Suffragette Action

Read about the Gallery’s response to suffragette attacks on works of art.

Handwritten letter
1. Extract from letter J. D. Milner to Charles Holmes 24th May 1914.
A printed letter headed The Triplex Safety Glass Co. Ltd
2. Letter from Triplex Glass Co Ltd to Charles Holmes 13th March 1914.
A printed letter stamped Confidential in red
3. Confidential alert sent by Scotland Yard to the Gallery on 21st May 1914 warning of Suffragette action.

Newly discovered letters in the archive compliment existing records, showing how the Gallery navigated an era of ‘potential outrages by women’.

As the suffragettes accelerated their campaign of direct action in 1913, museums and galleries were warned of militants targeting artworks to deface or destroy. In January police recommended muffs and parcels be left at entrances like umbrellas, implying such accessories could be weaponised. In February national museums met with Scotland Yard to discuss collection security and access. If, as the Chief Commissioner of Police remarked, ‘suffragettes generally kept their word’, should women be denied entry unless they signed a declaration stating they would not cause damage? Complete closure of museums was dismissed because it could be indefinite: the question of female suffrage was unlikely to be resolved quickly. In response the Gallery took precautions to protect its most likely targets, ‘the large groups of the houses of parliament upon which it is possible that the suffragettes might attempt some outrage’. April 1913 saw the glass covering paintings at Manchester Art Gallery smashed and consequently a meeting of London museum heads convened. Attendees resolved that employing plain clothes police, not closing to female visitors, was the best possible precaution. Two duly started duty at the Gallery but by June this expense was questioned. After closing portions of the exhibition galleries the Trustees replaced the policemen with Gallery staff in plain clothes. However at the National Gallery on 10th March 1914 the painting known as the ‘Rokeby Venus’ was slashed by Mary Richardson and the Gallery reacted, closing to the general public for two weeks (although students were still admitted during that time).

In the aftermath of this incident Triplex Glass Co Ltd successfully marketed their product to the Gallery to protect artworks ‘even from considerable violence’ [2]. Triplex was substituted for plate glass over several ‘more important small pictures’. The Trustees resolved to ‘place the most valuable portraits just out of reach of ordinary attack’ and concentrated attendant staff by closing off the Reference Section, Sculpture Gallery, Room of Pictures and Drawings, and Rooms I and II. Staff dinner breaks decreased, afternoon tea was abolished and an earlier summer closing time was proposed ‘so that staff may not suffer by the curtailment of these intervals’. Floors were to be turpentined ‘to reduce slippery polish’, perhaps referencing the ‘Rokeby Venus’ attack where pursuers slipped giving chase.

The Gallery reopened to the public on 25th March 1914 but further incidents occurred. The Director, Sir Charles Holmes, wrote to Assistant Keeper James Milner about the Royal Academy on 12th May, ‘I hear that there has been another outrage at the RA. If only they would cut up the Chantrey purchase of Lucretia Borgia! But we can hardly expect so much sense.’ Here as elsewhere the cause underlying militant action was ignored. Holmes instead expressed his negative opinion of a new acquisition by Tate Gallery (N02973). Of a second attack at the National Gallery on 22nd May he stated, ‘It is a pity the N.G. did not put up a barrier. Five Bellinis at a blow once more illustrates the entire incompetence of the staff’. Elsewhere Holmes detailed further practical measures taken to tighten security: the catalogue stall was shut, Tudor Room closed ‘hermetically’ and the staff manning them redeployed. He requested wired glass for windows above his desk in case this was thought ‘a favourable spot for the insertion of combustibles.’ Responding, Milner mocked debate surrounding female access to museum spaces,

‘If women are to be admitted to public galleries there seems no alternative but to hand-cuff their hands behind their backs and to put up a grille to prevent them butting or barging into the pictures. Only under these conditions do I think it safe to admit them.’

During spring 1914 Scotland Yard continued communicating intelligence about militant activities [3]. Images of suffragettes were circulated. In a letter dated 19th May Holmes remarked to Milner ‘Another warning and two more photographs of suffragettes have arrived’. Staff implemented surveillance, on one occasion following a woman later identified as a suffragette around the Gallery because of her ‘appearance and demeanour’. On 21st May Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested and attendant staff noted ‘Suffragettes at Buckingham Palace – Gallery closed at 4pm’. Writing to the Chairman of the Trustees on 23rd May Holmes’ response to the threat level was practical if over-confident,

‘The things in the Gallery which might be irreparably damaged have been put out of the way, so that we are really in a different position from the National Gallery or the Wallace Collection.’
Handwritten letter in black ink
4. Report written by Attendant David Wilson on 17th July 1914 about the attack on NPG 968 .
Black and white photo of a portrait with slashes across it
5. Emery Walker photograph of damage to the painting of Thomas Carlyle by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, 1877 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
A handwritten letter with feint ink
6. Suggested text for visitor declaration submitted by Mrs Norman MacLehose 20th July 1914.

Institutions managed visitor access differently and letters from spring/summer 1914 show members of the public were confused. Was the Gallery closed to visitors, or specifically female visitors, or not? Some correspondents emphasised the non-suffragette status of interested females. A party of American ladies were described by Herbert A. White (Editor at ‘The Standard’ newspaper),

‘known to me not only as non-militants and anti-suffragists, but also as earnest and appreciative lovers and students of art ... concede them the privilege they would otherwise be deprived by the furies who are disgracing our country in the eyes of all other nations.’

In fact excepting the 10th - 24th of March the Gallery was open to the public in a reduced form throughout the period, and owing to the closure of the National Gallery experienced a surge in visitor numbers during July 1914. This policy was pursued even when the Gallery became the focus of attack that month,

‘East Wing closed at 11.30 temporarily. Suffragette outrage, Portrait of Carlyle by Millais damaged by butcher’s cleaver; name given as Anne Hunt. Reopened East Wing at 12 noon to the public. Gallery kept open.’ (Turnstile Account Book entry, 17th July 1914)

The day of the attack was a student day, meaning all non-students paid an entry fee. From the Director’s written account, on the morning of the attack Attendant Wilson recognised Anne Hunt from the previous day; he had thought her American ‘from the closeness from which she then examined the pictures.’ Wilson’s suspicions were aroused because ‘no American would have paid the 6d entrance fee twice over’. Unable to follow her beyond his post, he then heard glass shatter. Two female students were copying portraits when Hunt struck at least three times, slashing Carlyle's portrait. One student, followed by an attendant, rushed to restrain her [4].

Holmes’ report and contemporary news coverage indicate that for the rest of that day, whilst Hunt was removed to police custody and witness statements given, the damaged canvas remained on public view [5]. It wasn’t until a restorer, Mr F. Haines, viewed the work at 5 o’clock that the portrait was removed. The frame and broken glass were then re-hung on the wall.

Press discourse was very unsympathetic, characterising Hunt as a ‘Hatchet Fiend’, ‘Wild Woman’ and ‘Fury With a Chopper’. A member of the public immediately wrote to offer a replacement portrait of Carlyle, prompted by press coverage. The Gallery’s immediate concern was for the restoration of the work. Its wider view was perhaps summed up by the Deputy Chairman of the Trustees. Despite efforts to safeguard the Collection he reflected, ‘we really are at the mercy of women who are determined.’

Mrs Norman MacLehose, a self-described ‘law abiding suffragist’, wrote to the Gallery days later enclosing a specimen declaration to be signed by all visitors, but in fact the Gallery did not further restrict entry by the general public [6]. Only suffragettes who had previously attacked artworks would be refused admission. Anne Hunt complained of forcible feeding in custody when sentenced to six months imprisonment and on 27th July was released under the infamous Cat and Mouse Act. Mary Richardson had been released the previous day. Hunt revisited the Gallery on 31st August and Milner afterwards reported to Holmes, ‘Wilson said he got quite a shock when he saw her, she smiled and nodded to him... if Carlyle’s mutilator should return she is not to be admitted... I have also included Mary Richardson in my instructions’.

In reality Milner’s orders were surplus to requirements. Suffragette leaders called an end to militant tactics when war was declared in August, redirecting their energies into the war effort. Hunt’s attack was the last of its kind. Within the Gallery concern over war overtook fear of militancy. Writing on 24th August Milner remarked to Holmes, ‘I daresay Carlyle’s sufferings must have distracted your attention, but everything is over shadowed now’.

The institutional response to the threat and reality of direct suffragette action had been practical. As Holmes put it, ‘to keep the Gallery open outrage or no outrage.’ Records show a lack of engagement with the political aims underlying militant attacks and senior staff often preoccupied with everyday business. These factors combined with the shadow of war to obscure the significance of the suffragettes’ actions. The impact of militancy on the Gallery was therefore immediate rather than lasting or transformative. This is shown by a letter Milner wrote parodying the long process of printing Gallery publications on 21st August 1914. All slept, ‘until some gentle lady came along with a hammer, smashed some glass and woke up the whole house. Then all went to sleep again’. Perhaps a century later we can revisit events, and by looking more closely at the records left behind evoke Anne Hunt’s words at her trial, ‘This picture will be of added value and of great historical importance because it has been honoured by the attention of a Militant’. After all we are interested now for that very reason.

Bryony Millan, Archivist.