National Treasures: Saving the Nation’s Art in World War II

Caroline Shenton, 2021. London, John Murray Press, 336 pp. ISBN 9781529387438 (hardcover) £16.99; ISBN 9781529387452 (paperback) £10.99; ISBN 9781529387469 (ebook) £16.99; ISBN 9781529387445 (Audiobook Downloadable) £25.

 – Eleni Vassilika

Preparations for World War II evacuation of artworks began essentially in the 1920s by the Committee of Imperial Defense and its sub-committee the Air Raid Precautions. This peacetime group advised the Office of Works after the National Socialist
Party came to power in Germany. The necessity to plan especially hit home following the bombing of Madrid’s Prado by the fascists (November 1936). Artworks were quickly evacuated to Valencia, then to Catalonia and later to a border town where the League of Nations transported them to Geneva. With the confiscation of some 16,000-degenerate works of art in 1937, museums’ anxieties were fully raised. The UK’s Museum Association’s director, Mortimer Wheeler followed by the BM’s conservation scientist Professor Harold Plenderleith and the NG’s physicist Ian Rawlins, advocated measures to be undertaken.

Shenton describes the national museum personae dramatis in uncanny detail: the NG’s director Kenneth Clark, a self-proclaimed connoisseur rather than art historian, was disliked by his staff, especially by his austere Assistant Keeper Martin Davies, ‘Dry Martini’, for his popularising, therefore vulgar pandering to the public. Clark made a strange bedfellow with Ian Rawlins, a man grown in isolation, intense and awkward, who was devoted to science and was also a railway train addict. Together, they created a list of country houses and quarries and meticulously choreographed movements of the NG’s national treasures, all the while refining their ideas for ideal packing, temperature and relative humidity.

At the British Museum, it was Bernard Ashmole, Professor of Archaeology at UCL, who together with the BM’s Director Sir John Forsdyke discovered that the chief mason, ‘a drinker and therefore not all that trustworthy’, had executed Lord Duveen’s order to clean the Parthenon marbles in the absence of the department’s ill Keeper. Forsdyke, an autocratic Savile Row suited director, tried to hush up the affair to Ashmole’s distaste, but war was looming, and the men moved ahead together. Ashmole transferred the lesser sculptures and second- rank material to the vaulted basement and sand-bagged the Parthenon sculptures between the stone plinths and the gallery walls, later also moving them to the basement. Forsdyke settled on the country houses at Boughton and Drayton for the BM’s portable objects, and an underground tunnel near Aldwych for the stone sculptures, where the Parthenon frieze was eventually shifted. Works on paper, manuscripts and books (over 100 tons consisting of 12,000 rare books and the same again of manuscripts) went to the National Library at Aberystwyth, under the direction of the visionary William Llewelyn Davies, who successfully argued to adapt a quarry cave for eventual storage. When Whitehall balked at the expense, Forsdyke referred to his scientific expert Harold Plenderleith to make the case for museum preservation and optimal conditions of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 60% Relative Humidity. Aldwych and Holborn tube stations would suffice for inorganic objects. Some 12.5 tons of coins and medals went to the butler’s pantry at Boughton.

The Tate’s director, John Rothenstein, was a man uncomfortable in his skin having scraped by and out of Oxford with a third class-degree in Modern History. It seems his Jewishness also caused him discomfort and he converted to Catholicism. He used his father’s contacts to gain entry to the art world, but with his directorial appointment, nepotism was thought highly probable, his father being a former Trustee. He dithered on the Tate’s evacuation and was often absent until summoned back to his museum duties by his father. In the end, the Tate collections went to Muncaster Castle (Cumberland), Hellens (Herefordshire) owned by Lady Helena Gleichen a former Countess and minor landscape painter (living with her older eccentric friend Nina Hollings) and 20 miles further along to Eastington Hall (Worcestershire) owned by Mlle Gabrielle de Montgeon.

The V&A’s director Sir Eric Maclagen, considered by Clark to be the most civilised of the directorial lot, moved much to the National Trust’s house at Montacute (Somerset) or to West Wycombe Park (Bucks). Henry Hake, Director of the NPG moved much to Mentmore Towers (Chiltern Hills), plus 600 paintings to the basement strongroom in St Martin’s Lane (the ‘Dug-Out’). The Imperial War Museum’s director Leslie Ripley Bradley was late to move the collections and his method of taping the glass and interleaving paintings with hessian were not exactly cutting edge. The transport men ignored his lists and distributed the pictures according to their size rather than their destination. The Wallace collections were moved over eight working days (28 journeys) to Hall Barn (near Beaconsfield) and Balls Park (Hertford) under the guidance of the meticulous Keeper James Mann. This was the fourth time measures had to be taken for the Wallace collections; the first in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian war and siege of Paris, later transported to London, and again in 1918 when moved to the Post Office tube line at Paddington to avoid the Zeppelin raids. The Public Record Office (National Archives) were transferred to Shepton Mallet Prison (Somerset) and the workhouse (Market Harborough), both robust enough to hold the great weights with further destinations at Belvoir Castle (Lincolnshire) and Haddon Hall (Derbyshire). Royal collections were also moved; the porcelain to Aldwych tube, whereas the historic contents from the Tower went to Knightsbridge Tube and to Hall Barn. The Crown Jewels (their gems removed and wrapped in cotton wool placed in preserve jars) were stored in hat boxes at Windsor Castle. Concerned correspondence survives between Queen Elizabeth and Ben Nicholson (delegated by Clark) regarding the paintings in the royal palaces.

By the time of Poland’s invasion (1 Sept 1939) most of England’s collections had been protected or evacuated to country houses where the respective museum staff were billeted. However, some directors of institutions had dithered: Dr Forster-Cooper Natural History Museum, ‘plagued by painful sinusitis and a chronic case of tweedy complacency’, was fortunate that the plucky Miriam Rothschild, went over his head, to the Chairman to move the collections to Tring Park. Another dithering institution was the IWM.  Petworth balked at its late request to accommodate the library. Likewise, Countess Mary Howe (Lady Curzon) at Penn House, hadn’t been consulted by her ex-husband regarding the accommodation of the IWM collections.

Many of the national collections were moved again due to concerns over possible bombing targets, and other dangers ranging from high humidity to moth infestation. The next transfers were to other more remote houses and castles or former quarries. Rawlins meticulously planned the moves of the NG paintings from six locations (Penrhyn, Bangor, Caernarfon, Crosswood, Bontnewydd and Aberystwyth) to the slate mines in Snowdonia. The BM moved many of its collections (from Boughton, Drayton and Aberystwyth) to a disused quarry where eventually the collections from 31 other London institutions and Oxbridge Colleges joined them.

Parts of collections left behind in the museums were destroyed, including some 400 volumes in the BM’s King’s library bomb and later another 250,000 volumes in the circular Iron Library. So too the V&A was hit by incendiary bombs, and partially damaged museums such as the NPG were now host to pests such as rats (NB the Special Operations Executive planned boobytraps for the Germans skinning rats and filling them with explosives). In the case of the London Zoo, dangerous animals were put down lest they escape (which happened with the rhesus monkeys), and the reptile tanks were used for breeding rabbits for food. The damage to National collections and their buildings after the war was valued at £2,394,000.

The transfer and concealment of the national collections was prescient indeed, since the German Informationsheft Grossbrittanien and the Ahnenerbe outlined the art treasures that were culturally valuable to the Reich. The Germans also kept lists of Nazi sympathisers and conversely a Sonderfahndungsliste, a black book of 2830 people to be rounded up. The Nazi plan following invasion was to make Oxford its capital.

Shenton provides details of the art historian Jewish escapees who were accommodated in the UK even by latent antisemites such as Clark. She delights the reader with numerous anecdotes about the homeowners, where the collections and their curators were billeted. At Penrhyn Castle (NG store) the owner was fairly constantly drunk. Lady Helena at Hellens was a consummate complainer and sought more money for heating, fire prevention, armed protection. She expected the museum staff to help out with the harvest. Her cook complained that she dined on caviar, smoked fish relish, washed down with champagne. Together with Mlle Gabrielle de Montgeon (Eastington), the two women were considered unbearable by the museum professionals. The Stopford-Sackvilles (Drayton) were ‘always polite but hardly cordial’ and regarded the billeted curators as inconvenient guests. The erstwhile accommodating owners at Boughton became impatient when they understood that their cook was providing some 32 meals per day for the male curators, who never washed up or made their beds.

War also brought people together. [Dame] Myra Hess organized daily lunchtime concerts in the NG during the war. Small exhibitions were held at the V&A and BM (suicide exhibitions of sacrificial copies and plaster casts). Aldwych tube station also regularly hosted lectures and films to those sheltering. Museum directors and curators fell in lust and love. While Clark was involved with the artist Mary Kessell, his wife Jane (who had a drink problem and was addicted to her prescribed cocaine inhaler in response to her mood swings and Clark’s affairs) was conducting an affair with William Walton at Portmeirion (Wales). Forsdyke married Anna Amadea Leonie (Dea) Gombrich (Ernst’s sister) who bore him two daughters. Muriel Clayton Keeper of the V&A’s textiles (billeted at Montacute) fell in love with the nearby war hero and double amputee Capt. Stuart Keep. In 1941 the BM’s Keeper of P&D, Elizabeth Senior, was killed by a bomb, but her secret 10-week-old love child with Tom Kendrick Keeper of Medieval Antiquities miraculously survived.

As we watch the events unfold in Ukraine, largely in disregard of the Hague 1954 convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, we should marvel at the preparations that British institutions took when scientific conservation was in its infancy. This book is an informing (and engaging) must-read for all art historians and museum professionals, not to mention ministers and mandarins.


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