She became known in newspapers as a “hatchet fiend”, “wild woman” and the “Fury with a chopper” after walking in to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) with a hidden butcher’s cleaver and slashing a painting of Thomas Carlyle.
More than a century later, the gallery is shining a light on the actions of the suffragette Anne Hunt in a display exploring how portraiture played its part in the campaign to get women the vote.
It has put on display in its main galleries, for the first time in 20 years, the Millais portrait of Carlyle, which Hunt attacked in July 1914. In another room is a photograph of the damage along with other paintings and photographs that explore the wider suffrage movement.
“We think it was selected at random,” said curator Rosie Broadley. “She was just waiting for the moment when the guard’s back was turned.”
Hunt got in with a cleaver despite galleries being on heightened alert after a series of militant incidents in museums, including the slashing of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery by Mary Richardson in March 1914.
Women were, at one point, banned from major museums. Special measures included women being instructed to leave their bags and muffs in the NPG cloakroom before entering.
Hunt’s entry was even more surprising given the archival accounts of the incident. One guard said he recognised Hunt from the previous day and thought her American “from the closeness from which she then examined the pictures”.
He therefore knew something was up because “no American would have paid the 6d entrance fee twice over”.
Hunt managed to strike the portrait of Carlyle, one of the NPG’s founders, three times before people intervened. Broadley said: “The first person to stop her was another woman who was in the gallery copying portraits, which is fascinating as that was how women, ladies, were expected to interact with art.”
The display also includes police surveillance photographs of militant women who gallery guards were warned to look out for.
• Votes for Women! is in Room 33 of the National Portrait Gallery until 13 May. Admission is free