The Latymer School History Magazine - page 24

A painting showing the
suffragette Mary Richardson
slashing Diego Velázquez's
Rokeby Venus at the National
Gallery (To the left)
Whether or not the methods
of the Suffragettes are
agreed with, they were
successful in achieving the
vote for women. When their
previously peaceful tactics
were unsuccessful, the
Women’s Social and Political
Union (WSPU) was set up by
Emmeline Pankhurst and her
daughters. Its motto “deeds
not words” displayed their
more radical and militant
strategies which lasted until
the outbreak of the First
World War. The violent
‘deeds’ carried out in London
was evidence of their
determination and attracted
a great deal of attention. This
included arson, bombings
and surprisingly, iconoclasm
(attacks on art).
Perhaps the most famous
example of vandalism was
carried out by Mary
Richardson who, in 1914
gained notoriety for the
suffragette cause. A devoted
supporter of Pankhurst, she
committed arson multiple
times, smashed windows at
the Home Office and
bombed a railway station. As
a result, she was arrested
nine times. However, the act
of defiance for which
Richardson is famous, is her
attack on the Rokeby Venus
painting in the National
Gallery on 10
th
March 1914.
She smuggled an axe into
the gallery and slashed the
painting by Velasquez seven
times.
The attack was premeditated
and approved by Christabel
Pankhurst and was in
response to Emmeline
Pankhurst's arrest. Her
devotion to Emmeline was
evident when, in her trial she
said “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”. This statement
was reported in The Times
the day after the attack. I
wonder whether the readers
that day fully appreciated the
symbolic meaning behind
the attack, as indicated by
this rather poetic
explanation.
The destruction of the
Rokeby Venus enabled
Richardson to come near to
showing her anger through
‘blood-shedding’ without
actually endangering
humans
.
‘Wounding’ the
painting, which portrays a
woman, represented (and
possibly avenged) the pains
inflicted upon the
imprisoned Suffragettes. But
why choose this specific
painting? Richardson
targeted this piece intending
to turn Venus - a symbol of
physical beauty, inactive
womanhood and a
voluptuous object purely for
male observation — into a
symbol of Emmeline
Pankhurst. This was a woman
who stood for moral beauty,
proactive womanhood and
political militancy.
In an interview years later,
Richardson reflected on her
actions:
“I felt I must make
my protest from the financial
point of view ... as well as
letting it be seen as
a symbolic act. I had to draw
the parallel between the
public’s indifference to Mrs
Pankhurst’s slow destruction
and the destruction of some
financially valuable object...it
was highly prized
for its
worth in cash ...the fact that I
disliked the painting would
make it easier for me to do
what was in my mind”.
Her
actions, though extreme
were representative of her
anger with the government
and the public. So emotive
was her attack that between
May and July of that year she
inspired 14 more attacks on
works of art and 9 women
arrested. In response to this,
many London museums and
galleries denied access to
female visitors, scared that
this vandalism would
continue. The slashing of the
painting seemed only to fuel
the suffragettes
determination and inspire
the militancy which
characterised their
movement.
In addition to iconoclasm,
the Suffragettes used other
forms of vandalism to attract
the attention of government.
Corrosive chemicals were
poured into letter boxes and
their contents set alight. They
targeted institutions which
had been traditionally
reserved for men; digging
up golf courses, painted
slogans across the greens,
burning both horse racing
venues and cricket pavilions.
They specifically tattered
THE ROKEBY VENUS
How an act of vandalism showed the determination of the Suffragettes
By Raffaella Culora
24
Did you know…
The arts played
a more positive
role in the
suffrage
movement -
music provided
an advertising
outlet for
suffrage
organisations
and musicians,
while the
pressure of anti-
suffragists and
politicians
pushed those
involved in the
woman suffrage
movement to
band together
and gave the
people involved
a sense of a
collective
identity.
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