National Gallery wing is evacuated after man hacks at painting with screwdriver
Assistants and visitors restrain alleged attacker Damage may be repairable, says Gainsborough expert
A wing of the National Gallery was evacuated at the weekend after a man attacked a Thomas Gainsborough painting with a screwdriver.
The 1785 painting Mr and Mrs William Hallett, better known as The Morning Walk, was attacked by a visitor at about 2.15pm on Saturday in the east wing of the gallery. Gallery assistants and visitors detained the man, who was then arrested.
The wing was evacuated and remained off-limits for about two hours. Yesterday afternoon, police announced they had charged Keith Gregory, 63, of no fixed abode, with causing criminal damage. He has been remanded to appear at Westminster magistrates court today.
“The damage is limited to two long scratches which have penetrated the paint layers but not the supporting canvas,” a spokeswoman for the gallery said.
“The painting was removed from display and examined by the gallery’s conservators, who are now assessing next steps.”
The Morning Walk hangs in Room 34, which houses British paintings and was used as the setting for a covert meeting between Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Ben Whishaw’s equipment expert Q in the film Skyfall.
The Gainsborough painting can be spotted over Craig’s shoulder as the pair admire a painting by Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, and discuss the hi-tech weaponry Q has prepared for Bond. Turner’s painting depicts a famous warship that had fought in the Battle of Trafalgar being towed away to be broken up.
Mark Bills, director of Gainsborough’s House, the museum in the artist’s former home in Sudbury, Suffolk, said the attack was “quite shocking … We all prepare for it in museums but it’s quite unusual”.
He was confused as to why this painting had been attacked. “It’s a picture that I can’t imagine anybody finding offensive – what an odd thing to want to do,” he said.
Gainsborough is among Britain’s most famous artists, and was one of the original members of the Royal Academy. Initially a painter of landscapes, he turned to portraits because they paid more.
The Morning Walk was commissioned when Gainsborough was at the pinnacle of his fame, a couple of years after commissions from King George III and the queen in 1781.
Bills said: “It’s one of his great masterpieces: he was absolutely at the height of his powers … When we think about Gainsborough, it’s usually from around these years. When you think of the elegant portraits of the Georgian period, that’s the one that comes to mind.”
Painted three years before the artist’s death, it depicts a young couple, William Hallett and Elizabeth Stephen, walking in the countryside accompanied by a dog. They were both 21 when the painting was started and were due to be married in the summer of 1785. Some art historians believe Elizabeth is painted wearing her wedding dress.
The painting, in the British Romantic style, captures the 18th-century trend for society portraits to be set in informal, pastoral settings – although at over two metres tall, it is on a grand scale, and the couple are dressed in all their finery. The gallery’s catalogue notes the “light, feathery brushstrokes used to describe the landscape”.
The fact that the canvas was not torn in the screwdriver attack gave Bills hope the painting could be fully repaired. “It’s amazing what conservators can do,” he said. “You probably won’t see a difference … I’m relieved from what I’ve read it hasn’t caused any permanent damage.”
The gallery has owned the Gainsborough painting for more than 60 years. It was bought in 1954 for £30,000 – about £770,000 in today’s money – from Lord Rothschild.