left off and explores the dangerous legacy of Thomas Carlyle including his part in the history of racism, his wilful act of writing women out of history and his desire to return to feudalism.

Bird brings the Carlyle story bang up to date by exploring his ongoing presence and influence not only in the museum but in his new incarnation as a meme.

The lecture brings to light racism and imperialism within the suffragette movement and brings the relationship of celebrity and outsider romantic racists up to date by exploring queer icon Morrissey.


Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery as part of Queer Perspectives and Rebel Women 2018. With thanks to Sadie Lee and Fiona Smith.