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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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.