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

The Guardian - - NEWS - Alice Ross The 1785 paint­ing by Gains­bor­ough, of­fi­cially called Mr and Mrs Wil­liam Hal­lett, but known as The Morn­ing Walk, is be­ing as­sessed by con­ser­va­tors. It ap­peared in the back­ground of the Bond film Sky­fall (be­low) Main pho­to­graph: DeA­gos­tini/Getty

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.

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