The National Gallery and WWII

With the talk of how the art world will weather the financial crisis, it’s worth noting that museums have in the past had to weather far worse crisis situations than decreased corporate contributions. Like Britain’s National Gallery, which had to face the possibility – even likelihood – of total destruction.

This weekend the Telegraph carried a fantastic story on the subject: How Winston Churchill saved the National Gallery.

On 23 August, 1939, the National Gallery was open as usual – but, as soon as the doors closed behind the last visitors, a well-orchestrated evacuation plan swung into operation. War was now imminent and the possibility that London might suffer saturation bombing meant that a new, safer home was needed for the paintings.

Bosman writes that although the zepellin raids of World War 1 had caused the National Gallery’s artwork to be moved into the Underground, the possibility of bombing moved Churchill to order the artwork out of the capital. When the war was declared, at least 1,800 works had been evacuated.

Most of the storage areas were estates around England, though when France fell, a proposal was floated for sending the National Gallery’s collection to Canada. The director, Kenneth Clark, was opposed, particularly with the threat to shipping in the north Atlantic. The trustees tried to force his hand, though, and only the Prime Minister’s opposition kept the artwork in the UK.

When the estates started being requisitioned for military use, a huge quarry in Wales was retrofitted to become a safe underground home for the collection. It was obviously well-kept there, and was able to return to its home when the war came to a close.

The Telegraph article is excerpted from The National Gallery in Wartime, by Suzanne Bosman, which will be available in the US in December. It is available on pre-order from Amazon. Thanks to C-Monster for the link.

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~ by David Cupp on September 26, 2008.

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