International Archives Day: The slashing of a painting

Birmingham Archives, Heritage & Photography at the Library of Birmingham holds the minute book which shows the damage caused to a painting in 1914 at the city art gallery by Bertha Ryland, a Birmingham member of the Women’s Social & Political Union.

1914 saw the escalation in militant suffragette protests across the country, including in Birmingham. There were 27 separate incidents in the city and surrounding areas up to July, including the burning down of the Carnegie Library, now Northfield Library, which destroyed around 1,500 books (the culprits left a copy of Christabel Pankhurst’s pamphlet ‘The Great Scourge and How to End It’ along with a note saying ‘To start your new library, Give Women the Vote’); on the same night there was an attempted explosion at Moor Green Hall in King’s Heath, the residence of the late Arthur Chamberlain (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: slogans condemning forcible feeding were daubed throughout, including on the Edward Burne-Jones stained glass.

On the 9th of June at 1.20pm (a year and a day after Emily Davison had died) Bertha Ryland, a member of the WSPU since 1908, walked into Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, approached the painting John Bensley Thornhill, known as Master Thornhill, by the well-known 18th century artist George Romney, and took a meat cleaver to it, slashing the canvas three times. The museum minutes record that ‘the damage was committed by means of a chopper concealed beneath her jacket’. We are not sure of the exact reasons for her choosing this particular painting although Bertha had with her a note with her name and address and an explanation of her conduct:

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.

Pages 113-114 of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery minute book. Library of Birmingham, BCC 1/BG/1/1/1. Date: 10 June 1914

The gallery was immediately closed for six weeks.

The museum’s authorities had been expecting an attack like this. From March 1914   meeting minutes show intense discussion of insurance for works of art and arrangements were made for the continuous attendance of a detective officer at the museum entrance. In April that year 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’.

The Birmingham Daily Post on June 11th reported that when the Magistrate called out her name during the court hearing, Bertha jumped up and exclaimed ‘I refuse to have anything to do with the trial. I refuse to be tried’. Bertha continued to interrupt the hearing, protesting that she did not see why militant suffragettes should be arrested while the Ulster militants were allowed to go free, and was said to have cried ‘no surrender’ as she left the court. She was committed for trial and while on remand in Winson Green went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed (this was not Bertha’s first prison sentence or experience of forcible feeding). A week later Bertha’s father applied for bail which was given after Bertha gave a verbal undertaking that she would not commit a similar act or attend suffragette meetings. Her gaunt appearance was reported in the Birmingham Gazette and on July 17th the Daily Post reported that Bertha’s trial was postponed: Mr William Billington, surgeon to Queen’s Hospital, stated that her nervous and mental condition was very unsatisfactory. After an earlier stint in prison in 1912 her doctor had discovered a gross displacement to her kidneys and had advised that an operation was necessary. Billington stated that a court hearing at this time would ‘gravely jeopardise her mental condition’. 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 the examining doctor observed that her earlier treatment had entailed Bertha 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’.

Bertha’s trial had not taken place by the time war broke out in August 1914 and all suffragettes were granted amnesty. The charges against Bertha were officially dropped in October 1914. Although she suffered permanent kidney damage as a result of forcible feeding, Bertha lived until the 1970s.

Master Thornhill, Museum of Fine Arts, BostonMaster Thornhill is now part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (it was on loan to Birmingham at the time of Bertha’s attack). There is no mention of its history on the label but if you look very closely you can still see evidence of the damage.2. Slashed Painting - Master Thornhill today, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston