Blue plaque for suffragette in gallery where she slashed art Birmingham museum to honour campaigner who fought for the vote
ABLUE plaque commemorating the life of a Birmingham suffragette is to be erected at the city’s museum and art gallery where she famously attacked a painting with a meat cleaver.
Bertha Ryland caused £50 of damage and prompted a sixweek closure of the gallery in 1914.
However, due to the outbreak of the First World War and delays to her trial caused by prison-inflicted illness, the Edgbaston suffragette was never convicted.
Now as part of the centenary celebrations marking the first women winning the right to vote, Ryland will be recognised.
There had been a spate of suffragette attacks on art galleries and museums in Britain during 1913 and 1914. Most of them occurred in London but museum chiefs in Birmingham were nevertheless anticipating an attack of their own and had held intense discussions around insuring the artworks.
They even had a detective standing guard at the entrance and planned to close the gallery temporarily should news break of the passing of Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the women’s right to vote movement. But at about 1.20pm on June 9, 1914, Ryland arrived at the museum with the cleaver concealed within her jacket.
She walked up to a painting of John Bensley Thornhill, known as Master Thornhill by the 18th century artist George Romney, and slashed it three times.
Ryland left behind a note with her name and address which also contained the message ‘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’.
The damage caused public outrage and she was reportedly followed by a threatening crowd en route to the police station.
As she was presented before magistrates Ryland refused to acknowledge proceedings and yelled ‘ no surrender’ as she left court.
After she was committed for trial she was held on remand at Winson Green prison and went on hunger strike.
It was not the activist’s first time behind bars having spent a week in Holloway Prison in November 1911 and then four months at Winson Green after taking part in the window-smashing campaign in London in March 1912.
Her Birmingham hunger strike led to her being force fed which resulted in permanent kidney damage. Her illness meant her trial for the gallery attack had to be postponed after a surgeon at Queen’s Hospital declared the hearing would cause her mental condition to deteriorate.
But after the outbreak of war in 1914 the charges were dropped. Ryland lived until 1977. The blue plaque will be located on a wall in the Round Room next to the gallery’s show-piece artworks.
It will form part of the museum’s Birmingham Women: 100 Years of Change project and be launched at an event tied in with the unveiling of a Women, Power, Protest exhibition.
It is also part of Birmingham Civic Society’s centenary programme to increase the number of plaques celebrating women. They have placed more than 80 plaques throughout the city recognising significant figures.
>Above, the proposed blue plaque and a 1913 march of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society
> The Museum and Art Gallery where Ryland attacked a painting