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
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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)