The row over art that led to a double shooting

Details emerge of 1909 murder in gallery

In its time, the National Portrait Gallery has had its fair share of historical murderers on its walls.

Now, the first detailed account of a real murder in the gallery, over an apparent artistic disagreement which happened in full view of staff and visitors, has been published.

A letter written by then-director James Milner two days after the 1909 tragedy tells how staff had to wash bloodstains from the floor after a "well-dressed elderly man" shot his wife and then himself in the head.

The couple, from America, were said to have "gesticulated excitedly" while looking at one of the pictures before the man – named as Mr John Tempest Dawson – reportedly drew his revolver and, "placing the muzzle close to the woman's head, fired", before turning the weapon on himself.

Mr Milner wrote in his account: "I drew the Sergeant's attention to the shocking amount of blood which she [the stricken woman] had lost, and suggested that some cloths or wraps might be placed under her."

After police ignored his suggestion and proceeded to carry the woman's bleeding body through the gallery, he wrote: "I instructed the head messenger to see that the messengers at once proceeded to wash away the bloodstains which had badly marked the floor over the whole distance she had been carried."

Other documents in the catalogue show what happened to the gallery's works during the First World War as gun-wielding staff were pressed into service to guard portraits stored near St Paul's Cathedral.

A 1918 letter, addressed to Mr Milner and marked "SECRET", recommended that he follow the example of The National Gallery and post armed sentries to guard the works.

The note reads: "I should mention that at the Aldwych Tube which is, as you know, used by the National Gallery [sic], the men are armed with revolvers. You will perhaps wish for a similar precaution to be taken at King Edward Building."

The archives also reveal that, in 1939, while many of London's children were being evacuated, the gallery's most important portraits were also being moved out of the capital, to the Buckinghamshire estate of Lord Rosebery. They stayed there, guarded by gallery attendants, until the end of the war.

Among the images now chronicled in the archive are photographs of some of the gallery's wartime staff and a series of pictures charting the journey of the artworks from London's West End to their new home in the countryside.

The launch of the online archive comes a month after the gallery's award of £17,909 from the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives to catalogue the papers of its first director, Sir George Scharf, who died in 1895. Those papers will join those of other former gallery directors, such as Sir Lionel Cust and Sir Roy Strong, already available in the new online archive catalogue.

The archives are being made available to the public on the National Portrait Gallery's website: archivecatalogue.npg.org.uk.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'