What happened to the Gallery’s paintings during WWII? | National Gallery

What happened to the Gallery’s paintings during WWII? | National Gallery

A very warm welcome
to the National Gallery this Wednesday lunchtime. My name is Alan Crookham. I manage the Research Centre
here at the National Gallery. And I’m going to be talking to you today about the Picture of the Month
exhibitions, and in particular, we’re going to be talking
about this painting, Titian’s ‘Noli me Tangere’. So we’ll be focusing in on that
a little bit more because arguably this was
the first of the Pictures of the Month that occurred during the Second World War. And I say arguably, which I will come back to
as we go through the talk. And I suppose my role today is
to set the scene really as to what these exhibitions were and what was going on
here in the National Gallery during the Second World War. So back in the 1930s, the National Gallery
had started to prepare for the event of war. We didn’t know that war was coming, but we knew that there was
a dangerous situation in Europe, the situation was precarious, and so we had started to think
about what we would do with the Gallery’s collection
should war come. During the First World War, we had evacuated some of the paintings
from the collection- not all, the Gallery stayed open
throughout the First World War. But we knew that in the Second World War
the situation would be different, that the bombs would be bigger,
much more powerful. We had seen that in the Spanish Civil War, we had seen the destruction
that had happened at Guernica, and so we knew that this was going to be
a very different situation. And so, one of our curators, Martin Davis, who later became
a Director of the Gallery, he started scouring the land for places
where the paintings could be sent in the event of another war, and he prepared a list of places
that they could go to. And we almost put the operation
into effect in 1938 when, of course, there was the crisis
over the Sudetenland Then there was the Munich agreement, then Chamberlain came back
with “Peace in our time”, and so the situation calmed down again. But then in 1939, of course,
the situation escalated, and in August 1939,
the government said to the Gallery, “Now is the time to put your plans for the evacuation of the paintings
into effect”. So over a ten-day period at the end of August
and the beginning of September, the Gallery started to clear
the paintings from the walls and to send them out around the country. So this happened over ten days,
it finished on the 2nd of September, and, of course, war was declared
on the 3rd of September, by which point the Gallery
was completely empty of paintings. And they had gone to various places. There was a house in Gloucestershire,
some of them had gone there. Mostly, they had gone to places in Wales, so we used rooms
at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, and we used rooms at Bangor University
in North Wales. Later on, we dispersed them further, so some of the paintings
went to Caernarfon Castle and places like that. But then in 1940, as the Blitz started
and we realised the dangers of bombing, the Gallery became concerned again
because we realised that, say, a bomber was flying over
on a bombing raid to Liverpool and then was coming back over North Wales
and discharged one of its bombs, that could then land on one of the sites
where the paintings were being held, so we wanted to find somewhere else. One suggestion was to send the paintings
off to Canada, and then Churchill was very much
against that. He said, “No”. And there was a famous little quote
that Churchill said, which was, “Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture
shall leave this island”. So the pictures were going to stay here, so Martin Davis, the curator
who had looked for places in the 1930s, and somebody called Ian Rawlins,
who worked in our Scientific Department, they looked for other places
where the paintings could go. And in September 1940, they found an old slate mine
in Manod in North wales, it’s near Ffestiniog, and it seemed to offer
the perfect solution. It was a large cave system, and it was covered
by a mountain of solid granite, so it was a perfect bomb shelter. It would take a little bit
of structural work to get it into the right shape
for the Gallery’s pictures to stay there. We weren’t going to put them in the caves
and just leave them there. So they had to do a little bit of work
enlarging the entrance to the cave system, and then within the caves themselves,
they built these brick store houses, and that was where the paintings
were going to be stored. So that took about a year,
for them to do that. But by September 1941, that was completed, and then the paintings
from all their little places around Wales and the one place in Gloucestershire, they all came together in Manod
in North Wales, so that’s where they were. So that was the collection. But what was going on back here in London
back at the gallery? Well, if you imagine,
at the beginning of September, none of these paintings were here,
all the walls were empty, there was nothing here for anyone to see. But Kenneth Clark,
who was our Director at the time, he was very keen that the Gallery
should remain as a cultural hub, it should be
a centre of cultural activity. During the First World War, I had said
that the Gallery remained open, and, indeed, it did remain open. But in actual fact, what had happened was that this part of the Gallery
was open to the public, but that far side of the Gallery
where the Barry Rooms are, that was taken over by the Admiralty. And that was used as office space
for the Admiralty and then later, the Minister of Munitions. And I think Clark knew
that with our proximity to government, he didn’t really want the Gallery becoming an extension
of the office space of government, he wanted cultural activities here. So there were three main things
that started to happen. One was that Lillian Browse,
the art dealer, came to see Kenneth Clark, and she said, “If we can’t have
historic art being displayed here, perhaps we can have contemporary art”, so they started a series
of contemporary art exhibitions that ran throughout the war. Another person who came to see Clark
was someone called Myra Hess. She was a famous concert pianist. And she said, “If you are not using
the Gallery for paintings, why can’t we use it for concerts? We could have recitals here”. So there started a series of concerts
at the National Gallery which ran throughout the war
until just after the war in fact and that we continue to commemorate
to this day with concerts every year. And finally, there was something
that Clark himself was involved in, which was something called
the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. This was a scheme
by which artists were employed to record the war. You may recall somebody like Henry Moore
and his famous sketches of people in the tube shelters. And this exhibition ran
throughout the war as well. So these things were carrying on
at the Gallery. But, of course,
the Gallery was also in danger. There was the Blitz,
there were bombing raids, and the Gallery was hit several times. So if you jump over to Room 10, that was completely destroyed
during the war. And, in fact, this side of the Gallery had
quite a lot of bomb damage to it, so it was very good
that the paintings had been evacuated. In fact, Room 10 was where
the Raphaels had been before the war, so if they had still been there,
they would have all gone up in flames. And there were some ideas
about bringing the collection back, but nothing really came of them. It was decided they were quite happy
in Wales. But in some ways, Gallery life carried on,
and acquisitions continued to be made. In late 1941, the National Art Collections Fund,
which is now known as the Art Fund, they acquired a painting
of Margaretha de Geer attributed to Rembrandt, and they decided to give this painting
to the National Gallery. So it came to the National Gallery, and, of course,
it was now in the collection, so as with all the other pictures
in the collection, it was sent off to Wales. But then early in 1942, a chap called Charles Wheeler,
who is a sculptor, he wrote a letter to The Times. Because he said it seemed very unfair
that we weren’t able to see this picture that had been newly acquired
for the collection. This is what Charles Wheeler wrote
early in 1942. He said, “Because London’s face
is scarred and bruised these days, we need more than ever
to see beautiful things. Like many another one,
hungry for aesthetic refreshment, I would welcome the opportunity
of seeing a few of the hundreds of the nation’s masterpieces
now stored in a safe place. Would the trustees
of the National Gallery consider whether it were not wise and well to risk
one picture for exhibition each week? Arrangements could be made to transfer it
quickly to a strong room in case of an alert. Music lovers are not denied
their Beethoven, but picture lovers are denied
their Rembrandts just at a time
when such beauty is most potent for good. I know the risk,
but I believe it would be worth it”. So this letter came in,
and it resonated very much with Kenneth Clark
and with the Board of Trustees, and they decided that they agreed
with the sentiments of Charles Wheeler. What they didn’t agree with
was bringing back one picture a week. They felt that that was probably
a bit too much given the wartime situation. But they felt that they could bring back
one picture a month, that that would work out quite well. So this would be left then
to Kenneth Clark, who was the Director, and Martin Davis, who was the Curator who was out in Manod
with all of the pictures out there. And there were really two considerations
they had to think about when choosing
these Pictures of the Month. They wanted to consider the practicalities of bringing back the picture
and putting it on display and then there was also
the aesthetics of it. The first picture of the month
had been decided for them. That’s why when I started this talk, I said that arguably the Titian is
the first Picture of the Month, but in actual fact, of course,
the first picture they displayed was the picture attributed to Rembrandt, which is
the ‘Portrait of Margaretha De Geer’, but this was actually the first one
where they decided to bring it back. So, first of all, the practicalities
of bringing back the pictures… They brought them back two at a time
in a container over the railway system. And one thing they had to think about was
the size of the picture, so they didn’t want to have
too large a picture because that would be impractical
for bringing back on the railway system. They were never going to bring back
the Van Dyck, the ‘Equestrian Portrait of Charles I’, they were never going to bring back
Sebastiano’s ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, but they would bring back
something like the Titian. You can see
it’s not that small a painting, but it’s OK size-wise. They also wanted to check
the weight of these paintings to see whether they were manoeuvrable. It wasn’t just bringing them back. But when this painting was put on display
here at the gallery, they needed to make sure that there were
two gallery assistants nearby, who, if there was a sudden air raid, would be able to lift the painting
and take it downstairs. And according to Martin Davis, this painting has a reputation
of being heavy, so he checked it out
before he sent it back to London, and he made sure
that two assistants were able to carry it down in an emergency. And I should say that every night,
the paintings were all carried down. There was an air raid shelter
in the basement of the Gallery, and they were placed there. They also needed to check
the condition of the painting, so they needed to make sure
that it was in a stable enough condition that it could be put on display
and safely transported back and forth between North Wales and London. And there has been some retouching work
in the sky on this painting, some conservation work has been done
on it. But given the painting was painted
about 1514, it’s in pretty good shape
for the age that it is. So there was that sense, there was the sense
of the painting’s condition and its weight, its size, all of those practical considerations
they had to consider. But then there was also
the aesthetics of the paintings, so that was something else
that weighed with Clark. Initially, when he was thinking about starting
the Picture of the Month exhibitions and he wasn’t sure which way to go
with them, he was thinking maybe he might include Pieter De Hooch’s ‘Courtyard in Delft’, he thought that might make
a good painting. He was thinking of another Titian, the
painting, ‘A Man with a Quilted Sleeve’, over there, in this room, handily enough. He was thinking about that painting
as well. But then he wrote to Martin Davis, and I want to quote this letter to you
as well. This is what he said. “Dear Davis, since first drawing up a possible list
of pictures for exhibition in the Gallery, I have received
a large number of suggestions. These make it perfectly clear that people do not want to see
Dutch painting or realistic painting of any kind. No doubt at the present time, they are anxious to contemplate
a nobler order of humanity. I think therefore
that we ought not to begin with the de Hooch and the Titian portrait
but with a religious picture of some sort. The two that have been
most often asked for are the El Greco, ‘Agony in the Garden’,
and the Titian, ‘Noli me Tangere’. I would prefer to bring the Greco,
‘Expulsion of the Money-Changers’, which I think would interest people
now that it has been cleaned. Another early canvas often asked for,
and with reason, is the Botticelli, ‘Mystic Adoration’. You might find out if any or all of these
are in sound condition, and if so, we could have the Titian
and the El Greco, ‘Expulsion’, as our first pair. The fact that they are coming by container
makes it easier to take pictures of this size. I am quite reconciled to the fact that the weather may make it impossible
to move the pictures at all for some days, but people are still enjoying
the sight of the Rembrandt”. And, indeed,
the British weather did get in the way. I think it was quite atrocious rain
during that winter that caused a slight delay
in the Titian coming back to be the Picture of the Month. But it did come back,
and so it went on display between March and April 1942. And so I think
with the aesthetics of this picture and with the subject matter
of the picture, when Clark was talking about appealing
to that nobler order of humanity, I think he had looked around, he obviously knew the collection
in and out, he had been a Director
since the early 1930s, and he settled upon
this particular painting, ‘Noli me Tangere’. If we have a look at the painting in a little bit more detail
for a moment or two, we can see why it might have appealed
to Clark and hopefully
why it appealed to that audience during the Second World War. So the subject matter,
as I’m sure many of you know, is Christ, who has been resurrected, and he’s in the Garden of Gasemity, and Mary Magdalene comes across
the resurrected Christ, and they are the two figures you see
in the painting. And then, she sees him and she thinks, “He’s a gardener
going about his business”. And then she recognises Christ,
and she understands who he is. And then, you can see
that she reaches out to touch Christ, as you would. You would just reach out. And he says, “Don’t touch me”. He says, “Noli me Tangere”,
“Don’t touch me”. And you can see the beautiful way
that Titian has painted the figures with Christ almost turning away, slightly twisting away from Mary Magdalene
as she reaches out. But I think what is so clever
about this picture is the way that Titian incorporates
all the elements of the landscape into driving our eyes and our focus
onto that meeting, onto that contemplation
between Christ and Mary that you can see there. And so, you can see
that the tree has been painted in such a way to drive the eye
down to Mary and down to her gaze and down to Christ looking at her. And likewise, the landscape across draws
your eye to his eyes, so that we’re looking at the contemplation
between the two of them. So they’re going so near to each other
but not able to actually touch. And why would Clark think
that this was so appropriate then for that wartime audience? I think… Nobler order of humanity
is what he has written, and that’s why maybe
he’s gone for this painting. Perhaps it’s because Christ
in not allowing Mary to touch him is saying,
“You have to let my physical self go. It’s only the spiritual that exists now”. So perhaps that is about the nobler order. It could just be some of the themes
associated with the painting, so the theme of resurrection. If you think, if you were to walk out
and the bomb damage or maybe you’ve lost loved ones, the theme of resurrection could be
quite powerful. In that wartime period, you might think about Christ
and the theme of self-sacrifice and his self-sacrifice. So you might think about that as well,
and that could resonate with you. And then you might think
about Mary Magdalene, you might think about themes
of enduring love, that kind of thing. There’s a lot of powerful messages
in there, I think. Maybe when Clark was thinking
about Titian, he thought maybe this Titian
rather than that Titian because it would appeal in such a way. This was the painting
that went on display. I realise there’s quite a crowd of you, and you won’t be able to see
this very small photograph. This shows you
where the picture was actually hung. Like I said, this side of the Gallery
was quite badly bomb damaged and wasn’t open to people to come in. But when you come in
the entrance vestibule, you come up the steps,
and if you turn left, you go onto the west vestibule,
down there, they put a screen up. And if you can just about see, there’s our Titian, right in the centre. You’ll notice as well there are
a couple of pictures on either side. These are what Clark called
decorative pictures, so he used to used to use
minor Dutch-school pictures. And then over here,
there was an early display panel, which was not something
that we would normally do at the Gallery before the war, so it was innovative in a way,
bringing in new ideas. And this actually had
some x-rays of the Titian that people could have a look at
from our Scientific Department that was just getting going
during the 1930s and 1940s, so that’s where people would have come in
to see it. So the painting was on display
March to April. It was followed by El Greco. And then, there was a series of Pictures of the Month
selected for various reasons, but I think many of them were selected
for similar reasons to this one. And then, they carried on
until the end of the war. The final picture was not like these,
I don’t think. It was Renoir’s ‘The Umbrellas’,
a very different type of picture, but I think that was put on display
at the end of the war. Because at that point,
Clark knew the end of the war was coming, and therefore,
he lightened up maybe a little bit. It didn’t have to be so serious
or have such a resonance with people in the same way
that this painting might have. So the last Picture of the Month
exhibition closed on the 7th of May 1945, and then on the 8th of May, of course,
1945, it was VE Day, it was Victory in Europe Day, so the war, in Europe at least,
came to an end. And then, immediately, the Gallery could start
to bring the pictures back. So no longer did we have
the Picture of the Month, but we could bring all the pictures back. That took until about December. But really, in the very early days
just after the war, Martin Davis started to crate up
the pictures that were still in the slate mine
in North Wales, and he started to send them home. And he actually sent Clark
a telegram which said something like, “Masterpieces will arrive
Saturday the 12th morning”, so that was the 12th of May,
so just four days after VE Day. And there were 54 pictures that came back
with that first consignment, they went on display, I believe King Georg VI came
and had a look at the paintings. They went back onto public display
later that month, in that very May,
so it all happened very quickly. And rather neatly for me, and to bring this lunchtime talk
to a conclusion, one of those pictures was
Titian’s ‘Noli me Tangere’, so that was one of the first ones
to come back- both the first, arguably,
Picture of the Month and one of the first ones to come back
to the National Gallery, to its rightful home,
where it still is to this day. Thank you all very much for listening.
Thank you.

13 thoughts on “What happened to the Gallery’s paintings during WWII? | National Gallery

  1. Were the frames also removed to a safe place or just the canvases ? Some of these frames are Worth such a lot also, people Don't realise?


  3. Despite the tragic circumstances millions of European citizens had to face during WWII, I find the story you've shared with us truly fascinating. Thank you so very much, Professor Alan Crookham and the National Gallery !

  4. Great talk from an engaging curator. I always thought the (Latin) line "noli me tangere" or "don't touch me" seemed a little harsh coming from Jesus, so it was informative to just discover (via Wikipedia) that this phrase in the original Koine Greek of the Gospel of John is better translated as "cease holding onto me" or "stop clinging to me". This makes a lot more sense considering that Jesus is informing Mary Magdalene that she must eschew a physical connection with Jesus, i.e. no longer cling to the concept of Jesus as a person, and instead establish a spiritual bond with his teachings and embrace faith.

    As an aside, is it odd that Titian didn't show the wound in Jesus' side? Isn't that standard in post-resurrection pictures?

  5. I donโ€™t know about anyone else, but this made me emotional… that sense that in the darkest hours of humanity, we sought to preserve the very pinnacles of cultural achievement as a means of ensuring the endurance of our civilisation in a most un-civil time in history.

    What I didnโ€™t know was this particular side of the story – that the Gallery continued to display just one rotating picture, each month, as a kind of reminder against dwindling wartime morale that this is what they were fighting for; the perseverance of culture, inspiration and freedom of expression.

    May it never need to happen again, but Iโ€™m thankful it did this once.

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