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Guest post by LH Member Adrian Tinniswood. National Treasures: Saving the Nation’s Art in World War II by Caroline Shenton.

national treasuresWhen Neville Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to the nation at 11.15am on Sunday 3 September 1939, the men and women who cared for Britain’s art works were already at war, mobilised in a massive effort to protect the national treasures from an aerial bombardment which was expected at any moment. A dress rehearsal during the Munich Crisis of 1938 had left London’s major galleries and museums prepared for the gathering storm, and well before Chamberlain’s ultimatum had fallen on deaf ears in Germany, the contents of the National Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the rest were being packed up and sent on their way to distant quarries and remote country houses and caverns measureless to man.

This exodus is the subject of Caroline Shenton’s remarkable new book. National Treasures is a delight from start to finish, a wonderful collection of untold stories of in-fighting and back-biting and bureaucratic bungling coupled with quiet heroism.

The famous figures who put in appearances here and there are perhaps the least attractive, although Shenton has a knack of bringing them and their considerable character flaws to life. Suave, publicity-hungry and supremely egotistic, the National Gallery’s Kenneth Clark doesn’t come out of the story well. Sir John Rothenstein, the young director of the Tate Gallery, comes out even worse. He was in Scotland when the call came to evacuate the Tate’s collections, and he arrived back in London to find that his Assistant Keeper, David Fincham, had already removed the items on the Tate’s priority list to safe houses in the country. Rothenstein promptly decamped for America, depositing his wife and daughter with his in-laws in Kentucky and then embarking on what he described as ‘a long-standing engagement’ – a lecture tour of the States. It was only when his father, the artist Sir William Rothenstein (who had helped him to get the job in the first place) told him to get back to Britain risk losing his place, that he finally returned to join the war effort.

The real heroes of Shenton’s totally engrossing tale are the bureaucrats, the sticklers, the process men whose idea of fun was reading a railway timetable. This was their shining hour. They packed and planned and organized, poring over their Bradshaws and revelling in the logistical opportunities which the nightmare of war offered them. And let we forget, this was all to a purpose. It was all done, as one of Shenton’s protagonists said, in the fervent hope that they would ‘emerge from the present relapse into barbarism with some of our ancient splendours intact.’

Then there were the country house owners who offered temporary shelter for the national treasures. Some, to be sure, were motivated by something other than a desire to do one’s bit: having a school in the west wing might have been preferable to playing host to soldiers, but Old Masters topped St Trinian’s as welcome guests any day. Unless there was money involved: having agreed to house the Imperial War Museum’s collection of oil paintings at Penn House in Buckinghamshire, in November 1940 Viscount Curzon suddenly discovered that he could rent out Penn to a Dorset prep school. The IWM was given three days’ notice to vacate the premises.

Others, though, were quite heroic. The Lawsons of Hall Barn near Beaconsfield provided a home for the Wallace Collection (and fifteen warders). Hall Barn’s stillroom became a conservation studio; the stables were given over to the Tower of London armoury collections; and the library and hall were stacked with bandages and bedsheets, because the formidable Mrs Lawson had agreed that the house could be used as a depot for the Central Hospital Supplies Service. When a Pickfords lorry turned up with the sawn-up panels of Rubens’ magnificent ceiling from the Banqueting House at Whitehall, Enid Lawson took it in her stride, and they were duly stacked in the long gallery, the only part of the house with a door large enough to take them. ‘Prepared for anything,’ says Shenton, ‘it comes as no surprise to learn that [Mrs Lawson] became England’s Chief Commissioner of Girl Guides.’

When the bombs did fall, there were casualties. Westminster Abbey, rather too big to be packed up and sent into the country, was badly damaged by incendiaries in May 1941, although many of the Abbey’s most precious moveable items were safe at Boughton House in Northamptonshire, while the historic Stone of Scone was secreted in a burial vault under Abbot Islip’s Chapel. A Scottish suggestion that it should go north for the duration was firmly rejected: ‘The Scotch will never learn to keep their fingers off the Coronation Stone’, said the Dean. That same night the book stacks of the British Museum were wrecked, also by incendiaries: a quarter of a million volumes were burned, ‘one of the greatest cultural losses of the war’, says Shenton.

National Treasures is an important book, and the story it tells deserves a place in the history of heritage. But it’s more than that: Shenton manages to combine scholarly and diligent research with a powerful narrative drive and a hugely entertaining taste for the anecdotal. Moreover, her cast of characters wouldn’t disgrace an Ealing comedy. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in years.

The raid which devastated the British Museum claimed another victim. Elizabeth Senior, the brilliant young Assistant Keeper in the museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings, was killed when her Canonbury Square flat was hit. An ARP warden going through the wreckage found her ten-week-old daughter under a table, where her mother had tried to protect her. Unknown to her colleagues, Senior had been having an affair for years with the BM’s married Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities; the baby was his and, miraculously, she survived unharmed. A reminder, perhaps, that among the national treasures there were other losses, other victories.

National Treasures: Saving the Nation’s Art in World War II  (319pp) is published in hardback by John Murray, November 2021 with a cover price of £16.99.

Adrian Tinniswood’s latest book is Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the Post-War Country House (Jonathan Cape, 2021).

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