The Magazine

Art Under Siege

Underground culture against kultur in the air.

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The National Gallery in Wartime

by Suzanne Bosman

National Gallery London, 128 pp., $24.95

In September 1938, at the height of the Munich crisis, which would result in Neville Chamberlain's giving Herr Hitler carte blanche to help himself to Czechoslovakia--Churchill put it nicely when he said that "the German dictator, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course"--the assistant keeper of London's National Gallery, Martin Davies, made a tour of country houses to see whether they would be suitable for storing the museum's art collection for the duration of what even then the English knew would be a frightful bombing from the Luftwaffe.

After sojourning in each house, Davies made notes, remarking of one visit: "The owner is nice, ruled by his wife, a tartar, anxious to have NG pictures instead of refugees or worse." Of another, "Owner .  .  . seems obliging in a haughty way." However obliging, most owners did not have what was necessary to store paintings: Their houses lacked the requisite size (doorways had to be of an immense height to accommodate larger paintings), fireproofing, or the proper temperature. Penrhyn Castle, a huge neo-Norman pile built in Wales in the early 19th century, was one of the few exceptions. Davies transported two shipments of paintings to the castle on special trains and stored them in its massive dining room and garage, where the ghosts of the West Indian slaves whose labor paid for the castle must have welcomed them with amusement.

In The National Gallery in Wartime, Suzanne Bosman has written a fascinating account of how director Kenneth Clark and his staff arranged for the wartime storage of the museum's contents, first in country houses and then in the capacious repository of a disused quarry in the Welsh mountains. This book is wonderfully illustrated, including photographs of solitary railway vans negotiating the long and winding roads of Wales on their way to the quarry--scenes worthy of the old Ealing comedies in which English pluck always carries the day.

There is certainly an Ealing touch to one of Davies's concerns: "One of our troubles at Penrhyn Castle," he wrote, "is that the owner is celebrating the war by being fairly constantly drunk. He stumbled with a dog into the Dining Room a few days ago; this will not happen again. Yesterday, he smashed up his car, and, I believe, himself a little--so perhaps the problem has solved itself for the moment."

In his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood (1974), Clark vividly recalled this tense time:

By 1938 it did not require Mr. Churchill's eloquence, nor the muddled, hysterical support of the left for Czechoslovakia, to arouse in the minds of ordinary men and women a sense of shame and foreboding. We realized at last that the pandering of successive governments to the peace-loving inclinations of the country in which, for once, materialism and idealism were united, had left us impotent. No one, not even Mr. Churchill, knew exactly how weak we were.

Coincidentally, Chamberlain was a friend of Clark's. He and his wife Jane often dined with Chamberlain at Chequers. But Clark had no illusions about Birmingham's most famous son:

I was educated as an historian, and so have a certain prejudice in favour of those who can think historically. Mr. Chamberlain although he had a fund of information on unimportant matters (he occupied a whole luncheon at Chequers in 1938 by giving Jane the history of every famous gem), had no conception of what Gibbon called "The vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave." This sweep of historical imagination was one of the supreme gifts of Mr. Churchill.

In times to come, Clark's supreme gift may be seen not as his glorious television series Civilisation or his incomparable monograph on Leonardo or his critical work on Piero della Francesca and Rembrandt, but the work he did to keep the National Gallery's collection out of that common grave.

Now that Americans begin to forget their own vulnerability to attack from assailants that can make Hitler's ruffians look like choirboys, it might be a salutary reminder to read of how Clark and his staff protected the Gallery's riches. What strikes the reader most about this undertaking is how tremendously efficient it was. Once the British ascertained that the sites of the country houses where National Gallery paintings were stored--Bangor, Aberystwyth, Caernavon, and Penrhyn--would be within the flight path of German bombers headed for targets in and around the Liverpool docks, they realized that they would have to transfer most of the paintings to a more secure place, and it was then that they moved their treasures to the Manod quarry near Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales.

One thousand seven hundred feet above sea level, it was accessible only by four miles of mazy, mountainous road. To ensure that there was an opening big enough into the quarry, 5,000 tons of rock had to be blasted away. Moreover, within the quarry, temperature-controlled rooms had to be constructed to house the paintings, narrow-gauge railway tracks had to be put down to ensure their easy transportation, and special wagons had to be designed by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company to protect the paintings from fluctuations of humidity and temperature. Hygrometers monitored the effects of temperature on the paintings with unprecedented accuracy.

In addition to paintings, the National Gallery's library was also transferred to the underground quarry, for which controlled temperature was also imperative. One unexpected scholarly benefit of the transfer was that it allowed Davies to assess the collection afresh, and as a result, pioneering new editions of The Early Netherlandish School, The British School, The French School, and The Early Italian School were all brought out at this time.

Ian Rawlins, a railway expert, was responsible for seeing that the heroic removal of the paintings went smoothly. At every turn unforeseen challenges tested his ingenuity. In the case of Van Dyck's Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, one of the largest paintings in the collection, Rawlins and his team had to hollow out a road leading to the quarry to enable the special cart--expressly designed to transport the painting, dubbed the "Elephant Case"--to pass under a low bridge. And then it was only possible after the cart's tires were deflated. Here, truly, was a close-run thing.

That the paintings and library were stored underground made them vulnerable to other threats besides aerial bombardment. As Bosman observes, "The brick chambers protected the pictures from minor falls, but there was always the possibility of the whole collection being buried in a catastrophic collapse." Davies was fully cognizant of this:

It would have been useless to save the pictures from bombs, only to crush them in Wales with tons of slate falling on them. Manod quarry roofs are safer than most; nevertheless, the pictures could not walk away like a gang of quarrymen from any doubtful section.

When a section was identified as liable to give way, 300 paintings were removed within seven hours. Engineers later concluded that the temperature-controlled heating of the chambers had made the rock above more than usually friable. However, this would be Manod's only failure. Once the success of the transfer spread through Britain's cultural grapevine, other museums joined the National Gallery in making Manod their wartime home, including the Courtauld Institute, the National Portrait Gallery, Sir John Soane's Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In his autobiography, Clark paid Davies this witty tribute:

He had always been a solitary character, and was said by his contemporaries in Cambridge to have emerged from his rooms only after dark; so this sunless exile was not as painful to him as it would have been for a less unusual man. In the morning he would emerge, thin and colorless as a ghost, and would be driven up to the caves, carrying with him a strong torch and several magnifying glasses. With these he would examine every square millimeter of a few pictures. In twelve years I hardly ever saw him look at a picture as whole, but at a series of small areas of paint, which he usually found to be more or less damaged. .  .  . These revealed to him how insecure was the evidence for all attributions in early art, and for the very existence of certain painters. It is indeed true that the history of art, like all history, is to a large extent an agreed fable, and perhaps only someone as passionately skeptical as Martin Davies could have exposed so many convenient fallacies.

Not only did Kenneth Clark save the National Gallery collection, he also saw to it that the museum remained "a defiant outpost of culture right in the middle of a bombed and shattered metropolis." Accordingly, in 1941, and with all the Old Masters in storage, he mounted an exhibition of contemporary painting, including works by Clive Bell and Graham Sutherland, which garnered high praise in some quarters but annoyed others: "Another bomb there might save posterity lighting a few bonfires in the future," one diarist wrote.

Also key to keeping the museum's cultural life going was Clark's hiring of the pianist Myra Hess who, he later recalled, had "a jolly, rolling walk, and a strong element of the old trouper." When Clark broached the idea of having lunchtime concerts, Hess thought they might be periodic. Clark insisted that they be daily. Hess took a deep breath and agreed.

Three quarters of a million people eventually attended the concerts. About the music she chose, Hess later remarked: "Everybody was very busy during the war and there was nobody to tell the people that this sort of music was over their heads. So they came and liked it." The courage it took to sit and listen to Myra Hess play Beethoven can only be appreciated by remembering that, in October 1940, a large bomb fell on the National Gallery, ruining Room XXVI (where Room 10 is today). The fact that the building next door, which now holds the Sainsbury Wing, was completely demolished shows how close the Gallery came to a similar fate.

Whatever jubilation Clark felt at war's end was fleeting. Although he took some pleasure in personally choosing the first paintings to be transported back to the museum, including Bellini's Doge Leonardo Loredan and Titian's Noli Me Tangere, events beyond London gave the war's sequel an inexpellable gloom.

"The brutal Russian occupation of Berlin, the discovery and visible documentation of the German extermination camps, these and a dozen other ghastly revelations filled my mind," he wrote. "I felt that European civilization could never again recover its confidence and its equilibrium." Whether this will have been proved right is anyone's guess--though the European response so far to the gathering threat of Islamic terrorism does not augur well.

The National Gallery in Wartime is an entertaining, informative, cautionary book, which everyone interested in London, the Battle of Britain, or art will thoroughly enjoy.

Edward Short is a writer in New York.