THE ROKEBY VENUS has perhaps the most famous bottom in the world. She's named after the south Durham mansion in which she was displayed for more than a century, and she's so famous that last week, for the second time in 110 years, she was attacked by protestors.

The Northern Echo: Two Just Stop Oil protestors attack the Rokeby Venus with safety hammers in the National Gallery on MondayTwo Just Stop Oil protestors attack the Rokeby Venus with safety hammers in the National Gallery on Monday

"Women did not get the vote by voting, it is time for deeds not words,” shouted the climate change protestors as they channelled a suffragette attack on the painting and turned on it with emergency rescue hammers. "Politics is failing us. It failed women in 1914 and it is failing us now. New oil and gas will kill millions. If we love art, if we love life, if we love our families we must Just Stop Oil."

The Northern Echo: Rokeby Hall, one of the finest neo-Palladian mansions in the country

The painting’s true home of Rokeby Park (above), on the A66 near Greta Bridge, is one of the finest neo-Palladian mansions in the country, built by its owner, Thomas Robinson (below), between 1725 and 1730.


The Northern Echo: Sir Thomas Robinson, of Rokeby Park

Towards the end of the 18th Century, John Sawrey Morritt extended it, calling in John Carr, the famous Yorkshire bridge-builder, to create an impressive dining room with a double Venetian window in 1778.

It was Mr Morritt who bought the painting, properly called The Toilet of Venus and once owned by the king of Spain, in 1809 for £500.

The Northern Echo: Velazquez's Rokeby Venus: does the (old) face match the (young) rear?

Mr Morritt was an art-lover, and he hung it initially in his London town house in Portland Place, where it was admired by his guests like Sir Walter Scott, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Humphrey Davy.

It was painted in about 1658 by Diego Velazquez, the leading painter of the Spanish Golden Age. It shows the sensuous curves of the naked back of Venus reclining on a bed, but Cupid, the Roman god of physical love, is holding a mirror which is angled to allow the viewer to see the enigmatic face of Venus.

Art critics say the face in the mirror is much older than the shapely bottom, thus providing a warning about the passing of time and the inevitability of aging.

When Mr Morritt died in 1791, Rokeby – properly pronounced “Rook-by” – was taken on by his son, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt, who brought the Venus to the family mansion, where it acquired the name by which it was referred in all the reports of this week’s attack.

The Venus hung in Rokeby until 1905 when the Morritt family was in need of cash. In those jingoistic days, the Germans were trying to buy up the world’s leading artworks but the “Rokeby Venus” became the first painting to be purchased by the newly-formed Art Fund charity to stop it leaving the country.

It cost £45,000 – about £4.5m in today’s values – although, due to agent’s fees, the Morritts only received £25,000 (a mere £2.5m).

The Northern Echo: Mary "Slasher" Richardson, the suffragette whose actions were copied this week by Just Stop Oil

It was presented to the British nation and hung in the National Gallery until March 10, 1914, when Mary Richardson (above) attacked it with a meat cleaver she had smuggled in up her sleeve. Her first blow broke the “anti-suffragette glass” that had been placed protectively around Venus’ delicate derriere and then she slashed it seven times.

The Northern Echo: The Rokeby Venus in 1914 after suffragette Mary Slasher had been at herThe Rokeby Venus in 1914 after suffragette Mary 'Slasher' Richardson had been at her

Slasher Mary, just like the Just Stop Oil protestors, had prepared a statement explaining/justifying her actions which came the day after suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst had been arrested.

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history,” she said, although her outrage was clearly long in the planning.

The Northern Echo: Rokeby Venus, march 11, 1914, Northern EchoFrom The Northern Echo of March 11, 1914, telling of the suffragette attack on the Rokeby Venus

Back at Rokeby, the loss of the painting must have left the Morritts with a dusty mark over the fireplace because they commissioned a copy of it. In the Second World War, the mansion was used as a military convalescent home and the painting was taken to the officers’ mess at RAF Leeming where, during an exuberant party, poor Venus sustained a bullet wound to the bum.

She was patched up, and remains on display in Rokeby, just as the original was patched up after Slasher Mary’s attack, and will again receive restorative attention after this week’s attack before being returned to display.