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The National Gallery in Wartime


Suzanne Bosman


London: National Gallery, 2008. Paperback. 127 p. ISBN 9781857094244

(DVD. 45 minutes. ISBN 9781857094398)


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen


No doubt many readers will be familiar with the classic passage in Humphrey Jennings’ 1942 film, Listening to Britain, in which the smiling Queen sits in the front row, next to Kenneth Clark, the Director of the National Gallery, while Dame Myra Hess gives one of her packed lunchtime concerts under the dome of the Barry Rooms emptied of their pictures – and even though this particular scene does not number among the hundreds of photographs in the book, a full chapter is devoted to “The Myra Hess concerts”, while another one (“Sandwiches and sonatas”) is devoted to the celebrated National Gallery sandwich counter run by volunteer middle- and upper-class ladies in elaborate fancy hats.  For an unexplained reason, the memorial picture by H. Scott Harrison, Music in the National Gallery (1942), which benefits from a colour reproduction, is not in the collection of the Gallery, but in that of the Geffrye Museum.

Why the Gallery came to be emptied of its permanent collections, how this was effected, where the collections were re-located and what ideas the enterprising Kenneth Clark found to partially fill it and continue to give it an active life – these are the guiding threads of this profusely-illustrated, very attractive large-size paperback.

Classically, the study begins with the road to war, the short narrative being interspersed with a number of well-known images like the official photograph of the Munich Conference (September 1938) showing Hitler surrounded by Chamberlain and Daladier on his right and Mussolini and Ciano on his left or Chamberlain at Heston Aerodrome a few days later proudly brandishing the document with Hitler’s pledge never to go to war again – but also with little-known ones like a fat Hermann Goering viewing a framed painting held by two SS troopers in their sinister black uniforms while Hitler is watching with an unusually relaxed look. The incongruity of the scene in view of the absolute opposition between the values carried by the fine arts and those of Goering, Hitler and the SS – which people like Chamberlain must have perceived – somehow adumbrates the dilemma which Kenneth Clark was to face when war did break out, since it was clear that aerial bombardment would form a major aspect of the German offensive.

Plans had been made well in advance – as early as 1934, in fact, when “owners of selected stately homes [not far from London] were consulted to find out if they might store the paintings in an emergency” [17]. By 1938, with the increased range of bombers, this was felt not be safe enough, and new plans were made for storage in Wales. But this raised special problems : “the pictures would have to be carried, so a minimum of steps was essential; doorways had to be high enough to accommodate the largest paintings; and the rooms needed to be fireproof, of adequate size, with the right level of humidity” [19]. Some paintings were indeed sent to Bangor during the Munich talks – in case they failed. But they were sent unpacked back to London when the agreements were signed (hence the photograph mentioned above). Still “the exercise was to be an invaluable dress rehearsal for the great migration that took place less than a year later” [25].

In late August 1939, most of the Gallery’s paintings were sent to various castles in Wales – this time for the duration of the war. In May 1940, with the predictable fall of France and the German invasion expected to follow, new plans were made – this time for the evacuation of the paintings to Canada. Kenneth Clark approached Churchill in writing, and the book has a fascinating full-page photograph of the official answer on Downing Street notepaper :


My dear Clark,                                          1st June, 1940 [Secret]


The Prime Minister asked me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 29th May suggesting the evacuation from this country of certain National Gallery pictures.


The Prime Minister wishes me to say that he is not prepared to agree to the evacuation of any pictures, which he feels would be quite securely placed if there was adequate protection for them – if necessary, under ground. [16]

So the pictures duly found their way to the tunnels of the Manod slate quarry, near Blaenau Ffestiniog, which were extensively modified to accommodate the collection from 1941. The book has many excellent photographs of the facilities, with an impressive map of the various connecting tunnels – in fact a narrow-gauge railway was constructed to carry the pictures to their storage points. The main difficulty was bringing the larger paintings (in their protective crates) to Manod on the narrow roads and their low railway bridges. One problem was Van Dyck’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles I : “the road was hollowed out to allow the huge triangular crate (known as the ‘Elephant Case’)” through one of these bridges [76]. This discussion is followed by an amusing photograph of National Gallery staff handling Philippe de Champaigne’s large framed Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu at Manod – they look small next to the Cardinal. And the book ends on a superb full-page colour photograph of Charles I’s intact portrait hung again in its full glory at the Gallery in June 1945.

The precautionary removal of the paintings was not in vain. A section of the book is devoted to the destructions of the Blitz, with a full photographic record of the parts of the National Gallery which were destroyed by bombing. Ironically, the burning due to incendiary bombs of Hampton’s furniture store next door to the Gallery made its future extension possible – the site is now occupied by the Sainsbury Wing. Still, many rooms remained intact – and their walls empty of their usual occupiers. On top of imagining the concerts to fill the gaps as best he could, Kenneth Clark came up with what turned out to be a great idea: temporarily filling some of the rooms with the paintings of the Official War Artists – a scheme for which he was a prime mover.(1) The first exhibition of their works took place in July 1940, and the practice lasted until the end of the war. The book has a very interesting photograph of two soldiers looking at The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940 (Charles Cundall, 1940) in one of the temporary War Pictures by British Artists Exhibitions. Major works like Paul Nash’s Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41) were shown on these occasions. Another initiative, when the bombing raids became less frequent after the opening of the Russian Front in June 1941, was the Picture of the Month scheme, with one important picture in the Gallery’s collection brought back from its Welsh shelter to be exhibited alone in one of the empty rooms. At night, the canvas was removed, to be stored in a special bomb-proof room in the basement. Masterpieces like Velazquez’s Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus) or El Greco’s Christ driving the Traders from the Temple attracted huge crowds, seen queing on the Trafalgar Square steps on a number of photographs. Other ways were found to attract visitors and fill the Gallery, notably by cashing on the public’s insatiable appetite for anything connected with Reconstruction – hence the ‘Greater London: Towards a Master Plan’ (1943) or ‘Design at Home’ (1945) "non-art" [93] exhibitions. A useful appendix gives a full list of all the events organised in the Gallery by its resourceful Director from 1940 to 1945 [126].

This is a very attractive book, as we said, and it is usefully complemented by an optional 45-minute DVD showing more or less the same photographs, and giving more or less the same commentaries (2) – but with musical clips of the Myra Hess concerts with which the book cannot compete. Both are unreservedly recommended for University Libraries – and both would make ideal presents for lovers of the Gallery.


(1) For a full treatment, see the excellent monograph, Brian Foss, War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945. Yale University Press, 2007. See Cercles review.

(2) The National Gallery also has pages on the subject on its website.







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