POLICE in London have begun an inquiry after Nigella Lawson was apparently assaulted by her husband, Charles Saatchi, who was photographed grabbing her throat during a row outside a restaurant.
Mr Saatchi, the millionaire art dealer, leant over and appeared to grasp the television chef's neck as they sat at an outdoor table at Scott's in Mayfair, central London, where they had been celebrating his 70th birthday.
He also pinched his wife's nose in the argument, during which Ms Lawson (53) was said to have had "a real look of fear on her face".
She left the restaurant in tears and was seen leaving the marital home yesterday with her son, who carried a suitcase.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman said officers from the Community Safety Unit at Westminster were aware of the pictures. He added: "Inquiries are in hand to establish the facts in order to assess whether an investigation is necessary."
Scotland Yard said Ms Lawson had not lodged a complaint but declined to confirm whether a member of the public had done so.
A witness described the incident as "utterly shocking".
"I have no doubt she was scared," the onlooker told a Sunday newspaper.
"It was horrific, really. She was very tearful and was constantly dabbing her eyes. Nigella was very, very upset."
The photographs prompted a storm on the Twitter website, with many condemning Mr Saatchi and expressing concern for his wife.
Polly Neate, the chief executive of the domestic violence charity Women's Aid, said: "While it is shocking to see someone as high-profile as Nigella Lawson linked to an alleged attack by her partner, it is vital to remember that domestic violence is actually extremely prevalent, with one in four women being abused by a partner at some point in her lifetime.
"Many women do not tell anyone because they feel embarrassed or ashamed. 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."
Charles Saatchi (70) is a multimillionaire art collector .
He was the co-founder with his brother Maurice of the global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Charles is also the owner of the Saatchi Gallery.
Nigella is the daughter of Nigel Lawson, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, she has written several books and has built a hugely successful career as a broadcaster.
In 1999, she hosted her own cooking show series, Nigella Bites on Channel 4, which was accompanied by another best-selling cook book.
Ms Lawson has previously admitted that she and Mr Saatchi have fiery rows and has described her husband as "an exploder".
She said in 2007: "I'll go quiet when he explodes, and then I am a nest of horrible festeringness."
The row occurred shortly after the couple had finished eating at the seafood restaurant, which is a popular haunt for celebrities. They were at their favourite table, which is outside because Mr Saatchi is a smoker. It is partly sheltered by olive trees but the incident could be clearly seen and heard by other customers and those passing on the street.
As Mr Saatchi tapped his cigarettes on the table, Ms Lawson was said to have downed a glass of red wine before speaking in a trembling voice. She placed a hand on his left wrist on the table and, at one point, she leant over and kissed his cheek.
The witness said: "She raised her voice and got angry but at the same time was trying to calm him down, almost like you would try to calm down a child. The kiss was a strange thing. He was being intimidating, threatening."
Mr Saatchi left his wife sobbing at the table and went to a waiting car. She then joined him, wiping away tears, before they were driven back to their home in Chelsea, west London.
Before they had headed out for lunch last Sunday, Ms Lawson had tweeted a picture of her scrambled egg and smoked salmon breakfast. She has since tweeted several times about food but there has been no hint of marriage trouble.
The couple are due to celebrate their 10th anniversary in September. Ms Lawson's first husband, John Diamond, died of throat cancer in 2001 aged 47.
Neither would comment yesterday as they left their home separately. Ms Lawson got into a taxi with her son Bruno, from her first marriage, who carried a large black suitcase.
It was not the first time that they have argued in public.
Mr Saatchi, co-founder of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, was pictured pressing his hand over his wife's mouth as they dined at Scott's restaurant last year.