Thomas Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs William Hallett ('The Morning Walk') (1785) before it was vandalised on 18 March at the National Gallery, London (© The National Gallery, London)
The man charged with vandalising Thomas Gainsborough’s The Morning Walk (1785) is due to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court today. On Saturday (18 March), just after 2pm, Keith Gregory, aged 63 who is homeless, is believed to have attacked the painting with a drill bit. This caused two deep scratches, each about 75cm long, in a cross-shaped form in the lower-right corner of the canvas. This damaged the male sitter’s legs, but was far away from the most important part of the composition, the two faces.
Following the alleged attack, Gregory was detained by gallery assistants with the help of several visitors in the museum’s room 34, where the painting is hung. He was arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage and later charged and held by police. The east wing of the National Gallery was closed for two hours, with the painting being removed to the conservation studio for examination.
Gainsborough’s The Morning Walk depicts William and Elizabeth Hallett a few weeks before their marriage. The large painting, measuring 2.4m in height, was bought by the gallery from Victor, 3rd Baron Rothschild in 1954. It was relined at some point before the 1930s, which would have strengthened the canvas support and made it less vulnerable to damage. Earlier, possibly in the 19th century, it had suffered a 35cm tear near the top of the canvas which had been repaired.
There is no obvious reason why The Morning Walk was singled out for attack. A gallery spokeswoman says that the damage was limited to the two long scratches, which have “penetrated the paint layers, but not the supporting canvas”. It should be possible for conservators to add reversible overpaint to disguise the damage. This work will be done relatively quickly and the Gainsborough should go back on display by the end of next week.
Although bags are now often checked, it would be very difficult to prevent visitors from carrying small metal objects. The gallery will be reviewing security following the incident.