A Gallery Occupied

Discover what happened when the Gallery was turned over to the War Office

Records in the National Portrait Gallery’s archive reveal how the staff and premises weathered wartime occupation by government. .

The public interest

When Britain declared war in August 1914 the Gallery remained open to the public although certain works were already off display and rooms closed due to the threat of militant suffragette action. In 1915 further portraits were removed to the basement and the Gallery came under pressure to surrender the building to the War Office. Trustees were not universally convinced. Loaning the building would mean closing to the public for the duration of the war, an unknown span of time. Was use by government of greater public service than access to the Collections? The Board also harboured resentment. As the Director commented, ‘Trustees felt keenly the consistent indifference with which their wishes had been treated and the fact that the very building which the government now wanted had been built for them by private generosity in despair of government help.’ Despite misgivings it was agreed that the loan was for the public good. Moreover Trustees felt that co-operation would encourage funding for a Gallery extension after the war; what Sir Evan Charteris termed, ‘an amiable if not written understanding that the addition to the Gallery shall be completed with all speed.

Consenting to the loan in October 1915 Trustees laid down strict conditions for the building’s use. A ban on all flammable materials extended even to prohibit the making of tea on site, despite government appeals for leniency on this point [1]. The Gallery closed to the public in November and work began to convert exhibition galleries into working spaces. Only the Gallery’s offices and basement had artificial light so this was installed in the loaned rooms. In December 1915 the Separation and Allowances Department moved in and between 200 and 300 clerks populated the building between 9am and 10pm, administering payments to soldiers’ families.

Security concerns

War changed Gallery staffing. While those eligible for military service joined up, those exempt remained. In November 1914police who provided security were released and Gallery staff sworn in as Special Constables. Their work included fire drills, observing for aerial threats from the roof and maintaining a blackout. Six man squads rotated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Instructions stipulated that during night duty they were only to remove their coats and boots to sleep so they could report quickly for action. These men were not in the first flush of youth. In 1916 their average age was 54 and two thirds. Several were over 60 and had been working at the Gallery since the St Martin’s Place building opened in 1896 [2].

There were teething problems with security of the loaned building. Members of the public were found wandering the closed galleries.  In February 1916 the Director requested a more alert man to invigilate the front entrance because, ‘The War Office Messenger stationed there at present is quite unequal to the responsibility of this particular post.’  Elsewhere Boy Clerks wedged a fire exit open and snuck onto the roof, and a female member of War Office staff brought a camera into the building despite a ban on photography.

More serious was the Gallery’s imperfect blackout. On 31st December 1915 a member of the public reported a strong light ‘shining through the roof like a ball of fire’. Issues persisted and in January 1916 James Milner, Assistant Keeper, observed the building from an adjacent roof stating, ‘I fear that the Gallery would be a very marked object at night-time to any aircraft.’ Blackout was crucial because when Trustees agreed to the loan they requested a press embargo arguing, ‘the news would give the Germans an excuse for bombing all public museums here, on the grounds that some of them were being used for military purposes.’  The Press Bureau duly issued an instruction or ‘D’ notice prohibiting reporting [3].  However on 25th January 1916 the silence was broken: ‘The Manchester Guardian’ referenced the occupation of the Gallery and that same evening a member of the government, Lord Hylton, confirmed it in parliament.  The Press Bureau placed the matter in the hands of the Public Prosecutor but because of Hylton’s confirmation they could not proceed. Lionel Earle of H.M. Office of Works was dismayed by the breach remarking, ‘we can only hope that the information will not reach the eyes of our enemies’, and the Director wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer requesting that the Prime Minister be notified.

Staff Tensions

As the Separation Allowances Department expanded the War Office appealed for more space. Areas exempt from the original loan were released and staff numbers rose to around 400. The unsuitability of the exhibition galleries for such large numbers became obvious. Temperature was particularly problematic and War Office personnel complained routinely. One man claimed sickness because of severe cold in March 1917 bemoaning, ‘The temperature was again deliberately set down’ and ‘Our health is ignored for the “portraits”’. The Director responded that it was impossible to create a uniform temperature in the galleries and ‘clerks had better wear warmer clothing if they feel the cold.’  The issue was never resolved.  Gallery Trustee Frederick Wallop remarked in May 1918, ‘The War Office clerks complain of the tropical heat of a fiery sun upstairs... They seem to be always tortured by the rigours of extreme cold in winter or a torrid sun in summer, and now fancy they suffer worse than the troops on the Tigris.’

There were tensions between Special Constables and female office staff. In 1916, when an employee of Phillip Mills & Co was loading waste paper at the back entrance, ‘a flower pot containing a fern fell from one of the windows and nearly struck him on the head.’  A constable investigated and staff claimed to know nothing but hefound further potential hazards: ‘two other flower pots rolling about on the ledge outside of the window’ [4].The ladies’ attempts to make their work area more homely had backfired. The War Office responded to the Director’s complaints to say that the lady in charge ‘is very sorry and promises not to err again.’

A spate of petty thefts on the premises also caused suspicion. In late 1914 Special Constables noticed spare change disappearing from their cloakroom. Over time the ‘pilfering’ extended to war Office staff, who reported small losses including soap and cigarettes. Police failed to discover the thief or recover the property so Gallery staff undertook to catch the perpetrator themselves. In 1915 they laid an unsuccessful trap: a constable concealed himself in a locker to jump out on the culprit. It wasn’t until January 1917 that the thief was finally dismissed, largely down to the actions of the aptly named Sergeant Thomas Sherlock. Sherlock impregnated soap with fuchsine powder, a magentadye, and left it in an attractive spot as a lure. According to Sherlock’s account after the soap disappeared he asked the squad on duty to line up and present their hands. He therefore caught the man red-handed!

Resuming normal service

The increased threat of aerial attack over central London in the summer of 1917 triggered the evacuation of the majority of the Gallery’s Collections. Shortly after the conflict ended, in January 1919, the portraits began to return. Unfortunately works could not be immediately displayed because although war had ceased, the Gallery remained occupied. The work of the Separation Allowances Department could not be wound up speedily, particularly as it related to demobilisation. As months passed with no sign of government surrendering the premises, frustration at the inability to re-open to the public mounted. The Director described the temporary tenants as ‘clinging like limpets to the place’.  Press coverage was sympathetic to the plight of museums and galleries co-opted for wartime use. One commentator remarked in 1919, ‘the national institutions are in a state of suspended animation’. In desperation at the continued closure, and to permit overseas troops to view the Collection prior to their return home, the Gallery loaned 40 of its ‘finest and rarest’ portraits to National Gallery. This created a room ‘The Daily Express’ described as ‘a condensed Valhalla that should not be missed.’ The Director sought a royal visit and press coverage shows that the Queen and Princess Mary viewed the portraits on 9th April 1919.

The War Office finally vacated in October 1919, but before the building could return to its intended purpose considerable redecoration was required, meaning the premises re-opened gradually. On 6th April 1920 rooms 1-12 on the Top Floor were unveiled to the public, followed by the East Wing on 20th July. Only then was the Gallery back in business, its war truly over. [5]


Bryony Millan, Archivist


On 7 January, Bryony delivered a version of this article as part of the Gallery’s Lunchtime Lecture series. Listen to a recording of the lecture below: