Mary Richardson was a Suffragette who found most fame when she vandalised a painting by Velasquez at the National Gallery in London. Few would dispute that Richardson was one of the more hard line Suffragettes, as her friendship with Emily Wilding Davison of 1913 Derby fame would indicate. However, Suffragettes like Mary Richardson would have argued that their actions were only prompted by the stubbornness of those in authority to give women the right to vote. 

Mary Raleigh Richardson was born in Canada in 1889. However, she became very active in the British Suffragette movement and very much looked up to the founder Emmeline Pankhurst. When she later wrote about her experiences in the Suffragettes she always referred to the Suffragette founder as Mrs. Pankhurst.

Frustrated by the failure of Parliament to accept their desire to have equal voting rights to men, the Suffragettes turned to more and more destructive actions. Churches were attacked. The same happened to politicians who were known to bee anti-female suffrage. A bomb was planted in Westminster Abbey.

Mary Richardson was one of the Suffragettes who supported such action and she was prepared to go to jail as a result of participating in illegal activities. In fact Richardson was arrested on nine separate occasions and when in prison was force-fed after going on hunger strike. On one occasion she thrust a Suffragette petition into the hands of an unsuspecting George V when she leapt onto the running board of his carriage as it went along the street. Her most famous action was taking an axe to the Velasquez masterpiece ‘Rokeby Venus’ in London’s National Gallery on March 10th 1914. The picture was slashed seven times. Richardson later recounted her account of what happened on that day:

“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. I made my plans carefully and sent a copy of them to Christabel, setting out my reasons for such an action. The days, while I waited for her reply, seemed endless. But at last the message came, “Carry out your plan”.

But it was easier to make a plan than carry it out. As the day approached when I should have to act I grew nervous. It was as though the task I had set myself was bigger than I could accomplish. I hesitated, hedged with myself, tried to say that someone else would be better able to do such a job than I. It will be difficult for anyone who has not known service in a great cause to understand my suffering.

The hours of hesitation were brought unexpectedly to an end by an announcement in the evening newspaper. “Mrs. Pankhurst taken from platform at Kensington (Glasgow) meeting.” This made me act. Regardless of the immediate risk I went out to spend my last shillings on an axe. I mention that these were my last shillings to show that I, like other militants, lived on our own small incomes and were not able to draw on large sums of money from our headquarters, as was commonly reported. All we had given to us was care in sickness, hospitality during convalescence, and clothes to replace what were torn from our backs or lost.

The following morning I refused breakfast but sat for a while and enjoyed Mrs. Lyons reading aloud from the newspapers. I told her I should be away for a fortnight or perhaps longer. She looked troubled. The pressure of her hand on mine when I bade goodbye to her half an hour later told me she had guessed the reason for my absence.

She surprised me by saying; “Your little room will be waiting for you when you come back. I shall not re-let it.”

That was genuine kindness, for Mrs Lyons could not have found it easy to make money from her boarders, whom she charged one pound a week for their full board and lodging. And I think I only paid fifteen shillings.

“You are very kind, Mrs. Lyons,” I said; and I wanted to kiss her, but did not dare.

“Take care of yourself, Polly Dick,” she said.

They were strange sounds to my ear at that moment when I was embarking upon so serious a protest. I felt suddenly I was a stranger and apart from everything else. Mrs. Lyon’s words sounded like something in a foreign language I did not understand.

I left the house without saying goodbye to any of the others. My axe was fixed up the left sleeve of my jacket and held in position by a chain of safety pins, the last only needing a touch to release it.

I walked rapidly and made my way by the side streets through Soho and Leicester Square, and then round to the back of the gallery and so to its front entrance.

It was a ‘free’ day and there were many people going in. I kept with the crowds at first. On the first landing of the staircase where the stairs separated on the left and on the right I stopped and, from where I stood, I could see the Venus hanging on the north wall of the room on the right-hand side. Before the painting guarding it, sat two broad-shouldered detectives. They were on the red plush seat in the centre of the room with their backs to me and seemed to be staring straight in front of them.

I turned away and wandered into the room on the left. This and several others I passed through, studying some of the paintings, until half an hour afterward, I found myself at the doorway of the room where the Venus was. To control my feelings of agitation I took out the sketchbook I had brought with me and tried to make a drawing. Still with the open pad in my hand I entered the room and chose to stand in the far corner of it to continue my sketch. I found I was staring at an almond-eyed Madonna whose beauty it was far beyond my powers to reproduce. Her smile, however, impressed itself sufficiently upon my senses to bring me a certain calmness of mind.

The two detectives were still between me and the Venus. I decided at last to leave the room and to wait for a while longer.

I studied the landscape and watched the people who were passing; and, as I watched them, I felt I would have given anything to have been one of them. I spent an hour like this, in utter misery. It was getting near to mid-day, I knew. Chiding myself for having wasted two precious hours I went back to the Venus room. It looked peculiarly empty. There was a ladder lying against one of the walls, left there by some workmen who had been repairing a skylight. I had to pass in front of the detectives, who were still sitting on the seat, to approach the Velasquez painting. When I was near enough to it I saw that thick and possibly unbreakable glass had been put over it, no doubt as a protection. As I turned I saw there was a gallery attendant standing in the far doorway. There were now three I must avoid.

I began to sketch again – this time I was a little nearer to my objective. As twelve o’clock struck, one of the detectives rose from the seat and walked out of the room. The second detective, realising, I suppose, that it was lunchtime and he could relax, sat back, crossed his legs, and opened a newspaper.

That presented me with an opportunity – which I was quick to seize. The newspaper held before the man’s eyes would hide me for a moment. I dashed up to the painting. My first blow with the axe merely broke the protective glass. But, of course, it did more than that, for the detective rose with his newspaper still in his hand and walked round the red plush seat, staring up at the skylight, which was being repaired. The sound of glass breaking also attracted the attention of the attendant at the door who, in his frantic efforts to reach me, slipped on the highly polished floor and fell face downward. And so I was given time to get in a further four blows with my axe before I was, in turn, attacked.

It must all have happened very quickly; but to this day I can remember distinctly every detail of what happened.

Two Baedeker guidebooks, truly aimed by German tourists, came cracking against the back of my neck. By this time too, the detective, having decided that the breaking glass had no connection with the skylight, sprung on me and dragged the axe from my hand. As if out of the very walls angry people seemed to appear round me. I was dragged this way and that. But, as on other occasions, the fury of the crowd helped me. In the ensuing commotion we were all mixed together in a tight bunch. No one knew who should be or should not be attacked. More than one innocent woman must have received a blow meant for me.

In the end all of us rolled in an uncomfortable heap out of the room on to the broad staircase outside. In the scramble as we stumbled together down the stairs I was pillowed by my would-be-attackers. Policemen, attendants and detectives were waiting for us at the foot of the staircase, where we were all sorted out. I was discovered in the midst of the struggling crowd, more or less unharmed. They marched me quickly off along a corridor, down some stairs to a large basement. There, I was deposited in a corner and left to ‘cool off’, as one detective put it. In fact, I seemed to be the only one who did not need to cool off. The detectives, the police, even the police inspector who appeared, were purple in the face and breathing heavily, rushing backward and forwards like ants, which had been disturbed.

It was some minutes before I was dealt with; then the police inspector came up to me. He spoke breathlessly, “Any more of your women in the gallery?” he demanded.

“Oh, I expect so”, I replied, knowing full well that there were none.

“My God!” he shouted, and flung his cap down on the stone floor. He at once turned and ran from the room, pushing everybody else out of his way as he did so, in such great haste was he to give the order to “Clear the gallery”.

I felt tired all of a sudden and sat down weakly on the floor.

“You there. Stand up!” shouted a gruff voice; but I pretended not to hear, and remained where I was for what seemed a very long time. In fact it could not have been more than two hours before I was driven away in a police car. I saw that people were still standing on the steps and on the pavement outside of the gallery, arguing together, and giving their views on the incident.

Once again I was taken back to Holloway.

This time I knew there would be a long term of forcible feeding to face. I was in comparatively good health. I had but two wishes, two hopes. One was that Mrs. Pankhurst might be benefited by my protest, the other that my heart would give out quickly.”

Emmeline Pankhurst approved of such action as it brought yet more attention to the cause of the Suffragettes. However, such action certainly did not endear them to many in the public. Richardson later wrote:

“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.”

Richardson was immediately arrested at the gallery and sent to Holloway. Not long after this World War One was declared and Emmeline Pankhurst instructed her followers to show their patriotism by supporting the government in their fight against the Germans. In 1918 the Representation of the Peoples Act was introduced. This went some way to giving the Suffragettes what they wanted. Full voting equality came in 1928.

In 1919, Richardson joined the Labour Party and stood for Parliament on four separate occasions – 1922, 1926, 1931 and 1934. She did not win any of them. Probably frustrated with mainstream parties, Mary Richardson then turned to supporting the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Moseley. Richardson joined in 1934 and became head of the women’s section. However, she left the BUF in 1935 and turned her back on politics. Richardson adopted a boy called Roger Robert, though he adopted the surname Richardson.

Mary Richardson moved to Hastings, East Sussex, and in 1953, she wrote her autobiography, “Laugh at Defiance”. She died on November 7th 1961.

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