Posts Tagged ‘Kings Road’

The Suffragette and Fascist Mary Richardson and the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery.

Thursday, July 25th, 2013
Mary Richardson at the National Gallery after her arrest, 1914.

Mary Richardson at the National Gallery after her arrest in March 1914.

 ”Everything that Valasquez does may be regarded as absolutely right.”  – John Ruskin

In June 1934 at an anti-fascist gathering at Trafalgar Square a 52 year old Sylvia Pankhurst angrily denounced Blackshirt violence. It had been only three weeks since Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists had held their huge staged rally at Olympia for which the Daily Mail had offered free tickets to readers who sent in letters explaining ‘Why I like the Blackshirts’.

The B.U.F. rally had been designed to attract more recruits but also to impress the invited audience of politicians and journalists. Usually a stickler for punctuality, as most good fascists are, Mosley arrived on stage an hour late, but he quickly launched into a virulent anti-semitic speech shouting about ‘European ghettos pouring their dregs into this country.’

It wasn’t long before around 500 anti-fascists who had bought tickets for the meeting started shouting abuse. Mosley stopped speaking and the hecklers were picked out by roving spotlights and then ferociously attacked by black-shirted stewards. Female stewards had been trained to deal with the women hecklers by slapping instead of punching.

The British Union of Fascists' rally at Olympia on 7th June 1934.

The British Union of Fascists’ rally at Olympia on 7th June 1934.

The Daily Express, not afraid to show where its sympathies lay, wrote about ‘reds’ gatecrashing the rally and gushed:

Inside Olympia the most amazing meeting London has seen for two decades was taking place. As soon as Sir Oswald Mosley – a remarkable black-shirted figure, picked out by the glare of two dazzling search lights, started to speak he was howled down. In the audience that had rallied to his support were hundreds of women in evening dress. As fighting broke out in all parts of the hall many started to scream, left their seats, and made for the exits. Sir Oswald’s voice amplified through twenty-four loudspeakers could be heard crying for calm. “Keep your seats! Please keep your seats.” The women were reassured and sat down. Others, of bolder spirit, were standing on chairs watching the fighting through opera glasses and laughing with excitement.

Margaret Storm Jameson, of the Daily Telegraph, presumably was sitting somewhere else in the arena and had a different view:

A young woman carried past me by five Blackshirts, her clothes half torn off and her mouth and nose were closed by the large hand of one; her head was forced back by the pressure and she must have been in considerable pain. I mention her especially since I have seen a reference to the delicacy with which women interrupters were left to women Blackshirts. This is merely untrue.

The vicious ‘Biff Boy’ blackshirt violence at the B.U.F. rally shocked many and indeed during her passionate speech to the Trafalgar Square crowd Sylvia Pankhurst particularly criticised the brutality seen at Olympia. She also warned her audience about the treatment of women in Italy saying that Mussolini had said that the “chief business of women is to be pleasing to men.” At the end of her angry speech she demanded the arrest and detention of fascist sympathisers in Britain – one of whom, notably, was her erstwhile colleague and fellow member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Mary Richardson.

Mary Richardson, 1914.

Mary Richardson, 1914.

Black Friday: This was the first time that Suffragette protests were met with violent physical abuse, however it was generally supported by the British population, who at the time were relatively opposed to women's franchise. Two women died as a result of police violence, and around two hundred women were arrested.

Black Friday 18th November 1910: This was the first time that Suffragette protests were met with violent physical abuse, however it was generally supported by the British population, who at the time were relatively opposed to women’s franchise. Two women died as a result of police violence, and around two hundred women were arrested.

Herbert Henry Asquith in 1910 around the time of Black Friday.

Herbert Henry Asquith in 1910 around the time of Black Friday.

Twenty years previously Mary Richardson had campaigned, been arrested and imprisoned with Sylvia Pankhurst in the East End of London in 1913. She had joined the Women’s Social and Political Union after witnessing ‘Black Friday’ when the WSPU lobbied parliament and were physically attacked and even sexually abused by the police.

She was arrested nine times and served several sentences in Holloway prison for assaulting police, breaking windows and arson. She was, however, particularly notorious for slashing the ‘Rokeby Venus’ in the National Gallery in March 1914. In a particularly militant period of Suffragette activity in the months preceding WW1 it is Richardson’s vandalism of Velasquez’s famous painting that is still remembered today.

The Rokeby Venus by Velasquez.

The Rokeby Venus by Velasquez.

The Toilet of Venus or La Venus del Espejo, as it is more properly but rarely called, had been painted by the great Spanish artist Diego Velazquez sometime between 1647 and 1651. It is his only surviving female nude, which was an artistic direction not overly encouraged by the Inquisition in seventeenth century Spain. The painting came to England in 1813 when it was bought by John Morritt for £500 who hung it in his house at Rokeby Park in Yorkshire – hence the painting’s popular name and which it has retained ever since.

Morritt once wrote to his friend Sir Walter Scott of his “fine painting of Venus’ backside” which he hung high above his main fireplace, so that “the ladies may avert their downcast eyes without difficulty and connoisseurs steal a glance without drawing the said posterior into the company.”

The painting at Rokeby Park.

The painting at Rokeby Park.

In 1906, the painting was acquired for the National Gallery by the newly created National Art Collections Fund and was described by The Times as ‘perhaps the finest painting of the nude in the world’. King Edward VII greatly admired the painting and provided £8,000 towards its purchase.

The Times, struggling to find an excuse to look at a naked woman, wrote of the painting:

a marvellously graceful female figure…quite nude…neither idealistic nor passionate, but absolutely natural, and absolutely pure; she is not Aphrodite but rather “the Goddess of Youth and Health, the embodiment of elastic strength and vitality – of the perfection of Womanhood at the moment when it passes from the bud in to the flower.

When Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery on 10 March 1914 with a meat cleaver hidden on her person, The Rokeby Venus was undoubtedly one of the most famous paintings in Britain.

Richardson had arrived at the gallery at about ten in morning and for about two hours she appeared to innocently wander around the building making occasional sketches of the paintings. No one noticed that she had also brought along a narrow butcher’s meat cleaver which was hidden from view up her sleeve held there by a chain of safety pins. She later wrote: “All I had to do was release the last one and take out my chopper and go..bang!”

As an ex-art student, she knew the gallery well and decided upon Velazquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’. Richardson would later say: “It was highly prized for its worth in cash…the fact that I disliked the painting would make it easier for me to do what was in my mind”. She had actually submitted the idea of damaging a painting to Christabel Pankhurst some weeks before to which Christabel, eventually, wrote back saying ‘carry out your plan’. The previous year three Suffragettes had been arrested and two imprisoned for smashing the protective glass of fourteen paintings at the Manchester Art Gallery and there had been added security in exhibition spaces and galleries around the country since.

Christabel Pankhurst, September 1913. She approved Richardson's plan to attack the Rokeby Venus.

Christabel Pankhurst, September 1913. She approved Richardson’s plan to attack the Rokeby Venus.

Two detectives and a gallery attendant were guarding the Rokeby Venus and a nervous and agitated Richardson almost gave up on her pre-meditated plan. At around midday one of the detectives went for lunch and the other sat down, crossed his legs and opened up a newspaper hiding the painting from his view. Richardson quietly released the cleaver from inside her sleeve and seized her chance. In an interview recorded in 1959 for the BBC, two years before she died, Richardson described what she did next:

I went and hit the painting. The first hit only broke the glass it was so thick, and then extraordinarily instead of seizing me, which he could have quite easily, because I was only a couple of yards from him. He connected the falling glass with the fanlight above our heads and walked round in a circle looking up at the fanlights which gave me time to get five lovely shots in…

The attendant rushed forward but could only slip up on the highly polished floor and he fell face first into the broken glass. Two tourists also threw their guidebooks at Richardson but eventually the detective sprang on her as she was ‘hammering away’ and snatched the cleaver from her hand. Richardson offered no resistance and as she was being taken down to the basement she quietly told the visitors she passed,

I am a suffragette. You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life, as they are killing Mrs Pankhurst.

 

The damage caused by Mary Richardson's cleaver.

The damage caused by Mary Richardson’s cleaver.

Mary Richardson had been jolted into action that morning because she had been particularly angered at the news of Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest the night before at St Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow. Emmeline Pankhurst was at the time protected by a 25-strong bodyguard of women trained in the martial art of jujitsu. They were taught by a woman, just four feet eleven inches tall, called Edith Garrud.

Garrud had started working with the suffragettes a few years before in her own women-only training hall initially in Golden Square in Soho but later in the East End. She also taught her suffragette students how to use wooden Indian clubs which could be concealed in their dresses and used as a reply to the truncheons of the police. Garrud once said that a woman using jujitsu had ‘brought great burly cowards nearly twice their size to their feet and make them howl for mercy.’

Mrs Garrud demonstrating her Ju-Jitsu skills against a 'policeman'.

Mrs Garrud demonstrating her Ju-Jitsu skills against a ‘policeman’.

The Suffragette that knew Jujitsu. 1910.

The Suffragette that knew Jujitsu. 1910.

According to The Glasgow Herald there were ‘unparalleled scenes of disorder’ when the police tried to arrest Emmeline at St Andrew’s Hall. They had been waiting for Pankhurst who had entered the building early. When she started to speak the police attempted to storm the stage but were severely hampered not only by the barbed-wire hidden in the flower decorations but also Mrs Pankhurst’s trained bodyguards.

Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a Suffragette rally at Trafalgar Square.

Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a Suffragette rally at Trafalgar Square.

Emmeline in ‘My Own Story’ described what happened:

 The bodyguard and members of the audience vigorously repelled the attack, wielding clubs, batons, poles, planks, or anything they could seize, while the police laid about right and left with their batons, their violence being far the greater. Men and women were seen on all sides with blood streaming down their faces, and there were cries for a doctor. In the middle of the struggle, several revolver shots rang out, and the woman who was firing the revolver–which I should explain was loaded with blank cartridges only–was able to terrorise and keep at bay a whole body of police.I had been surrounded by members of the bodyguard, who hurried me towards the stairs from the platform. The police, however, overtook us, and in spite of the resistance of the bodyguard, they seized me and dragged me down the narrow stair at the back of the hall. There a cab was waiting. I was pushed violently into it, and thrown on the floor, the seats being occupied by as many constables as could crowd inside.

Mary Richardson would have also known that the day before Emmeline’s arrest, her daughter Sylvia Pankhurst had also been arrested. Sylvia had been travelling along the Strand on a ‘motor omnibus’ on her way to Trafalgar Square where she was to speak at a protest rally organised by the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage.

The bus had stopped outside Charing Cross Station but when Sylvia stepped on to the pavement plain clothes policeman quickly surrounded her. Like her mother she was arrested under the so-called Cat and Mouse Act. The police bundled her into the back of a taxi cab and she was sent on her way back to Holloway prison.

Sylvia Pankhurst arrested at Trafalgar Square, 1913

Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested. Yet again.

Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested. Yet again.

The following day the Daily Express reported that the news of her arrest had caused ‘intense indignation in the crowd’ waiting at Trafalgar Square, they continued, ‘Miss Patterson (sic) who acted as chairman, led a detachment towards Whitehall, waving a flag and shouting “It is deeds, not words!”.

The next day Margaret Paterson, who had continually attempted to strike policemen with a short thick piece of rope loaded at the end with lead, was fined £2. Miss Paterson said to the judge, “It had taken ten men and eight horses to arrest me. You…drag people like Sylvia Pankhurst back again to prison. You have roused a fire in the East End and ten men and eight horses won’t be enough next time!’.

It was to the Cat and Mouse Act that Mary Richardson owed her temporary freedom when she had been released the previous November after a long bout of forced-feeding. After her release she declared, ‘The worst fight on record since the movement began is now raging in Holloway’. Richardson, one of the earliest suffragettes to be force-fed had written about her experience in a 1913 suffragette leaflet, where she described a tube a yard long that ran through the nasal passage down the throat into the stomach:

Forcible feeding is an immoral assault as well as a painful physical one, and to remain passive under it would give one the feeling of sin; the sin of concurrence. One’s whole nature is revolted: resistance is therefore inevitable.

The infamous ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ was the name given to the Prisoners, Temporary Discharge for Health Act passed by H.H. Asquith’s Liberal government exactly 100 years ago in 1913. It had been hurriedly enacted to counter the growing public disquiet over the tactic of force-feeding suffragettes who were determined to continue their hunger strikes whilst in gaol. The law’s intention was that suffragettes could hunger strike to the point of emaciation, be let out of prison to recover, and then recalled to serve the rest of their sentence.

The Act’s nickname compared the government cruelty of repeated releases and re-imprisonments of suffragettes to a cat playing around with a half-dead mouse. Not surprisingly the Cat and Mouse Act had the opposite of its intention and did little to deter the more militant campaigns of the suffragettes and if anything made the public more sympathetic to their cause.

Cat and Mouse poster.

Cat and Mouse poster.

The Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith had been an opponent of women’s suffrage since the 1880s and his government’s implementation of the Cat and Mouse Act caused the WSPU and the suffragettes to consider the Prime Minister with particular enmity. Even women in his social circle had been privately objecting to his attitude. Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine once complained of Asquith habitually peering down cleavages, while the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell once protested that Asquith, ‘Would take a lady’s hand as she sat beside him on the sofa, and make her feel his erected instrument under his trousers’.

A few hours after Mary Richardson was apprehended in the National Gallery she was brought up before Bow Street Police magistrates court where she was charged with maliciously damaging the ‘Rokeby Venus’ to the amount of £40,000. Richardson told the magistrate that she was amazed that anyone was willing to preside over the farce of trying her as it was the tenth time she had been brought before a magistrate in one year. He could not make her serve her sentences, but could only again repeat the farce of releasing her or else killing her; ether way, hers was the victory. The unimpressed magistrate said that he would not allow bail and committed her for trial.

Immediately after Richardson’s ‘outrage’ the National Gallery closed to the public and remained so for two weeks. The Trustees of the gallery met that afternoon to consider what steps were needed to further protect their collection.  One of the trustees was Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India, who on his return to England had led the campaign against women’s suffrage in the House of Lords. In 1908 he had helped establish the Anti-Suffrage League of which he eventually became president.

12th March 1914. The National Gallery was closed for two weeks after the attack on the Rokeby Venus.

12th March 1914. The National Gallery was closed for two weeks after the attack on the Rokeby Venus.

15 Reasons 1

15 Reasons 1

Lord Curzon 15 reasons part 2 copy

 The press widely publicised the attack on the painting and The Times wrote:

One regretted that any person outside a lunatic asylum could conceive that such an act could advance any cause, political or otherwise.

Even the New York Times commented on the story the next day:

The British Government is getting precisely the sort of treatment it deserves at the hands of the harridans who are called militants for its foolish tolerance of their criminal behaviour. Why should women who commit assaults and destroy property be treated differently from common malefactors.

Richardson received six months for the damage she caused and later said: ‘the judge nearly wept when I was tried because he could only give me six months.’ In fact Richardson, after starting a hunger strike, only served a few weeks before she was released again.

Mary Richardson, 10th February 1914. A month before she slashed Velasquez' Rokeby Venus.

Mary Richardson, 10th February 1914. A month before she slashed Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus.

At the outbreak of WW1 Emmeline Pankhurst suspended the activities of the WSPU and instructed suffragettes to get behind the Government and its war effort. Sylvia, opposed to the war, was horrified to see her mother and sister Christabel become such enthusiastic supporters of military conscription.

Mary Richardson published a novel called Matilda and Marcus during the war and also two volumes of poetry. In the twenties and thirties she stood several times as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour party most successfully in Acton in November 1922 when she received over 26% of the vote although losing to the Conservatives.

She joined the British Union of Fascists in late 1933 declaring in the light of her previous political experience, ‘I feel certain that women will play a large part in establishing Fascism in this country’.

Fascist training at the Women's BUF HQ. Mary Richardson is standing at the back.

Fascist training at the Women’s BUF HQ. Mary Richardson is standing at the back.

Her initial post was assistant to Lady Makgill – the officer in charge of the Women’s Section whose headquarters were then based at 233 Regent Street (now the Lacoste shop next to the Apple Store) but which moved in January 1934 to 12 Lower Grosvenor Place adjacent to the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The women’s section of the Blackshirts had initially been set up by Mosley’s first wife Lady Cynthia who was known as ‘Cimmie’ and was the daughter of the anti-woman’s suffrage campaigner Lord Curzon.

Cynthia had married Oswald Mosley, then a Tory MP, in 1920, and nine months later gave birth much to the consternation of Margot Asquith, wife of former Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who told her:

You look very pale. You must not have another child for a long time. Herbert always withdrew in time. Such a noble man.

In 1929 Cynthia was elected Labour MP for Stoke on Trent as was her husband but for the constituency of Smethwick. Two years later, Oswald, unhappy with the direction of the Labour Party formed the New Party in 1931 and subsequently the British Union of Fascists the year after that. Cynthia supported her husband in his political activities until she died in 1933 after an operation for Peritonitis following acute appendicitis. This unconditional support for her husband was generous on her part for during their marriage Oswald had an affair with both Cynthia’s younger sister and step-mother.

The women MPs of the Labour Party in 1929. Cynthia Mosley is on the far left.

The women MPs of the Labour Party in 1929. Cynthia Mosley is on the far left.

The women’s HQ was seen as crucial for nurturing female interest and recruitment levels in the BUF. The female blackshirts were encouraged to train in jujitsu and The Blackshirt newspaper reported in 1934 that it was particularly popular in London, saying ‘the ladies especially showing remarkable aptitude in this splendid form of defence so suitable to members of the “weaker sex”’.

The new main BUF headquarters, however, was practically out of bounds to women. It was called ‘Black House’ situated on the King’s Road near Sloane Square. The Fascist HQ Bulletin in 1933 stated, under the heading ‘Lady Members’, that “ladies are no longer allowed access to NHQ premises, except to attend mixed classes and concerts and at such times as may be from time to time authorised.’ Despite this ‘lady members’ made up 20-25% of the BUF membership – extremely high for a political party of the time.

Black House on the King's Road, almost opposite Peter Jones, 1934.

Black House on the King’s Road, almost opposite Peter Jones, 1934.

It seems odd that an ex-suffragette, and such a militant one at that, would have put up with these rules, but in April 1934 Richardson became the Chief organiser of the Women’s Section.  A young female BUF member remembered Richardson at the time:

The moving spirit of this [women’s HQ] was an ex-suffragette of great character. She was a fiery speaker particularly at street corner meetings and used to plaster her hair down with Grip-fix so that it would not blow about on these occasions.

Grip-Fix

Grip-Fix

Women 'black-shirts'  from Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists on parade give the fascist salute. Their uniform is a black shirt and tie, beret and slightly flared grey skirts.

Women ‘black-shirts’ giving the fascist salute. Their uniform is a black shirt and tie, beret and slightly flared grey skirts.

Three female blackshirts. c. 1934.

Three female blackshirts. c. 1934.

Richardson had replaced Lady Makgill who had resigned after being suspended for embezzlement which must have been embarrassing to her husband who had co-founded the January Club an organisation whose aim was to attract members of the Establishment to the B.U.F. cause. Mosley, however, was aware of the value of his women members. He later wrote:

My movement has been largely built up by the fanaticism of women; they hold ideals with tremendous passion. Without women I could not have got a quarter of the way.” Even the Blackshirt newspaper, stated: “Women have won the vote, but not their rightful influence in politics. Only when women represent Woman will womankind attain its rightful influence.

It was a woman who, ten years previously in 1923, created the first fascist organisation in Britain. It may well have been the first time a woman had started and led any political party in this country. She was called Rotha Lintorn-Orman and she started the British Fascisti in response to what she thought was a growing threat from the Labour party. The B.F was actually the predominant fascist organisation in Britain until Oswald Mosley created his party in 1932.

Rotha Beryl Lintorn-Orman by Bassano. The photograph is from 1916, seven years before she started the UK's first fascist party.

Rotha Beryl Lintorn-Orman by Bassano. The photograph is from 1916, seven years before she started the UK’s first fascist party.

On 10 November 1924 the Fascisti held a rally consisting of almost 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square most of whom, it was reported, were wearing black and silver British Fascisti badges. The Manchester Guardian reported that there was ‘a large contingent of women’. It was a man, however, the monocled Brigadier-General Blakeney, that told a cheering crowd waving black and white fascist banners and Union Jacks, that there “was a great danger that aliens should be allowed to settle in this land, over crowding the towns and taking employment from the workers.” The rally finally marched down Whitehall where several large black and white wreaths bearing the legend “British Fascists for King and country,” were left next to the four year old Cenotaph.

The British Fascisti ultimately lost members to the Imperial Fascist League and then the BUF. Lintorn-Orman, stubbornly, would have nothing to do with the latter as she considered Oswald Mosley to be a near-communist. Lintorn-Orman’s mother, who was actually the first-ever female Scout Leader, had been pay-rolling the organisation from the beginning, eventually stopping the funding amid lurid newspaper gossip about her daughter that involved alcohol and drug fuelled orgies. Rotha Lintorn-Orman died in March 1935 and her British Fascisti organisation wound up four months later. The Official Receiver reported that:

Throughout the company’s history its accounts seemed to have been kept in a lax, casual manner, and though formed to organise Fascism in the country the company appeared to have been incapable of organising itself.

In 1934, the BUF, however, now with Richardson in charge of the Women’s section, seemed organised, efficient and most of all popular. The Daily Mail on May 18 reported – ‘The recent development of the Women’s Section has been particularly remarkable’ and a few days later the Sunday Dispatch wrote:‘The women’s sections are adding – Beauty. The women and girls of Britain are flocking to the movement. Many of them are strikingly beautiful.’

November 1933:  Mrs Swire a leading figure in the women's section of the British Union of Fascists wears the new uniform of grey skirt with black shirt talks to a member of the HQ staff in London who wear all black. Mosley was afraid the women members might jokily be called the 'black skirts'.

November 1933: Mrs Swire a leading figure in the women’s section of the British Union of Fascists wears the new uniform of grey skirt with black shirt talks to a member of the HQ staff in London who wear all black. Mosley was afraid the women members might jokily be called the ‘black skirts’.

9th September 1934:  Sir Oswald Mosley acknowledging fascist salutes from female members of the British Union of Fascists at an evening demonstration in Hyde Park.

9th September 1934: Sir Oswald Mosley acknowledging fascist salutes from female members of the British Union of Fascists at an evening demonstration in Hyde Park.

Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail and the Sunday Dispatch, had for several months been promoting the BUF’s cause in his newspapers. He wrote a now infamous article headlined ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ in which he suggested that:

Britain’s survival as a great power will depend on the existence of a well-organised party of the Right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same direct purpose and energy of method as Mussolini and Hitler have displayed.

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1934

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1934

After Sylvia Pankhurst’s speech in Trafalgar Square in June 1934 Mary Richardson responded quickly to the criticism and in the June 29 issue of Blackshirt reminded her of their shared memories of working together in Bow and being confined in Holloway at the same time. Richardson wrote:

How can she forget so easily and conveniently that the Suffragette movement, when she stood in the vanguard, was proud of its use of “force and bludgeons,” of dog whips, truncheons (carried and used by Mrs. Pankhurst’s bodyguard), stones in their multitude, and bricks and the hammers? Does she remember how for years her reply to her accusers was: “We are attacked, we must hit back!” “Paid hooligans break up our meetings; we are right to retaliate!”

Richardson continued:

I was first attracted to the Blackshirts because I saw in them the outrage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service, and the ability to serve which I had known in the Suffragette movement. When later I discovered that Blackshirts were attacked for no visible cause or reason. I admired them the more when they hit back, and hit hard.

Mary Richardson left the BUF sometime in 1935. For what particular reason is not exactly known (her autobiography published in 1953 doesn’t mention her political activity in the BUF at all) however Lady Mosley, Oswald’s mother, described Richardson as being full of ‘dishonest inefficiency’. In 1935 Richardson spoke at a meeting of the Welwyn War Resisters – an anti-war group. The Welwyn Times on 19th December 1935 reported that she had told the meeting that she joined the B.U.F. believing that it opposed class distinction and stood for ‘equality of opportunity and pay for men and women’. She had found, however, that the organisation was riddled with hypocrisy and had been expelled in February for ‘attempting to organise a protest’.

On November 7th 1961 Mary Richardson died at her flat at 46 St James’ Road in Hastings of heart failure and bronchitis aged seventy eight. She was still remembered as the woman who had cut up the Rokeby Venus forty seven years before and most of the papers reporting on her death still used Richardson’s nickname the press used in 1914 – ‘Slasher Mary’.

If you look closely you can still see the marks caused by Mary Richardson’s meat cleaver, although the National Gallery make no mention of her vandalism on the card next to the painting. Christabel Pankhurst once said:

that ‘the Rokeby Venus’ has because of Miss Richardson’s act, acquired a new and human and historic interest. For ever more, this picture will be a sign and a memorial of women’s determination to be free.

IMG_4938

To this day you can still see people having a close look at the painting to see if the damage is still visible. It is. Mary Richardson throughout her life used to visit the painting ‘to cheer herself up’.

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Mary Quant, the Miniskirt and the Chelsea Palace on the King’s Road

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Mary Quant, 1963

These days the King’s Road looks not unlike many other high-streets across the country, albeit a bit posher. If you stroll down the road you’ll see, just like anywhere else, Boots, McDonald’s and the ubiquitous coffee-shop chains.  In fact, always a trend-setter, the King’s Road was where Starbucks chose to open its first ever UK coffee-shop in 1998.

The Kings Road has earned its notoriety for setting rather more exciting trends than over-priced milky coffee of course and it was here that perhaps the most celebrated fashion-statement of the last century really took off – the mini-skirt.

Everybody knows that Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt. Except she didn’t. In reality nobody really knows for sure who produced the diminutive garment first. Some say it was John Bates, famous for dressing Diana Rigg in The Avengers so memorably. Others say it was the French designer Andre Courreges, although Quant would later write: “Maybe Courreges did do mini-skirts first, but if he did, no one wore them.”

There is no doubt that skirts were getting shorter each year in the early to mid-sixties but this was almost certainly to do with technological advances that enabled tights to be produced relatively cheaply than anything else.

It is, however, almost universally accepted that Quant invented the word ‘mini-skirt’ after naming her version of the short skirt she was designing after her favourite car – the Mini. Even this isn’t exactly true as the Daily Express and other papers used the term in the 1920s to describe the relatively short skirts of the era. It is interesting to note that in Quant’s first autobiography ‘Quant by Quant’, published in 1966, the word ‘mini-skirt’ isn’t even mentioned.

Although it was the first British Starbucks that opened at 128 King’s Road in 1998 it wasn’t the first coffee shop that opened on the premises. This was the Fantasie coffee bar which opened at the beginning of 1955, admittedly a year or so after Gina Lollobigida opened the Moka espresso cafe at 29 Frith Street, but still one of the first coffee bars in London and certainly outside Soho.

Fantasie coffee bar in 1955. A screen grab from the film Food for a Blush – released in 1959 but filmed in 1955/6

Starbucks on the King’s Road today

It was owned by an ex-solicitor called Archie McNair who lived above the cafe. He also had a photographic studio in the premises used by a young team of photographers one of whom included the young Anthony Armstrong-Jones later, of course, to become Lord Snowdon the husband of Princess Margaret.

It was at the Fantasie that McNair and his friends Mary Quant and her boyfriend Alexander Plunket Greene worked on a plan to open a boutique on the Kings Road. “It was to be a bouillabaisse of clothes and accessories…sweaters, scarves, shifts, hats, jewellery and peculiar odds and ends,” wrote Quant years later.

McNair initially had asked Quant and Plunket Greene to help him with starting up Fantasie but they declined both thinking that coffee bars were to be a flash in the pan. A decision they’d regret as it became crowded every night with a large group of young people who would become known as the Chelsea Set. In the evening vodka was occasionally and illegally added to the drinks and a local Chelsea-based band called the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group regularly played there. Both of which contributed to the big success of the cafe.

Chas McDevitt

Quant romantically wrote about the ‘Chelsea Set’ of the time describing a bohemian world of ‘painters, photographers, architects, writers, socialites, actors, con-men, and superior tarts’ although the author Len Deighton described the same people as ‘a nasty and roaring offshoot of the deb world’ (it seems they have never left). Deighton was upset how the new crowd ending up replacing ‘an amiable mixture of arty rich and bohemian poor’ who, rather horrifically, all had to move out of the best parts of Chelsea beyond World’s End and even to ‘cisalpine Fulham’.

In 1955 McNair and Plunket Greene managed to buy the basement and groundfloor of Markham House on the corner of Markham Square and next door to a grotty pub called the Markham Arms (now a Santander bank). They paid just £8000 for the freehold.

Bazaar

Bazaar in 1955

Bazaar and the Markham Arms (now a Santander bank) today

The King’s Road in 1958. The Bluebird Garage can be seen down the road at numbers 330-350. The garage was opened in 1923 and was the largest in Europe with room for 300 cars in the main garage.

The King’s Road today-ish. The garage is now a restaurant of course.

The shop, which they called Bazaar, opened in November 1955 and was an almost immediate success with the stock flying out of the door. Although initially this was partly to do with naively selling their clothes and accessories too cheaply thus not only losing money on everything they sold but also upsetting the local shops and their wholesalers by undercutting the fixed retail prices.

It wasn’t long, however, that the trio of entrepreneurs realised that by luck they were on to a huge thing:

We were in at the beginning of a tremendous renaissance in fashion. It was not happening because of us. It was simply that, as things turned out, we were a part of it.

Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Green

Mary Quant and APG worked incredibly hard. They had also opened a restaurant in the basement of Markham House which soon became the place to come to in Chelsea. But if they worked hard they also played hard – incredibly they were still both only twentyone.

According to Quant the couple always found time to visit the music hall shows at the Chelsea Palace theatre down the road from Bazaar. At the time the shows were often slightly risqué in nature.  “We went once a week” said Mary. “the Chelsea Palace chorus girls wore very naughty fur bikini knickers.”

It must have been a very funny show…

Paul Raymond’s ‘Burlesque’ was performed at the Chelsea Palace in 1955

Burlesque by Paul Raymond – how kind of Jeye’s Fluid to sponsor the show (see the bottom of the bill)

Chelsea Palace of Varieties

The Chelsea Palace of Varieties had opened for business in 1903 at 232-42 King’s Road on the corner of Sydney Street opposite the Town Hall. It seated 2524 people. Marie Lloyd appeared there in 1909 and performed an act so vulgar that a complaint was made to the London County Council.

By 1923 it started to be used as a cinema as well as showing straight plays and ballets. In 1925 it was taken over by Variety Theatres Consolidated and from then until its closure in March 1957 it presented live theatre, often of a risque nature. One of the shows put on in 1955 called ‘Burlesque’ was produced by Paul Raymond at the beginning of his  career.

During the latter part of 1956 the Chelsea Palace ran a Radio Luxembourg talent competition  and it was won for four weeks in a row by the Fantasie coffee shop regulars – the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group. McDevitt described his flat in Chelsea at the time:

The flat I the King’s Road was an ideal pad in an ideal position. It provided a haven for many an itinerant jazzer, visiting American folkies and unsuspecting embryo groupies.

During the Chelsea Palace talent contests McDevitt met a twenty year old Glaswegian singer called Anne Wilson whose stage name was Nancy Whiskey.

Within six months Nancy Whiskey and McDevitt’s skiffle group had recorded a single called Freight Train. Amazingly, to most people concerned, it actually ended up in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. They even appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in the US along side the Everly Brothers six years before the Beatles’ famous appearance.

The particularly British institution of skiffle only lasted two or three years perhaps but its influence was long-lasting. It was a do-it-yourself reaction to the bland mediocrity that many young people felt about the popular music of the time. This was echoed twenty years later in the mid-seventies with punk which had a lot of similarities with skiffle. The Kings Road played its part in that too.

With his new success Chas McDevitt opened his own coffee bar in Berwick Street in Soho which he called, of course, the Freight Train coffee bar.

The swinging sixties were a bit of a myth this is what the King’s Road really looked like.

The King’s Road: Sundays weren’t for shopping in the Sixties

In 1957 the Chelsea Palace was renamed the Chelsea Granada and was to become a cinema. Although almost immediately the building was leased to Granada Television, within the same company, and the stalls in the theatre were replaced by a studio floor and it became Granada Studio 10 for the next eight years to augment the specially built studio complex in Manchester.

Sidney Bernstein, who with his brother Cecil owned Granada and which had recently won the franchise license to broadcast commercial television in the north west of England, numbered their studios by just using even numbers. This was simply so as to appear they owned more studios than they did.

It was actually the last of the London theatre to TV studio conversions. The Shepherd’s Bush Empire was now a BBC studio and Associated Television had already converted the Hackney Empire and the Wood Green Empire.

Incidentally it was at the Wood Green theatre in 1918 that the American magician known as Chung Ling Soo, (or William Robinson as he was really called) was tragically shot and fatally injured while performing his infamous act which involved catching (or not) a bullet between his teeth.

His last words were “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” It shocked everyone. Not so much that he had been shot but that he wasn’t Chinese and spoke perfect English.

William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, told almost no one that he wasn’t Chinese.

Boris Karloff wonders ‘Who Killed Chung Ling Soo’.

Studio 10 was used for the long running and extremely popular comedy series – the Army Game which ran for five years from 1957. An incredible 154 episodes were broadcast and the cast included many that would become household names for decades to come – Alfie Bass, Geoffrey Palmer, Bill Fraser, Dick Emery and Bernard Bresslaw and the writers included a young John Junkin, Marty Feldman and Barry Took.

The Army Game

Another very popular show that came from Granada’s King’s Road studio was the variety show called Chelsea at Nine. It ran for three series and purposely took advantage of the studio’s location in the capital to feature artists that were appearing in town. This meant that sometimes you would get one of the finest jazz musicians on earth playing after a comedian that would struggle to get on the end of a bill in Skegness.

Ella Fitzgerald once had to introduce an act who was appearing after her on the show as ‘the world’s greatest song and dance spoons man’. She laughed and laughed and simply couldn’t do it.

On the 23rd of February 1959 a very gaunt and very unsteady Billie Holiday was helped up on stage and performed three songs. Strange Fruit, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone and I Loves You Porgy. Luckily for us the shows were by then being recorded but they proved to be the last she ever made and she died just five months later of cirrhosis of the liver in a New York hospital on 17th July. Only Strange Fruit and I Loves You Porgy still survive.

Billie Holiday – I Loves You Porgy

The Chelsea Palace was shamefully demolished by developers in 1966 after Granada vacated the premises. If one day you’re buying a sofa in Heals which is situated on the corner of the King’s Road and Sydney Street where the Chelsea Palace once stood, you might take a few moments to note that one of the world’s greatest ever singers sang a few songs maybe just where you’re standing.

Heals today and not the Chelsea Palace

King’s Road in 1967

By the time the Chelsea Palace was demolished the miniskirt was ubiquitous on the King’s Road and pretty well everywhere else. In the ten years since she and APK had opened Bazaar she had become an international success. Quant and her clothes were an integral part of the so-called Swinging London. At the age of 32, dressed of course in a miniskirt, she received an OBE from the Queen.

Brilliant Pathé footage of Mary Quant in 1967

Loudon Wainwright who wrote a column for Life magazine and was based in London

In 1967 Loudon Wainwright, father of Loudon Wainwright III and grandfather to Rufus and Martha was working in London for Life magazine. In his column called ‘The View From Here’ he wrote:

Until very recently one of my least crucial handicaps has been a sort of built-in propriety which, for example has forced me to avert my eyes whenever I say that a lady was going to have difficulty with her skirt. By difficulty I mean that the skirt was threatening to go up too high – in a chair, in the wind, as its owner disembarked from a taxi.

Loudon continues…

I’m not sure how this propriety has survived the miniskirt fashions…but a few days of lovely spring weather in London have abolished it forever. The balmy sunshine there brought out the miniskirts in mind-reeling profusion. The town was positively atwinkle with thighs…the training of years misspent in the useless protection of female modesty betrayed me, and I had to learn how to stare. Yet soon the delightful truth that I was supposed to notice -  burst upon me..

A few months later Mary Quant was interviewed in the Guardian

That’s the thing about today’s fashions – they’re sexy to look at but really more puritan than they’ve ever been. In European countries where they ban mini-skirts in the streets and say they’re an invitation to rape, they don’t understand about stocking tights underneath.

Miniskirts and men outside Bazaar in 1966/7

Mary Quant and APG in 1964

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