LONDON — The photographs of the art dealer Charles Saatchi with his hands around the neck of his wife, the celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, look as startling now as when they were published last month. But what has happened since has been, in its way, equally unsettling.
First, the cascade of commentary and counter-commentary from politicians, editorial writers, columnists, women’s groups, unnamed supposed friends of the couple and random others with opinions on abuse, relationships and media intrusion. Then, the steady stream of more paparazzi photographs that, as always, make the subjects look like hunted prey: a wedding-ring-less Ms. Lawson, scurrying down the street, head ducked; Mr. Saatchi getting into a car, blank-faced.
The incident in question, captured in a series of pictures by a freelance photographer and published first in Sunday People, a tabloid, took place while the couple ate lunch at Scott’s, a Mayfair restaurant. According to fellow diners quoted by the newspaper, the two began arguing, with Ms. Lawson becoming fearful and weepy while Mr. Saatchi became increasingly angry. On four different occasions, the newspaper reported, he put his hands around her neck in what looked like a menacing way.
The photographs provoked a loud public debate about domestic violence here, with discussions in the House of Lords and even a stray intervention from deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. Like it or not, Ms. Lawson has become, for some, a symbol of the insidious nature of spousal abuse, an example, in their eyes, of the victim who does not realize she is a victim until outsiders frame her situation that way.
“Many women do not tell anyone, because they feel embarrassed or ashamed,” said Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, a charity representing victims of domestic violence. “Having this story in the news is likely to resonate with many women currently living with abuse, and it is important to remind everyone that there is help and support out there.”
Just as doctors reported an increase in women seeking breast cancer screening after Angelina Jolie’s mastectomy, so groups representing victims of spousal abuse here have experienced a surge of interest since the Saatchi-Lawson photographs were made public. “If anything positive is to come of this incident, it is that there has been a massive public response which has generated a nationwide discussion about domestic violence,” said Sandra Horley, the chief executive of Refuge, a domestic-violence charity. The day the photographs were published, the group said, four times as many people visited its Web site than usually do.
What happens next? A spokesman for Ms. Lawson, 53, said she would make no comment. Mr. Saatchi, 70, has offered various explanations, some of them verging on the unpleasant. Discussing why, in addition to mock-strangling his wife during the incident, he had also shoved her finger up her nose, he said: “Even domestic goddesses sometimes have a bit of snot in their nose. I was trying to fish it out.” (He was alluding to Ms. Lawson’s cookbook “How to be a Domestic Goddess,” a title that has been applied to her ever since the book came out, in 2000.)
A van was recently photographed removing boxes filled with Ms. Lawson’s possessions (including, The Daily Mail reported, cookbooks and kitchen equipment) from the couple’s house in Chelsea. Ms. Lawson has told unnamed friends, according to newspapers, that she is considering leaving Britain earlier than planned for Los Angeles, where she is to film the next season of “The Taste,” a competitive cooking program on ABC.
Ms. Lawson, a deeply private person who nonetheless has capitalized on an illusion of intimacy through television shows and cookbooks that focus on family rituals, is said to be mortified by what has happened, and horrified at having her marital problems exposed.
She has been slowly developing a profile in the United States, a profile raised considerably by her presence as a judge on “The Taste.” (She also wrote a column for The New York Times.)
But she has long been a bona fide celebrity in Britain, where she is known simply by her first name.
Her fame has received an assist from her voluptuous good looks, verbal playfulness and flirtatious style, which she introduced in “Nigella Bites,” her first television series, all but seducing the camera, licking batter from her finger and oozing double-entendre descriptions of her cooking techniques — “food porn,” the critics called it, and not necessarily negatively.
Her fame is also linked to her family. Her father is Nigel Lawson, a chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher; her brother is the former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson; and her first husband, John Diamond, was a journalist who wrote candidly and movingly about the cancer that eventually killed him.