Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, November 7, 2016

Mary Richardson, Suffragette, "Vandal," and Fascist

Mary Raleigh Richardson (died 7 November 1961)

I've posted many times here about women's long fight to gain the vote and about women who participated in that fight--some of them compelled to acts of violence. Mary Richardson is one of the most complex and complicated figures in the suffrage movement.

A surveillance photograph
of Mary Richardson,
taken in 1913 by Scotland Yard
Born in England in 1882, Richardson was raised in Ontario, Canada, by her Canadian mother and grandfather, returning to Britain when she was sixteen. Her life at the end of the nineteenth century seemed conventional enough--in 1898, for example, she was studying art, and then she traveled to Paris and to Italy. Once she completed her education, she moved to Bloomsbury and began a career as a journalist. 

But after witnessing the violence of the Black Friday Protests of 18 November 1910, Richardson found her life transformed, and she joined the Women's Social and Political Union, the militant suffrage group founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and dedicated to "deeds not words."

In 1912, the WSPU began a campaign of arson, directed by Pankhurst's daughter Christabel--the group attempted to destroy homes of members of parliament, then escalated their campaign to include setting fire to railway stations and other public facilities, cutting telephone lines, and destroying the contents of mailboxes.

Mary Richardson was committed to this increasingly militant--and violent--campaign, which she regarded as "a holy crusade." As biographer Hilda Kean describes the physical sufferings borne by Richardson as a result of her participation in these acts of politically motivated violence:  
She was arrested nine times, serving several sentences in Holloway prison for assaulting the police, breaking windows, and arson. She was frequently attacked while campaigning for the suffrage cause: her shoulder blade was broken and her clothing torn to shreds when she presented a petition to George V in Bristol in 1913. She campaigned with the socialist Sylvia Pankhurst in east London and was arrested and then imprisoned with her after a rally in Bromley by Bow in July 1913. 
Mary Richardson was one of the first two women to be force fed, under the "Cat and Mouse Act" in 1913, having been arrested at the scene of an arson attack. She suffered extensive bruising and poor health as a result, writing about this experience as "torture." When released in 1914 after a long period of forcible feeding, she declared, "The worst fight on record since the movement began is now raging in Holloway."  
However, Mary Richardson's most infamous act of political protest was not on a private home or a public building but on a work of art: on 10 March 1914 she slashed a painting in the National Gallery, Diego Velázquez's nude portrait of Venus, Venus at her Toilet, now known as the Rokeby Venus (so-called because the painting was first brought to England and hung at Rokeby Park, Yorkshire, before being acquired by the National Gallery in 1906). 

The Rokeby Venus after
Richardson's attack,
photo published in The Times, 1914

Richardson was not the first suffragette to attack a work of art as an act of political protest. Five years earlier, in 1909, a suffrage poster demanding "Votes for Women" had been stuck onto a Royal Academy exhibit of a portrait of Herbert Henry Asquith, the Prime Minister (the portrait itself was behind glass, the poster stuck to the glass). 

In 1912, the Royal Academy had decided to close its annual winter exhibition early because of the WSPU campaign--the Academy noted that its decision was made in order to "safeguard the valuable pictures now on loan." The next year, in April of 1913, a group of women had broken the glass protecting a number of paintings at the Manchester Art Gallery, damaging more than a dozen works, including paintings by Edward Burne-Jones, Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 

Two months later, in June 1913, a group of suffragettes attempted to disrupt the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition by holding a meeting in one of the galleries, and the Academy took precautions by instituting security measures, locking cupboards, gates and doors. But they suffered during the next year's exhibition: on 4 May 1914, the suffragette "Mary Wood" (Mary Aldham) broke the glass protecting John Singer Sargent's  portrait of the author Henry James and slashed the painting three times with a meat cleaver while crying "Votes for women!" Further attacks followed: despite precautions, Gertrude Mary Ansell attacked the Royal Academy portrait of the duke of Wellington on 12 May, and Mary Spencer attacked George Clausen's Primavera on 26 May.  

But Mary Richardson's slashing of the nude Venus remains the most notorious of these acts of artistic vandalism. As Richardson described her act and its motivations to The Times,
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. ("Miss Richardson's Statement, The Times, 11 March 1914)
While Richardson's attack may be the most infamous, it was not the last act of vandalism against art undertaken by the suffragettes to gain attention to their cause. According to Rowena Clausen, some fourteen incidents were to follow, with suffragettes attacking works they found especially offensive: paintings of nude women and portraits of powerful men.

After this spate of violence against works of art, many museums closed their doors to unaccompanied women. (For Helena Bonett's "‘Deeds not words’: Suffragettes and the Summer Exhibition," posted at the Royal Academy's website, click here.)

The restored Rokeby Venus

Like many suffragettes, including the Pankhursts, Richardson suspended her political activities during the war and returned to writing, publishing a novel, Matilda and Marcus (1915), and two volumes of poetry, Symbol Songs (1916) and Wilderness Love Songs (1917). A third book of poetry, Cornish Headlands, was published after the end of the war, in 1920.

After some women women gained the right to vote in 1918 as a result of the Representation of the People Act,* and as a result of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, which removed limits on jobs because of sex, Richardson stood for parliament, in 1922 as a candidate, for the Labour party,  in 1924 as an independent socialist, and in 1931, again as a Labour candidate. She was never elected.

In 1934 she joined the British Union of Fascists, becoming the "organizing secretary" for the "women's section." She spoke for the party and wrote for the press on its behalf. But by 1935 she left the party. She would later try to explain her attraction to the fascist party: "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 suffrage movement."

It was this, her year as a fascist supporter and party member--more than her participation in acts of violence and vandalism--that seems to have damaged Richardson's reputation and memory beyond repair. When she eventually published her autobiography, Laugh a Defiance, in 1953, she omitted any account of this part of her political career. 

In her entry on Richardson in the Dictionary of National Biography, Hilda Kean notes that Richardson not only gave numerous accounts and varying interpretations of her career throughout her life, but that she maintained "total silence on her fascist activities." (If you don't have access to the DNB, Kean provides a version of her biographical entry here.)

Here, for example, is Richardson's later rationale for her political act of artistic vandalism: 
Law and its application reflected public opinion. Values were stressed from a financial point of view and not the human. I felt I must make my protest from the financial point of view, therefore, 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. A painting came to mind. Yes, yes--the Venus Velasquez had painted, hanging in the National Gallery. It was highly prized for its worth in cash. If I could damage it, I reasoned, I could draw my parallel. The fact that I had disliked the painting would make it easier for me to do what was in my mind. 
Richardson's autobiography is long out of print. No used copies are available (at the time of writing) on Amazon, and the book is unavailable through Google Books, Internet Archive, and Project Gutenberg. (See update, below). You can get a copy through Inter-Library Loan, however--here's a link to the book on WorldCat.

*The 1918 act eliminated almost all property requirements for men, allowing them to vote at age 21. The act did not eliminate all property requirements for women, nor did it grant them the right to vote until they reached the age of 30. This discrepancy was enacted deliberately to insure that women did not become the majority of the electorate--since so many men had died during the war, fears were that extending the suffrage to women on equal terms would place them in an "unfair" position. For equal enfranchisement, women had to wait another decade, until the passage of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act.

Update, February 2018: In honor of the centenary of some British women at last gaining the right to vote (the 1918 Representation of the People Act, 6 February 1918), the BBC's History Extra podcast has produced two excellent shows: "The Suffragettes" and "The Pankhursts." Enjoy!

Update, 15 January 2024: Laugh a Defiance is now available through the Internet Archive (click here).