Evacuating the portraits
In 1935 the Office of Works, the body responsible for maintaining government buildings, called a meeting with museum directors to discuss how to protect museum collections during wartime. They decided that each museum should find a place outside London where works could be safely stored in the eventuality of war.
The National Portrait Gallery approached Lord Rosemore, whose country estate, Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, seemed the ideal place. He agreed to lend an outbuilding to the Gallery in the event of war. In 1938, after Hitler had taken Austria and invaded Czechoslovakia, the Trustees of the Gallery agreed that the outbreak of war was an imminent threat. They drew up a list of the most important portraits to evacuate. The Gallery’s carpenter went to Mentmore and built wooden storage racking in the outbuilding, which became known as ‘the refuge’.
During the winter of 1938 and spring of 1939 a ‘dug-out’ area was built in the Gallery basement to house portraits and sculptures that could not easily be moved. Gallery staff changed the fittings on the portraits so they could be taken off the walls more quickly and used old copies of pictures to practise packing them as fast as possible.
On 23rd August 1939, just before the outbreak of war was announced to the public, the Gallery received a call from the Home Office telling them to evacuate the building. By 6pm on the 24th the Gallery had closed to the public, the first batch of portraits had been moved to Mentmore and other portraits were being moved into the basement dug-out.
The refuge at Mentmore was wired for electricity, and living quarters were created for four members of staff to stay and guard the 600 portraits that were housed there. The men had bunk beds, an electric cooker, and a stove for heating. They worked on a rota of two weeks at Mentmore and two weeks in London. They quickly began preparing a vegetable garden, and also keeping chickens to supplement their rations.
In 1940 Director Henry Hake asked Lord Roseby for more accommodation, and was offered a groom’s quarters in the stables. He moved his wife there to protect her from the Blitz in London. He then left his London flat and moved into a room at the Gallery to help protect the building and remaining contents. He alternated between sleeping in the Gallery and at Mentmore.
He wrote that ‘Life at the refuge has not been altogether uneventful. Six bombs were dropped in the Park during the later summer of 1940 and two land mines fell and exploded about a mile away during the night of November 17/18th 1940.’
In 1942 the bombing of London began to ease and Hake and his wife moved back to their flat. Some of the most important portraits were moved from Mentmore to a more secure site in the Westwood quarry near Bath, which was also being used by the British Museum. This created room for other portraits to be evacuated from London, along with sculptures and the finest of the picture frames. These were stored in the billiard room at Mentmore.
Click on images below to enlarge
NPG 22/3/5: Photograph of Gallery staff with the empty frame of Sir George Hayter's portrait 'The House of Commons', after the evacuation of the portraits to Mentmore