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.