Archive for the ‘rokeby venus’ Tag

Art Vandals 3: From suffragette to fascist

Weapon: Meat cleaver

Reason: Political, gender political

venus-and-cupid-diego-velazquez Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery painting slashed vandalised

Venus and Cupid by Diego Velazquez

Today I went on a guided historical walk around the East End of London entitled ‘Anti-Fascist Footprints’ led by David Rosenberg, a specialist in East End history, husband of a former colleague of mine at Channel 4. During the tour we walked right past the offices of Little Dot Studios in Whitechapel’s Plumbers Row where I have been working since the company moved from Shoreditch towards the end of last year. David and I recently co-interviewed a veteran of the 43 Group anti-fascist group out of the East End. A (to me) surprising connection came up on the walk this afternoon – one of the photos David showed of a group of women BUF (British Union of Fascists) members included a certain Mary Raleigh Richardson who was on my radar from a completely other angle – as an Art Vandal.

Mary Richardson was the Suffragette who slashed the so-called Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in 1914.

The Rokeby Venus is the nickname of The Toilet of Venus aka Venus at her Mirror aka Venus and Cupid painted by Velázquez between 1647 and 1651. It resides in London’s National Gallery. It is the only extant female nude by the Spanish artist. It reached these shores in 1813 when it was purchased by the MP John Morritt for £500 and hung in his home, Rokeby Park, Yorkshire. In 1906 the newly created National Art Collections Fund acquired it for the National Gallery, its first significant campaigning win.

Eight years on, on 10th March 1914, Mary Richardson marched into the National Gallery and slashed the canvas seven times with the distinctly domestic weapon of a meat cleaver. Her action was prompted by the arrest of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst the day before. There had been earlier warnings of an attack on the National Gallery collection, so the plan may already have been in place. Richardson’s slashes were deepest between Venus’ shoulders but covered her back and buttock too. The attack earned her the nickname Slasher Mary in the press. The London Times described a “cruel wound in the neck” and feminist commentators have remarked that the contemporary reports sound more like injuries to an actual body rather than a pictorial representation, indicating that both the incident and the painting have come to take on an emblematic dimension.

Why did Richardson do it? She told the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant suffragette group led by Emmeline Pankhurst, shortly after the incident: “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.” The WSPU endorsed the destruction of property as a tactic to draw attention to women’s suffrage. Years later (in a 1952 interview) she added that she didn’t like “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long”.

Richardson’s statement explaining her actions to the WSPU:

“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.”

It’s interesting to note that Venus is not looking at herself in the mirror as we see her reflected face front on – the implication is she is looking at us, the male viewer. This may have inspired Manet’s similar mirror trick in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, also in a London gallery – the Courtauld – which I wrote about as a Picture of the Month in 2010. In that painting the female gaze defiantly and directly challenges us the male observer. It is worth noting that Richardson did not go for the eyes.

mary Richardson slashed the rokeby Venus velazquez

The cuts were successfully repaired by the gallery’s chief restorer Helmut Ruhemann and the painting was soon back on display.

Mary-Richardson-and-Policemen-national gallery rokeby

Mary Richardson at the National Gallery straight after the attack

Richardson was sentenced to a six month stretch in  prison, the maximum for destruction of an artwork.

Richardson was born in 1882 in Ontario, Canada. She made her way to Bloomsbury via France and Italy.

She bore witness to Black Friday on 18th November 1910 when a march of 300 women to Parliament was violently set upon by the police (much as the anti-fascists were at the Battle of Cable Street we were discussing on site this afternoon). The march started from Caxton Hall near Channel 4 HQ. A certain Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, rejected calls for a public enquiry after the event – interesting in view of the debate about whether Churchill was a goodie or baddie this last week precipitated by John McDonnell’s comments about Churchill being a villain over the Tonypandy miners’ riots in the very same year (1910).

Black-friday suffragette march attacked by police

Black Friday violence on women marchers

Richardson was also present at the Epsom races on Derby Day, 4th June 1913, when Emily Davison was trampled by the King’s horse. Richardson was chased and beaten by an angry mob but given refuge in Epsom Downs railway station by a porter.

Slasher Mary already had form by the time of the Rokeby attack. She had committed a number of acts of arson; smashed windows at the Home Office; and bombed a train station. She was arrested nine times and received prison sentences totalling over three years. She was one of the first two women force-fed under the 1913 Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act, in Holloway Prison. I wonder whether it all drove her a bit crazy…

In 1932 Richardson joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by Oswald Mosley. She had come to the conclusion – a real-life Miss Jean Brodie – that fascism was the “only path to a Greater Britain”. She explained that “I was first attracted to the Blackshirts because I saw in them the courage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service and the ability to serve which I had known in the suffragette movement”. The “Iscariot politicians” comment in her post-art vandalism statement may have been a bit of a giveaway. Richardson rose rapidly through the ranks of the party and within two years (1934) she was Chief Organiser for the Women’s Section of the party. Mosley, in contrast to Hitler’s view that women were fit for Kinder and Küche only, encouraged them to play an active role in the BUF. However Richardson left within two years because she felt disillusioned about the sincerity of Mosley’s policy on women. (Two other prominent suffragettes who took high office in the BUF were Dublin-born Norah Elam and Cardiff-born Mary Sophia Allen.) The BUF, inspired by Mussolini’s Fascists and the whole Italian Futurist vibe, sold itself as a movement of action, youth and dynamism. Its official newspaper was called Action. It is probably in the notion of Action that Richardson’s suffragette and fascist careers meet.

Training at the Women's BUF HQ. Mary Richardson is standing at the back.

Training at the Women’s BUF HQ. Mary Richardson is standing at the back.

 

 

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