The Gallery Experience

What happened to the Gallery and its Collection during the First World War?

On 1st November 1915 the Gallery closed to the public to protect the Collections and certain works were removed from display. This was a precaution against air raids, but also against potential Suffragette action, ‘so that the risk from personal attack, fire or explosives might be reduced to a minimum.’

Works were removed to the Gallery’s basement, reinforced with sandbags and timber, in case the building sustained damage. Portraits were separated into groups ‘to avoid, by dispersion, the risk of losing all the important works of one class, school or period in a single fire or explosion’.

In the Gallery’s exhibition spaces wire netting was suspended from windows to minimise the risk of falling glass. These rooms were then used by the Government's Separation Allowances Department for the duration of the war, so people rather than portraits occupied public areas. The terms of the loan included clauses including ‘No explosives, and no inflammable or poisonous matter shall be introduced into the premises. No smoking or cooking shall be allowed.’ Some negotiation of these rules was attempted. A letter from the War Office on 3rd December 1915 described access to tea making facilities as ‘a great boon to staff’ and requested that government personnel be allowed to make hot drinks at the Gallery, arguing ‘I scarcely thought the prohibition extended to the boiling of a kettle on the range’.

The Gallery experienced air raids fairly frequently, but precautions taken to safeguard the Collections were largely satisfactory until August 1917, when concern grew about the scale of future attacks. The Gallery’s Director asked H.M. Office of Works whether the basement could be reinforced to safeguard portraits from gas bombs. He was told that any further alterations to the building would ‘like present measures, be out of date quickly’. He was advised to either remove the pictures to a part of the country less at risk of air raids or accommodate them in underground storage.

Aerial attacks created a further, unanticipated security issue, as government staff and civilians were given shelter in the Gallery’s basement during air raids. Providing refuge beneath street level was commendable but opening this space up compromised the security of the works stored there.

In late 1917 news of the development of even heavier bombs by the enemy was followed by a meeting of national museum and gallery heads at H.M. Office of Works. It was forecast that enemy attacks using these weapons were likely to begin in April of the coming year, but if weather permitted the enemy could begin operations as early as March 1918. It would be impossible to take structural precautions against the violence of explosions from this weaponry, especially if combined with an anticipated ‘shower of small thermite bombs’ directly thereafter. Swift action was required and the Gallery set in motion the evacuation of the majority of its portraits.

Firstly, 291 portraits including ‘the whole collection of miniatures, medals etc’ were removed to Aldwych Station. The Gallery used this space in co-operation with the National Gallery who were storing collections there, guarded by warders armed with revolvers. Most of the portraits were moved in October and December 1917, with a further transfer in February 1918.

When these accommodations were exhausted, a further site was needed. Various locations outside London were considered and eliminated, and the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth settled upon. The Gallery’s Director contacted the Admiralty regarding the risk of enemy action and the response wasn’t encouraging. They did not consider the site entirely safe from attack by enemy submarines, stating ‘the shelling of the shore from the sea in the vicinity would appear to be a comparatively easy matter, if required.’

Despite this, the risk of attack from the sea in Aberystwyth was judged less than that experienced from the air in London, and the plan went ahead. In January 1918 a consignment of 507 portraits including ‘2 groups of the Houses of Parliament ... rolled on a drum’ were loaded into pantechnicon vans, transported to Paddington Station and then by train to Wales. Upon arrival Head Messenger Joseph Luxon, who had escorted the portraits on their journey, wrote to the Director. He reported that the portraits’ condition was sound, ‘I am pleased to say that beyond a few chafings there is no damage.’

Following the successful Aberystwyth operation, still more works were moved to a lesser known London location; the Post Office underground railway. This network of tunnels was not yet complete when the government co-opted the space for storing collections.

‘A tunnel about 12 feet in diameter roughly five miles long, and from 60 to 90 feet below the level of the street ... is free from vermin, is well ventilated, and ... very suitable for storing national art treasures’

670 portraits, as well as prized parts of the Gallery’s archive and library, found shelter underground at the King Edward Building station once the space was ready in the spring of 1918. The Gallery shared this storage space with the Tate, and nearby works from collections including the Royal Academy, London Museum, Soane Museum and Lambeth Palace as well as manuscripts from City of London Record Office were also stored for their safety. Tate and National Portrait Gallery staff patrolled the space to ensure security, with one man on duty at a time. Fans and heaters were installed in an effort to manage the tunnel environment to preserve the condition of the works.

In total 1478 portraits were evacuated from the Gallery in 1917 and 1918, with only 250 or so remaining at the Gallery. This was a monumental achievement by Gallery staff in cooperation with partner institutions. Thankfully with the ending of the War the Collections could return to the Gallery and the evacuation, which is documented in the Gallery’s archive, became one more fascinating episode in its history.

Bryony Millan

For more on the Gallery at War please click here