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Political Vandalism, Art and Gender


Suffragettes, the British feminists who fought for women's right to vote, carried out several dramatic and remarkable attacks on works of art during the years 1913-14. In August 1914 the outbreak of the First World War soon overshadowed the activities of the suffragettes, and since then the movement has been largely forgotten. Nevertheless, these attacks still stand as examples of some of the strangest and most disturbing displays of civil disobedience in modern Europe.

The editors of the Danish art journal ARK were recently made aware of the most famous of these attacks, namely the attack by Mary Richardson on Velázquez' Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in London. During a visit to London we investigated the matter, which is still being kept secret by the National Gallery today. Of course the painting itself has been restored, and one needs to know exactly where the knife cut the canvas in order to detect the marks on the surface of the painting. However, if one stands a little to the left of the painting - close to the frame - it is possible to see the faint, pale scars on Venus's back.

During our stay in London we tried in vain to gain access to the archive files regarding the case at the National Gallery. We were denied access on the grounds that it was "classified material", which the museum did not want published in order to - in their own words - avoid "giving people ideas". This refusal naturally prompted our curiosity, and we succeeded in procuring a contemporary, black and white photograph of the painting taken immediately after the attack. We have superimposed a section of this photograph over a modern colour reproduction of Velázquez's painting. Thus it is possible for the first time since 1914 to see a colour reproduction of the painting as it must have looked after Mary Richardson's attack.

It is our belief that the refusal of the National Gallery to allow ARK to study the archive material is symptomatic of how the museum as an institution can completely suppress the existence of such acts of vandalism, which - although they are not recommendable - indicate that there is a world outside the walls of the museum.

Mary Richardson brought the outside world into the museum in a very concrete manner when she hid a meat cleaver under her coat in 1914. She thereby brought a world of politics and strife with her into the quiet rooms of the museum. This breach of etiquette was so serious that the institution still - more than 80 years later - suppresses it ever took place. According to the National Gallery it never happened. The Venus hangs beautiful and unscathed on the museum wall, and nothing can tell us of the drama that took place here, and which contributed to British women acquiring the right to vote in 1918 and the same legal status as men in 1928. But let us go back to the beginning...

Since the beginning of the century, the suffragette movement had been organized in a number of large organizations that availed themselves of historically unprecedented tactics in order to make their cause more visible. The most important of these organizations was the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union), which was founded in 1903, and was led by the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928).

In despair over the absence of parliamentary reforms, the movement transformed itself in the period 1912-14 from a traditional campaign movement to a kind of guerrilla movement, which made use of warfare tactics. The movement concentrated on attacking private property, including breaking windows, burning letterboxes, setting houses on fire, and vandalism of paintings. An excerpt of Emmeline Pankhurst's daughter Sylvia Pankhurst's account of the history of the suffragette movement paints a picture of this development:

"The destruction wrought in the seven months of 1914 before the War excelled that of the previous year. Three Scotch castles were destroyed by fire on a single night. The Carnegie Library in Birmingham was burnt. The Rokeby Venus, falsly, as I consider, attributed to Velázquez, and purchased for the National Gallery at a cost of £45,000, was mutilated by Mary Richardson. Romney's Master Thornhill, in the Birmingham Art Gallery, was slashed by Bertha Ryland, daughter of an early Suffagist. Carlyle's portrait of Millais [sic] in the National Portrait Gallery, and numbers of other pictures were attacked, a Bartolozzi drawing in the Doré Gallery being completely ruined. Many large empty houses in all parts of the country were set on fire, including Redlynch House, Sommerset, where the damage was estimated at £ 40,000. Railway stations, piers, sports pavilions, haystacks were set on fire. Attempts were made to blow up reservoirs. A bomb exploded in Westminster Abbey, and in the fashionable church of St George's, Hanover Square, where a famous stained-glass window from the Malines was damaged ... One hundred and forty-one acts of destruction were chronicled in the Press during the first seven months of 1914."

Mary Richardson's attack on the painting took place around 11 a.m. on 10 March 1914. A slight woman wearing a tight grey skirt and a coat had stood for some time in front of the Rokeby Venus, apparently in deep contemplation of the painting, when she suddenly smashed the protective glass in front of the canvas, and began "hacking furiously at the picture with a chopper which, it is assumed, she had concealed under her jacket." When she was apprehended by a guard on duty in the room, she calmly surrendered and allowed herself to be led to the inspector's office with the words, "Yes, I am a suffragette. You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life, as they are killing Mrs Pankhurst." She was referring to Emmeline Pankhurst, who at the time was on hunger strike in Holloway Prison.

When she was arrested at the museum, Mary Richardson herself was only on temporary leave from prison as a part of the so-called "Cat and Mouse Act" (prisoners were released from prison in a weakened state and brought back when they had sufficiently recovered). She wrote a brief statement to the WSPU, explaining her actions. This was immediately printed by the press, and it deserves to be reproduced here in its entirety:

"I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. Mrs Pankhurst seeks to procure justice for womanhood, and for this she is being slowly murdered by a Government of Iscariot politicians. If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy."

In court Mary Richardson added that she had been an art student, but that she cared more for justice than for art, and that she therefore saw her act as understandable, if not excusable. In an interview in 1952, nearly 40 years after the deed, Mary Richardson gave yet another reason for her action: "I didn't like the way men visitors gaped at it all day long."

The feminist art historian Lynda Nead has noted that "the incident has come to symbolize a particular perception of feminist attitudes towards the female nude" and - more generally - "a specific stereotypical image of feminism". She concludes on the basis of the contemporary reactions to the act of vandalism that the value of the painting was not only financial or artistic, but "was also measured in terms of its representation of a certain kind of femininity and its position in the formation of a national cultural heritage." It is interesting to note that the market value of the Rokeby Venus rose sharply following the attack

After the attack the National Gallery, the Wallace Collection, and the National Portrait Gallery (where a similar attack had taken place) were closed to women visitors. Later, women were only admitted in the company of men who could vouch for their good conduct!

Mary Richardson's attack in 1914 was not only a politically motivated act of vandalism, but was also a precisely orchestrated demonstration of how the art museum - as a kind of fourth or fifth State power - not only administered or controlled the individual works of art, but also took part in the perpetuation of the existing gender roles. The fact that the museums were closed to all women demonstrates that the art institution regarded any woman as a potential adversary, and thereby they revealed themselves as 'masculine' institutions.

It is beyond doubt that the museums suffered from a collective phobia of women after the attack. A museum director, who wanted to express his sympathy after a similar attack at the National Portrait Gallery, wrote in a letter to one of his colleagues that "The fact that people of good intent were standing by, and unable to prevent the outrage, shows how much we really are at the mercy of women who are determined."

The question which Mary Richardson carved out with a meat cleaver on Velazquez's canvas, and which the National Gallery allowed restorers to erase, is about the relationship between art and gender: a relationship which can surely still be debated today, in spite of the reticence of the National Gallery.

Dario Gamboni: The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, London 1997.
David Freedberg: The Iconoclasts and their Motives, Maarssen/The Hague, 1985, 1989.
Lynda Nead: The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, London/New York 1992.
Diana Atkinson: The Suffragettes in Pictures, London 1996.

Lars Kiel Bertelsen and Klaus Christensen are editors of the art journal ARK.

Digital graphics: Jan Skovgård.

A paper print of this article, including an exclusive colour reproduction of the reconstruction of the slashed Velázquez painting, can be ordered from the editors at the following address: ARK, Nordkapvej 13, DK-8200 Århus N, Denmark. E-mail: The paper print costs DKK 50,00 incl. international postage.

(c) copyright ARK 1999.

Translation: Britt Keson.

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