On 10 March 1914, a dramatic act of protest rocked the quiet halls of the National Gallery in London. Mary Richardson, a dedicated suffragette, made headlines by attacking Diego Velázquez's masterpiece, a portrait nicknamed ‘The Rokeby Venus’, with a meat cleaver.


This was not just a random act of vandalism, but a political statement to highlight the suffragette cause.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organisation also known as the suffragettes, was renowned for its militant tactics to demand voting rights for women.

By the mid 1910s, its campaign had escalated to include acts of civil disobedience and direct action, with the aim of bringing their struggle to the forefront of public consciousness.

Why was ‘The Rokeby Venus’ attacked?

'The Rokeby Venus' by Diego Velazquez.
'The Rokeby Venus' by Diego Velazquez. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Mary Richardson's choice of ‘The Rokeby Venus’, painted in 1647-51 by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, was highly symbolic. The painting, which depicts a reclining nude woman gazing into a mirror held by Cupid, was seen by Richardson and others to represent the objectification and subjugation of women.

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The Venus “is supposed to be the ideal woman”, historian Fern Riddell explains in Deeds Not Words, a podcast series on the suffragette story from HistoryExtra.

“It’s a naked lady, lying kind of facing away,” says Riddell, and Richardson was rejecting “this idea that all a woman should be is naked, unthinking, and an object of beauty”.

The painting was, she says, “the antithesis of everything the suffragettes are fighting for which is to see women as people”.

Who was Mary Richardson?

Mary Richardson and Miss Wallace Dunlop wait outside London House for an appointment with the Bishop of London.
Mary Richardson (right) and Miss Wallace Dunlop waiting outside London House for an appointment with the Bishop of London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mary Richardson was not just any suffragette; she was a determined activist who had dedicated her life to the cause.

Born in Canada, Richardson had travelled extensively before becoming deeply involved with the WSPU. Her commitment was unwavering, and she participated in numerous protests and actions to draw attention to the movement.

Richardson's anger and frustration reached a boiling point after witnessing the harsh treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst, a founder of the WSPU and a matriarch of the movement, had been repeatedly imprisoned and suffered ill-health due to hunger strikes, following the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913. This act allowed a prisoner weakened through hunger striking to be released into the community on a license and nursed back to good health, only to be imprisoned again once they had recovered.

This inhumane treatment galvanised Richardson's resolve to take action. Historian Emelyne Godfrey explains in Deeds Not Words that Richardson saw her attack on ‘The Rokeby Venus’ as a form of poetic justice and a powerful way to voice her dissent.

On the day of the attack, Richardson walked through the National Gallery's corridors, undetected by the distracted guard.

She had hidden the meat cleaver up her sleeve, secured by a series of safety pins for easy access. Once she reached the painting, she swiftly released the cleaver and struck the canvas multiple times, creating eight gashes before being subdued by onlookers.

Richardson's actions were a calculated move to generate maximum publicity for the suffragette cause. As she later recounted, the attack was meant to shock the public and draw attention to the plight of women who were fighting for their rights, and push the suffrage movement into the national spotlight.

What happened to Mary Richardson?

Mary Richardson was arrested at the scene and swiftly sentenced to six months in prison for her attack on ‘The Rokeby Venus’.

Her imprisonment, however, only served to further highlight the suffragette cause and the lengths to which these women were willing to go to demand their rights.

Mary Richardson wearing a beret and a medal
Mary Richardson wearing a beret and a medal, April 1957. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As explored in Deeds Not Words, the suffragettes were masters of publicity, using dramatic actions to capture the public's imagination and garner sympathy for their cause.

“Mary Richardson's stunt was a headline-grabbing activity, and it was very important because the whole premise of the campaign was to bring Britain to a crisis,” explains Godfrey.

The attack on ‘The Rokeby Venus’ remains one of the most memorable acts of suffragette militancy, a vivid example of how art and politics intersect. The suffragettes understood the power of symbolism and used it to their advantage, turning even acts of destruction into potent statements of defiance and calls for change.

Where is ‘The Rokeby Venus' today?

‘The Rokeby Venus’ has been restored and is currently in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, but the faint scars of Richardson's attack are still visible.

It has also endured as a target of political action – the painting was attacked by Just Stop Oil protestors in November 2023 (with no permanent damage to the painting).


Find out more about the radical actions of the suffragettes, and how they promoted their cause, in our HistoryExtra podcast series, Deeds Not Words: The Suffragette Story


Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast