In July of 1914, a woman named Anne Hunt strolled through the National Portrait Gallery in London, peering at the paintings on display. She stopped in front of a portrait of Thomas Carlyle, one of the gallery’s founders. Then, before anyone could stop her, she pulled out a butcher’s cleaver and started hacking at the painting.
Hunt was a suffragette, and her attack on the portrait was part of a militant campaign to secure women’s right to vote. As Mark Brown of the Guardian reports, London's National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is now displaying the Carlyle portrait as part of a new show marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which marked a major step forward in expanding suffrage in Britain.
Titled “Votes for Women,” the show includes paintings and photographs of key figures of the women’s suffrage movement, among them a rarely seen portrait of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who led her own peaceful campaign for women’s rights. The Carlyle portrait, which was painted by Sir John Everett Millais, has not been on view for the past 20 years. It was immediately restored after the attack, but this is the first time ever that the NPG is displaying a photo showing the damage done—three jagged slashes across Carlyle’s face—alongside the painting.
At the time of the incident, British public buildings were on high alert for weapon-wielding suffragettes. Exasperated by the continued denial of women’s right to vote, suffragettes had taken to attacking museums and galleries in order to draw attention to their cause. As a precaution, museums started instructing female visitors to leave their muffs, bags and parcels in cloakrooms, according to an NPG press release. “Votes for Women,” in fact, features surveillance photographs of several militant activists, which were issued to the National Portrait Gallery by Scotland Yard. These were women to watch out for.
Anne Hunt, however, managed to evade the gallery’s security. Archival accounts released by the NPG reveal that one staff attendant, David Wilson, was suspicious of Hunt. He had seen her browsing the gallery the day before and assumed she was American “from the closeness from which she then examined the pictures,” the records state. But when he spotted her again, he became suspicious, believing that “no American would have paid the 6 [pence] entrance fee twice over.”
Wilson did not leave his post to follow Hunt, however. And not long after he saw her, he heard glass shatter. A female art student, who was copying portraits in the gallery at the time of the attack, was reportedly the first person on hand to restrain Hunt.
After the incident, the British press dubbed Hunt a “hatchet fiend” and “the Fury with a chopper.” The attack at the NPG even made international news. In 1914, the Boston Evening Transcript reported that “the attendants had the greatest difficulty in preventing Miss Hunt from doing further damage. She struggled desperately, but eventually was secured and handed over to the police. She was bleeding profusely from cuts on her hands caused by the breaking of the glass.”
Hunt was sentenced to six months in prison, but was released after six days, according to Robert Dex of the Evening Standard. During her trial, she was unrepentant. ‘This picture,” she said, with impressive foresight, “will be of added value and of great historical importance because it has been honored by the attention of a Militant."