Archive for February 6th, 2010

Rats, murder and cleaver-wielding suffragettes

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

All of that and more can be found in the newly uploaded online archives of the National Portrait Gallery. The archives, previously available by appointment only, track the fascinating history of the NPG since its founding in 1856.

The digitization project is two years old and they’ve got a third of the archive online, which is over 15,000 descriptions of a variety of records, including letters, posters, articles, reports, pictures, even x-rays. More records are being added to the online catalogue every day.

The rat killing list, 1940-1943Among the correspondence and reports from the Gallery from 1940 to 1946 when the entire collection had been moved out of town to Mentmore, a mansion in Buckinghamshire, for safekeeping during the war. Apparently while the cats were away, the mice did literally play. There are carefully annotated lists of every rat killed, where and how. My favorite is the one killed in the library “speared by Pittock with poker after it had escaped, with great excitement”.

Portrait of Thomas Carlyle by Sir John Everett Millais, 1877Then there’s the story of the portrait of Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle that so enraged a suffragette she slashed his face with a meat cleaver in 1914. She claimed to be protesting the repeated arrests of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, but I’m not clear on why poor Mr. Carlyle got it in the face.

On a tragic note, the gallery archive describes a shocking, bloody murder-suicide that took place in Room 27 in the east wing of the NPG in 1909. A well-dressed 70-year-old gentleman was viewing portraits with his 58-year-old wife when he took out a revolver, shot his wife in the head then shot himself. The man died instantly. His wife survived a little longer, bleeding profusely all over the parquet floor. The subsequent cleanup is a focal point of the report.

Who knew a portrait gallery could see so much dramatic action?

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