Womanising MP's bust marked by lipstick in kissing problem at National Portrait Gallery

From the Royal Family to Francisco Franco, the National Portrait Gallery has logged dozens of damaging incidents

Bust are being kissed at the National Portrait Gallery
Bust are being kissed at the National Portrait Gallery

The bust of a womanising statesman among those smeared with lipstick marks at the National Portrait Gallery, which gives staff training to deal with unwanted kisses and other damage to its collection.

Philandering MP Charles James Fox was a notorious lothario in his lifetime, and his marble statue has been marked in a trend of visitors planting kisses on antique items.

The National Portrait Gallery said it is reviewing its procedures and offering staff training to deal with such incidents of damage to the vast collection.

Items in their priceless collection have been soaked, scribbled on, dropped, and pierced by plummeting screwdrivers, The Daily Telegraph can reveal.

FOI data shows accidental and intentional damage at the London institution, which holds images of historical significant British people.

The tally of objects in the collection that have been cracked, dampened, marked or otherwise harmed has been rising each year since 2014.

Up to autumn 2019 portraits of the notable figures from English King George III to Spanish dictator General Franscisco Franco were damaged in 41 separate incidents.

A problem for the Gallery revealed by the log of damage is visitors leaving lipstick marks on marble busts after kissing them. 

Smeared lipstick marks left on the two-century-old bust likeness of rakish former Foreign Secretary Fox t in 2015 were among many unwelcome causes of damage at the gallery.

Charles James Fox's but was marked with lipstick

Historical novelist Sir Walter Scott has also come in for intimate attention, with his 19th century statue similarly stained with lipstick last year after, as the damage log notes, “visitor kissed bust”. 

Aristocratic busts of the one-time richest man in Britain George Leveson-Gower and arts connoisseur Charles Long have also been marked by lipstick.

Prompted by reports of kisses or other harmful incidents the Gallery looks to “review our handling procedures after any damage”, and ensure “staff regularly undergo refresher training in object handling”.

Utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill has also had his likeness damaged when his portrait was pierced by a falling screwdriver.

These incidents have risen steadily from just two in 2014, to 10 in 2018.  There were already eight reports of damage by October of last year.  

One of these involved a John Singer Sergeant painting of Great War officers, including Sir Douglas Haig.  It was noticed that someone had scribbled on the picture.

A photograph of the Royal Family was torn while part of the frame was being removed   There were five incidents of valuable portraits, including those of Charles II and Benjamin Disraeli, being damaged while in transit across London. 

An image of William III fell off the wall after being mounted,  and that of artist Sir Godfrey Kneller tumbled off a trolley used to transport paintings.  The portrait of Johann Christian Bach was struck by a ladder.  

Several incidents related to water damage, and on one occasion a technician simply knocked part of the frame off one of the works by accident.  In most cases, it was the ornate frame that bore the brunt of the damage. 

The National Portrait Gallery  is due to close its doors until 2023, with some works going on loan across the UK and abroad. 

Some of the cracks and marks reported by the London institution were noticed after returning from loan periods, but the Gallery offered assurances saying: “Borrowers are carefully selected to ensure works are not exposed to unnecessary risk”.

It added that “damages to works in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection are rare”, and the harms done to works in the collection was “minor and have all been treated successfully”.