'Amazing scenes at the Academy'

Henry James by John Singer Sargent after the attack in May 1914 The portrait of Henry James was seriously damaged in the attack

A century ago, the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition of art created many column inches of sensational newspaper coverage.

It was not a controversial work of art which caused the furore, but an incident which dramatically revealed the growing social ferment in Britain.

At a quiet lunchtime at the exhibition on 4th May, 1914, John Singer Sargent's portrait of novelist Henry James was attacked by a woman wielding a meat cleaver.

She delivered a number of blows and inflicted considerable damage to the artwork, enough to let light show through the ruptured canvas.

Mary Wood was described as "an old woman with white hair and wearing a loose purple overcoat", where she concealed her weapon.

Daily Telegraph headline from 5 May 1914 How The Daily Telegraph reported the Royal Academy attack in 1914

The newspapers of the day, including The Times and The Daily Graphic, colourfully reported how the calm of the gallery was shattered by the "outrage".

Royal Academy of Arts

There was a subsequent struggle to stop Mrs Wood and hustle her away, while a bystander sympathetic to her plight had his glasses broken in the confusion and demanded compensation.

The press was unequivocal in its condemnation of the attack, with the Daily Telegraph saying "intense indignation" had been aroused by the inflicted damage.

The Daily Graphic's highly descriptive account of the incident told how "the fashionable Academy crowd was startled out of its decorum", standing on leather seats for a good view of the ensuing struggle while expressing their incandescent rage.


1967 Summer Exhibition poster
  • The show was first put on in 1769
  • It has been held continuously ever since, including throughout both World Wars
  • 'Varnishing Day' is a chance for artists to make final touches to their work
  • 2014 sees artworks submitted digitally for the first time

Their article the following morning was headlined "amazing scenes at the Academy".

But this was unlike later incidences of prominent artworks being inexplicably damaged by members of the public, leading to Da Vinci's Mona Lisa being encased in a bullet-proof shield at the Louvre.

Mrs Wood was making a very public stand in favour of women's rights and the Suffrage movement.

After being hauled away from the Royal Academy by police with little resistance, she confessed the attack was a protest.

"If they only gave women the vote, this would not have happened," the 55-year-old is reported to have said.

Henry James by John Singer Sargent after restoration

The painting now hangs in the National Gallery

"I am very grieved to have had to do this. It will all be over immediately women have the vote."

Commenting on the inequalities in the art world, Mrs Wood added that Sargent's portrait would "have not been worth so much" if it had been painted by a woman.

Mary Wood was sent to prison, but released a week later due to poor health brought on by hunger striking.

The incident at the Summer Exhibition was not the first and certainly not the last attack on public art by a member of the Suffrage movement.

Two months earlier, Mary Nicholson slashed Velazquez's masterpiece the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery with devastating effect.

Her action was in response to the arrest of Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst the previous day.

Sargent's portrait of Henry James, fully restored by the artist himself, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Suffragette 'wanted' poster from 1914 New Scotland Yard was on high alert for other attacks in 1914

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