At 2:15 PM on Saturday, March 18th, 2017, Keith Gregory walked up to Mr and Mrs William Hallett by Thomas Gainsborough, hanging in the British paintings room of London’s National Gallery, and slashed it twice with a pointed metal object. The man was immediately apprehended by the Gallery Assistant with the aid of members of the public. They detained him until the police arrived and arrested him. The next day the 63-year-old man was charged with causing criminal damage.
The painting was removed to the museum’s conservation lab where conservators were relieved to find the “damage was limited to two long scratches which penetrated the paint surface and the canvas support, but did not break through the canvas lining.” National Gallery experts determined the repairs to the pigment layers would be relatively easy to make and it would not be long before the Gainsborough was back on public view. Ten days later, it was hanging in its spot in room 34 of the National Gallery again.
Larry Keith, the National Gallery’s director of conservation, said that the museum believed that the painting was attacked with a drill bit or a similar object. He said that the restoration process had included re-adhering loose paint that was still attached to the canvas; filling in areas of paint that had been scratched away, with a filling agent; painting the affected areas with new paint that had been closely matched in color and texture to the original; and, finally, covering the entire canvas with a light varnish.
Acknowledging that the particulars of the attack were unusual, Mr. Keith said that such interventions into a canvas were not rare. “Any painting of that age will almost always have had a history of interventions,” he said, calling them part of “the natural life cycle of old master paintings.”
Mr and Mrs William Hallett, better known as The Morning Walk, was painted in 1785 when Thomas Gainsborough was at the height of his popularity. Originally a landscape painter, in the late 1740s Gainsborough switched focus to portraiture when he realized that was where the money was. At first his sitters were the local big fish in a small pond. Looking to appeal to a higher class of clientele, he studied the portraits of Anthony van Dyck and by the 1770s had moved up from country squires to counts and dukes. In 1780, he received his first commissions from King George III and Queen Charlotte. Many more would follow until his death in 1788.
The couple in The Morning Walk are William Hallett and Elizabeth Stephen, then 21 years old and soon to be married. Gainsborough depicted them walking through a country wood with an attentive white dog at Elizabeth’s side. Mr. Hallett is wearing a black silk velvet suit, while Elizabeth is clad in a gown of ivory silk with a black sash around her waist. This was a popular fashion among the Georgian aristocracy, having a portrait painted of them in a Romantic, pastoral setting wearing their most elegant clothes.
Mr. Gregory is currently out on bail and is scheduled to appear before a higher court next month. There is no word yet on what his motivation may have been. It seems such an innocuous painting to arouse slashing ire, but that’s never stopped people with ill-intent from fixating on certain artworks before.