In 1914, Birmingham saw an escalation in militant suffragette protests, alongside many other cities and towns across the UK. There were 27 separate incidents in the city and surrounding areas leading up to July of that year. Carnegie Library (now Northfield Library) was burned down on 12 February, destroying 1500 books. The culprits left a copy of Christabel Pankhurst’s pamphlet ‘The Great Scourge and How to End It’ along with a note that read, ‘To start your new library, Give Women the Vote’. On that same night suffragettes planted a bomb at Moor Green Hall in King’s Heath, the (uninhabited) residence of the late Arthur Chamberlain, although it failed to detonate. The note left there read, ‘Please post this to Mr McKenna, Home Office, London. Militancy is not dead, but if you are not you soon will be’. St Philip’s Cathedral in the city centre was attacked the following month, on 14 March, when painted slogans condemning forcible feeding were daubed throughout the interior.
On 9 June at 1.20 in the afternoon, Bertha Ryland, a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) since 1908, walked into Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was precisely one year and a day since Emily Wilding Davison died as a result of the injuries she sustained while attempting to tie a WSPU scarf on to the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Ryland approached the painting John Bensley Thornhill and took a meat cleaver to it, slashing the canvas three times. The painting, also known as Master Thornhill, was the work of well-known eighteenth-century artist George Romney. The museum minutes simply record that ‘the damage was committed by means of a chopper concealed beneath her jacket’. It is unclear why she chose this particular painting, but Ryland had a note in her pocket explaining her actions:
I attack this work of art deliberately as a protest against the Government’s criminal injustice in denying women the vote, and also against the Government’s brutal injustice in imprisoning, forcibly feeding, and drugging Suffragist militants, while allowing Ulster militants to go free.
The gallery was immediately closed, remaining so for a number of weeks. Damage to the painting was estimated at £50.
Museum authorities had been expecting an attack like this. Birmingham Museum’s committee minutes from March 1914 reveal intense discussion about insuring works of art, and arrangements had been made for the continuous attendance of a detective officer at the building’s entrance. In April 1914, the Keeper of the museum noted, ‘I have made arrangements with the Detective Department and the editor of the Birmingham Daily Mail to kindly telephone me at once in the event of the decease of Mrs Pankhurst, and I think it would be advisable that the Gallery should be immediately closed in the event of her death’.
This was not an isolated incident; museums and galleries had been a recurring site of protest since 1913. The first attack by WSPU members occurred at Manchester Art Gallery in April of that year when 14 paintings were damaged as militant activity accelerated, provoked by the passing of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, also known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. Under this legislation, hunger-striking women would be released before serious illness and then expected to return to prison after they had recovered. This led to the police pursuit of many women who were not prepared to serve the rest of their sentence, including WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who had been given three years penal servitude in April 1913 for causing an explosion at Lloyd George’s (uninhabited) house in Surrey. By 1914, there were serious concerns that Mrs Pankhurst might die as a result of hunger striking. Paintings remained a primary target of protest. On 10 March 1914 Mary Richardson slashed Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery and in May John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Henry James, on display at the Royal Academy, was damaged.
Christabel Pankhurst wrote in her autobiography that the publicity these incidents attracted, as well as the inconvenience caused to museums and local authorities were the main reasons for pursuing this line of protest. For women like Ryland, herself a member of the Edgbaston elite, residents of a wealthy Birmingham suburb, the disruption of a traditionally middle-class patriarchal space and the outrage provoked by these attacks confirmed the suffragette view that the public and the press cared more for these ‘valuable’ objects than for women undergoing forcible feeding.
Ryland was an instrumental member of the WSPU campaign in the Midlands since 1908, and the slashing was not her only militant action. She had previously served six months in Holloway prison in 1912 for her involvement in a London window smashing campaign. As Erica Rappaport remarks in Shopping for Pleasure (2001), ‘suffragettes delighted in and used the ambiguities of metropolitan life.’ Just as there was confusion between female shoppers and suffragettes, a similar confusion reigned between gallery-goers and suffragettes. The attendants on duty at Birmingham Museum said that the respectable Ryland had not aroused any suspicion as she entered the museum, and was therefore not searched.
By attacking art, and particularly portraits, the suffragettes disrupted the supposed passivity of art. Indeed, Mary Richardson commented years later that she disliked the way male visitors ‘gaped’ at the Venus. But portraits of men were attacked too. The target was not women portrayed in paintings but art more generally. The suffragettes recognised that portraits were objects to be looked at, much like women. They were also aware of the financial value of these paintings, particularly the Rokeby Venus, which had only recently been acquired by the National Gallery at a cost of £45,000. For Mary Richardson this figure paled into insignificance compared to the perceived value of Mrs Pankhurst, and so she directed her anger at a cultural authority that valued paint on canvas more than flesh and blood.
On 11 June The Birmingham Daily Post reported that when the Magistrate called out her name during the court hearing, Ryland jumped up and exclaimed, ‘I refuse to have anything to do with the trial. I refuse to be tried’. She continued to interrupt the hearing. When the prosecuting solicitor when asked about the damage to the painting, she reportedly responded, ‘It is nothing to the damage caused by civil war. These Ulster militants are inciting to damage; why don’t they arrest Sir Edward Carson and the rest of them?’
The comparatively lenient treatment of Ulster militants was another source of vexation for the suffragettes. On a tour of the United States in November 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst singled out Carson and the Ulster unionists, accusing them of inciting violence and engaging in some acts of bloodshed that went unpunished by the Government. In contrast, Pankhurst’s treatment, being constantly hounded by police and repeatedly imprisoned, seemed grossly unfair in light of the WSPU determination not to cause injury to people. Committed for trial and on remand in Winson Green Prison, Ryland followed WSPU tactics by embarking on another hunger strike and was forcibly fed.
Ryland’s father applied for her release on bail a few days later. The request was granted on the condition that Ryland agreed to refrain from committing any similar act or attending suffragette meetings. The Birmingham Gazette reported her gaunt appearance and on 17 July the Birmingham Daily Post reported that her trial had been postponed: Mr William Billington, surgeon to Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham, stated that her ‘nervous and mental condition was very unsatisfactory’. After an earlier stint in prison in 1912, Billington had discovered a gross displacement of both her kidneys and had advised that an operation was desirable. Billington stated that the strain of a court hearing at this time would ‘have grave results’ and the case was adjourned to the next Assizes. The WSPU mouthpiece The Suffragette carried the headline: ‘The inquisition in England: Miss Bertha Ryland’s experiences in prison, torturing a sick woman, utter agony and misery’ and reported that her earlier treatment had entailed Ryland being
seized around the waist by wardresses, and once tied around the waist in the operating chair. This mauling of the unprotected kidney, together with the retching and choking strained and twisted the kidney and caused chronic inflammation.
Ryland’s trial had not taken place by the time war broke out in August 1914, after which all imprisoned suffragettes were granted amnesty. The charges against her were officially dropped in October 1914. Although she suffered permanent kidney damage as a result of forcible feeding, Ryland lived until the 1970s.
Master Thornhill is now part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; it had been on loan to Birmingham at the time of the attack. The accompanying label makes no mention of the painting’s radical history.
There is still an unease in telling the history of the feminist struggle and the actions of militant suffragettes, and a perception in some galleries and collections that the messiness of politics must not taint the beauty of art. This is no better demonstrated by the Museum of Fine Arts’ lack of mention of Ryland’s actions. Similarly, the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez sits on display at the National Gallery without any placard or description that mentions Mary Richardson, although it was featured in the recent Tate Britain exhibition, Art Under Attack (2013).
The objects displayed in galleries and museums, for all semblances of immovable permanence, actually occupy precarious spaces. Damaging these works can still generate a huge amount of shock and publicity. In his review of Art Under Attack, critic Richard Dorment opposed the exhibition curator’s defence of Mary Richardson’s attack, writing,‘this pernicious drivel amounts to an open invitation to any person or any group with a grievance to target works of art hanging in national museums’. There is a permanency in art that we do not see replicated in politics or political struggle. But while there is no mention on the accompanying label for Master Thornhill of its part in suffragette history, viewers can, with close inspection, still see faint evidence of those slashes carved into the canvas, an indelible marker of Bertha Ryland’s radical act of rage and desperation that cannot be completely erased.