Constable's The Hay Wain painting defaced as Fathers4Justice step up action

Attack comes after a painting of the queen by Ralph Heimans was vandalised with spray paint in Westminster Abbey

The Hay Wain, one of the country’s most recognisable paintings, was defaced as Fathers4Justice announced a new wave of direct action campaigning.

Paul Manning, a father who lost a child custody appeal two weeks ago, was arrested on suspicion of gluing a four-inch photograph of a boy to the oil painting by John Constable in the National Gallery. The word “help” was written on the photograph.

Staff at the Gallery intervened before any further damage could be done and took the painting -dating from 1821 of an idyllic rural scene featuring a hay wain - away “for treatment”.

A spokeswoman praised “the prompt action and quick thinking” of staff and promised an investigation into how security was breached. She added: “Conservation staff were on the scene very rapidly and the painting was removed for treatment. No damage to Constable’s original paint occurred and there is no lasting damage to the painting.”

The attack, however, is the second on a work of art in a fortnight, coming after a painting of the queen by Ralph Heimans was vandalised with spray paint in Westminster Abbey in what was believed to be a Fathers4Justice protest. Tim Haries, 41, went before Southwark Crown Court in London with criminal damage to canvas.

Shortly after Manning’s arrest Fathers4Justice issued a statement saying it was abandoning attempts to enter into dialogue with the authorities and was returning to direct action after a gap of five years.

The group represents men separated from their children in custody battles and has previously been associated with high profile protests by father, often wearing superhero outfits, designed to cause public disruption.

In the statement on its website the group said it was “abandoning its five-year long attempted engagement with the political establishment” and called on fathers “to take independent weekly direct action” in the same spirit that the Suffragettes campaigned for votes for women. It claimed 1,000 families are “destroyed in the secret family courts” each week.

It announced it will refuse “to deal with the government, police, courts, judiciary and any other organisations involved in family law”. It also cut ties with the national media, blaming “deliberately inaccurate and misleading reporting”.

A spokeswoman added: “We can no longer stem the tide of desperation and anger of fathers who have had their families destroyed and their hopes betrayed by a government that promised equal parenting but only delivered desperation.

“Fathers have a duty of care to protect themselves and their families and give themselves a voice which the politicians and media have denied them for over a decade.”

Manning also issued a statement through Fathers4Justice in which he said: “My heart and conscience and my love pushes me on to some sort of future action, some sort of path that will get me back to my dear son or it may not? It will be an action that may lead to my incarceration possibly even to my own death.”

The photograph he is said to have glued to the masterpiece was said by Fathers4Justice to be that of his 11-year-old son. Manning is said to have lost a final custody appeal two weeks ago before Lord Justice Thorpe, an Appeal Court judge and the head International Family Justice.

Manning claimed children were being turned against their fathers, a “state of affairs purposely and inevitably brought about by the courts”, and wrote of the “pain and bereavement” caused to fathers separated from their children and the humiliation of “having our own flesh and blood taken from us as if we were unfit fathers”.

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