Who would ever think that a respectable middle-class English woman could attempt to brutally damage a great work of art in the centre of London? But this is exactly what happened at the National Gallery in London on 10 March 1914 when Mary Richardson, a small prim, smartly dressed woman in grey, walked up the steps of the gallery with a small axe concealed beneath her coat. She stopped in front of Velásquez’s so-called ‘Rokeby Venus’ which was standing on an easel in Room 17, temptingly accessible. The painting had been acquired for the National Gallery by the newly created National Art Collections Fund in 1906. The Times had described it as as ‘perhaps the finest painting of the nude in the world’. King Edward VII also greatly admired the painting and provided £8,000 towards its purchase.

Two detectives and a gallery attendant were guarding the picture and a nervous and agitated Richardson almost gave up on her premeditated plan. At around midday one of the detectives went for lunch and the other sat down, crossed his legs and opened up a newspaper thus hiding the painting from his view. Richardson quietly released the axe from inside her sleeve and seizing her chance, she stepped forward, took hold of the weapon and began swinging, landing what she later described as several ‘lovely shots’, smashing the protective glass and making numerous large slashes in the painted canvas.The room attendant’s initial belief that the breaking glass was coming from a skylight gave the woman precious time to carry on the attack, and the delay in stopping her was compounded by the attendant slipping on the recently-polished floor while running to intervene. However, the attacker was eventually restrained and arrested. On the next day, now identified as the well-known militant suffragette Mary Richardson, she was convicted on charges of malicious damage, and sentenced to the maximum penalty of six month’s imprisonment.

This attack was one of the strangest and most unlikely acts of artistic vandalism ever seen in Europe in modern times. It occurred not in a country of fanatical beliefs but in England, one of the most liberal and tolerant of democracies. Yet it was just one event in a ruthless campaign that set out to destroy precious national art treasures between 1913 and 1914. George Romney’s painting ‘Master Thornhill’, in the Birmingham Art Gallery, was slashed and numbers of other pictures were attacked. 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. In all, one hundred and forty-one acts of destruction were chronicled in the press during the first seven months of 1914.

The perpetrators of these outrages were not religious fanatics or fundamental revolutionaries but the suffragettes, a group of highly respectable middle class English ladies demanding the right for women to vote. Their violent assault on the national artistic heritage outraged the whole British nation and showed how blind dedication to a cause, no matter how reasonable can bring about an act so shocking as to be almost incomprehensible. At the time Mary Richardson claimed that she had done it in protest at the government imprisoning the leader of the suffragette movement, Mrs Pankhurst. In later years she revealed a secondary motive for the attack, claiming that she did not like the way that men looked at the nude, so associating herself with the long established anti-sensual traditions of the English puritan. Appropriately she later became a disciple of the fascist Oswald Mosley.

The ‘Rokeby Venus’ was an ideal target for suffragette attack as it was originally painted to display a body for Don Juanesque fantasies in a Spain where women were regarded as little more than objects of desire.. Venus’s face, which might reveal something of her individuality and mind, is blurred in the mirror, while her curving pelvis is placed in the centre of the composition. The reflection in Cupid’s mirror, gives the viewer a sense that she is looking back at them. The face appears much older than her body, notes the art critic Brian Sewell. ‘It’s a warning about beauty being ephemeral, nothing lasts forever.’

As with religious and political fanatics throughout history, the intrinsic beauty of the object under attack was irrelevant to Mary Richardson. When she had attacked the Rokeby Venus she was acting not as an individual but as a member of a committed group of fanatics whose sole concern was the triumph of their cause at whatever the cost.

The Rokeby Venus attack marked a significant escalation of these earlier incidents, as it was carried out with the deliberate intention of inflicting maximum damage to a particular, very famous, painting. The enormous publicity generated by Richardson’s arrest and conviction prompted a rush of similar copy-cat attacks – fourteen more paintings would be slashed and nine women arrested between March and July 1914. The  targets included the John Singer Sargent portrait of Henry James in the Royal Academy, which was attacked with a chopper by Mary Wood reportedly “an elderly woman of distinctly peaceable appearance”. Wood’s stated rationale was that, “I have tried to destroy a valuable picture because I wish to show the public that they have no security for their property nor for their art treasures until women are given political freedom. This assault was followed quickly by two more attacks at the same exhibition – Mary Ansell’s hatchet job on Herkomer’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which earned her six month’s imprisonment during which, reportedly, she was forcibly fed a scarcely believable 236 times; and Mary Spencer’s use of a meat cleaver to dissect ‘Primavera’, a teasing nude by Clausen. Elsewhere, five paintings in the Venetian Room at the National Gallery were slashed and attacks were carried out at the Doré Gallery, at Birmingham City Art Gallery, on Lavel’s portrait of George V, and on Millai’s portrait of Carlyle.

The whole sad business was summed up by The Times as follows: ‘One regretted that any person outside a lunatic asylum could conceive that such an act could advance any cause, political or otherwise.’