On March 10, 1914, Richardson walked into London’s National Gallery
and slashed Velázquez’s canvas multiple times with a meat cleaver. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history,” she later explained
. Ironically, perhaps, the damage looked like a violent attack on the woman herself; the knife markings sliced across Venus’s back and hip.
Richardson received a six-month jail sentence as punishment. In prison, she promptly went on a hunger strike (a common tactic for incarcerated suffragettes at the time), managing to secure her release after just a few weeks. Meanwhile, the National Gallery closed for two weeks while the institution’s chief restorer, Helmut Ruhemann, quickly and expertly restored the painting.
After British women won the right to vote in 1918, Richardson’s politics took an insidious turn. According to Gottlieb’s book Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement, 1923–45, Richardson joined the fascist Blackshirts group in 1933. Apparently, she found the party’s discipline and dramatic action attractive and, the next year, created the National Club for Fascist Women in London. Fascism, however, turned out to be less amenable to her feminist beliefs than she originally believed. In 1935, the British Union of Fascists expelled her for spearheading a meeting regarding gender equality within the movement. She was calling for equal wages.
In more ways than one, Richardson’s actions were at odds with her desired political outcomes. Destroying a painting didn’t help the suffrage movement—it just made her seem erratic. By later uniting with the fascists, Richardson chose to ignore a despicable belief system for empty promises of fair treatment. Her story thus seems less about female empowerment than misguided motivations. She’s best remembered not as a successful champion of women’s rights, but as a wacky extremist who played a small role in the history of art, her name forever tied to that of a man: Velázquez.