A history of violence that's set to make a smash hit

As the Tate opens a show of vandalised art, Arifa Akbar visits the secret lock-up that is home to the nation's damaged masterpieces

Turn off the main road from Helmsley, past the manicured grounds of the exclusive boarding school, Ampleforth College, and along a bumpy rough track and you will come to a brick and corrugated iron building that sits just outside the North Yorkshire town. The squat lock-up is a dot in the middle of rolling fields, so off the grid that if you punch its postcode into your GPS system, you will end up somewhere else entirely. Its geographical secrecy is deliberate; while its owner – English Heritage – arranges trips round this archaeological store, it never discloses its exact address, if it can help it.

The store contains the by-products of history's violent attacks on art, and similar English Heritage warehouses exist in other parts of the country. It houses not complete monuments of national importance but the remains of such artworks that date back hundreds of years. Inside its cooled interior and its floor-to-ceiling roller racking are rows and rows of smashed stained glass, damaged window-leading and stone sculptures with vital bits missing: a headless Virgin Mary from nearby Gisborough, a saint figure with its feet smashed, an ornate but broken pulpit screen, clasps of 12th-century books whose pages were burned and half-ripped papal bulls from the Vatican.

These finds, recovered from churches and abbeys such as Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley and Fountains Abbey, also in North Yorkshire, were wilfully and savagely damaged, vandalised, dismantled. Some bear axe marks in the stone where heads were violently hacked off. In more cases than not, the state sanctioned these mutilations – many of them were disfigured in the Reformation and during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Several works from this store will feature in a forthcoming exhibition at Tate Britain, Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, which will explore the history of physical attacks on art. Such assaults contain a potent and powerful symbolism, as witnessed in the recent destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban or the defacement of Saddam Hussein's six-metre cast-iron statue in Basra, which for some symbolised liberation from political oppression.

While these acts were motivated by politics and religion, there have been protests for aesthetic reasons too – not all of them brutal. Consider the playfulness of Marcel Duchamp's moustache and goatee scribbled onto a postcard Mona Lisa. Last year, by contrast, the defacing of Mark Rothko's mural, Black on Maroon, at Tate Modern, led to a jail sentence for the man who inflicted the damage, claiming to be from the artistic movement, Yellowism.

The show at Tate Britain will span the centuries from 16th-century sculptures to Edward Burne-Jones's Sibylla Delphica, which was attacked by the suffragettes in 1913, to Jamie Reid's Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen record cover and the contemporary work of Jake and Dinos Chapman who have deliberately disfigured Goya's sketches for artistic purposes. Among the English Heritage store's loans to the exhibition is a startling sculpture of a headless Christ figure sitting on a throne, Christ in Majesty (c1260-90) from Rievaulx Abbey.

Susan Harrison, an English Heritage curator, has worked among the damaged artefacts in the store for nearly two decades and says that many of these mutilated works exemplify the immense power they held over worshippers during the Reformation years. So sacrilegious was their destruction that the State had to send “outside” salvage workers to burn, deface and melt down material in churches – or the entire church structure in many cases – as locals refused to attack their own beloved icons. Some items were dragged to public squares and destroyed before an audience to add to the symbolic humiliation.

“There are objects here that have layers of their history marked on them. There is the original use as well as deliberate damage such as axe marks, and also accidental damage – all of that can be etched into one item,” says Harrison.

The heads of many of the religious sculptures were chopped off and have not been retrieved since. Meanwhile, effigies of knights and patrons of a church have remained intact, as they were not deemed ideologically “dangerous”, alongside secular sculptures. So there are numerous animals heads and non-religious sculptures that sit in the store in neat rows, almost unscathed.

The attacked monuments pose an interesting artistic challenge for Harrison whose task it is to reassemble a giant archaeological jigsaw puzzle. Over the years, she has been able to piece certain works together as finds are made and new “bits” of the same sculpture are discovered. But this is not always the case for the tens of thousands of objects in the storeroom, which remain forever incomplete, hacked-off histories. “There will always be the things we don't know about. That's what makes this collection really fascinating, but there is the prospect of finding out more, and making more connections between different items. That's what I do.”

There is also an irony in the fact that these damaged objects, which have languished unseen in storerooms and museum collections for decades, are now to take centre stage at a major exhibition: usually they would not be exhibited due to their unseemly nature.

Of course, defacing a sacred or precious artefact does not necessarily lead to its destruction. Penelope Curtis, the director of Tate Britain, believes that iconoclasm is “as much about changing the meaning of an image as it is about destroying it completely.”

Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8888 ) 2 October to 5 January. Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire is open daily (01439 798228; www.english-heritage.org.uk/rievaulx)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?