Although some consideration was given to the safeguarding the Nation’s works of art from the danger of air raids during World War 1, a much more detailed scheme was proposed in 1933 by W A Orsmby- Gore (Later Lord Harlech) in his role as commissioner of works in Stanley Baldwin’s government. He called together the directors of the major cultural institutions to consider a scheme for the safe storage of the most valuable collections in the event of a war in Europe. The outcome was a recommendation to disperse the various collections around the country.
As the war clouds began to gather over Europe later in the decade a meeting was organised by the Museums Association to consider implementing this and other proposals in the event of war. In February 1938 the Dulwich College Picture Gallery Committee, instructed its clerk, Mr W Connop, to attend this meeting to discuss the question of air raid precautions in public museums and art galleries. He reported back that there was no useful discussion with regard to the protection of pictures as opinion varied widely as to what methods to adopt. Some advocated closing picture galleries and the distribution of the most important pictures, scheduled beforehand, among the large houses in the district thereby spreading the risk. Others advocated covering the pictures with asbestos sheeting and putting them in bomb- proof iron boxes in cellars. Still others advocated carrying on as usual.
The Dulwich committee decided that one of its members, the Royal Academician, Melton Fisher, should make a selection of the gallery’s most important pictures and the clerk should seek the advice of the National Gallery as to the precautions they intended to adopt against air raids. Meanwhile, things went on as normal and Melton Fisher, assisted by several other academicians made plans for the hanging of pictures in the gallery’s (newly completed) extension.
In July 1938 Mr Connop was able to report that he had visited the National Gallery and seen the arrangements being made for air raid precautions and Mr Melton Fisher produced his list of pictures he had selected for special care. The committee decided next to investigate suitable places where the pictures could be distributed.
As the threat of an outbreak of war receded in the following months, the question of what to do with the Dulwich collection did not arise. Life went on as usual and because of the new hanging, visitor numbers to the gallery rose from 11,672 in 1937 to 13,585 in 1938.
It was in April 1939 that the question of evacuating the collection arose again. Clearly, in the meantime, Mr Connop had been given authority to act in the best interests of the Gallery. He announced that the National Library of Wales had agreed to give selected pictures asylum in the event of a war and in order to to ensure transport for the pictures he had taken the precaution of arranging with a local firm, Evan Cook Depositories, for the reservation of one of their removal vans and had also obtained the approval of the Ministry of Transport, a pre-requisite in time of war.
With the international situation worsening, the Government issued a warning to art galleries and museums on 24th August 1939 to put into operation any plans they had for the evacuation of works of art. Accordingly, on 25th August, 79 of the most important pictures in the Dulwich collection, accompanied by the Gallery’s head porter, were transported to the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth where they arrived the following day. Happily, apart from minor damage to their frames, they suffered very little harm.
Back in Dulwich, although the Gallery had been closed since the selected pictures were evacuated, it had been possible to engage two new porters to take care of the remaining pictures, the head porter being instructed to remain in Aberystwyth. In accordance with the architect’s advice wire netting had been fixed to the undersides of all the skylights to catch broken glass in the event of bombing. Straps of of canvas were also stuck over windows and tarred felt over the outside of the skylights. Along with cinemas and other places which might maintain public morale, Dulwich College Picture Gallery re-opened on 25th September, three weeks after the war started.
All proceeded normally during the months of the ‘phoney war’ when none of the expected air raids took place. However when the Blitz did start in the September of the following year, life in Dulwich changed dramatically. On 25 October 1940, the clerk reported to the Picture Gallery Committee that the windows and roof of the gallery had been damaged by blast from bombs falling in the neighbourhood and it had been forced to close. Fortunately none of the pictures had been damaged. To add to the difficulties, the head porter, who had been recalled from Aberystwyth to replace one of the porters at Dulwich had been called up for war service had suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the bombing and had returned to Wales.
It was decided to close the Gallery for the duration of the War and to try to evacuate as many of the remaining pictures as possible to a place of safety. One possibility was that might be stored at Haigh Hall in Lancashire, the home of the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres. However, the clerk had also been in communication with the National Library of Wales and had asked if they would be prepared to accept more pictures from the Dulwich collection. Happily they were and on 18 November 1940 a further 292 pictures were sent to Aberystwyth.
As far as the archives show, the governors expressed no particular concern about the storage in the National Library of Wales. It was too far west and the area contained little of strategic importance which might invite enemy bombing. Nevertheless, with such national treasures as a copy of Magna Carta, Chaucer manuscripts and one hundred tons of artefacts from the British Museum in its care, as well as pictures on loan to the National Gallery, the collections of the Ashmolean, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Dulwich College, there were concerns at Aberystwyth about stray bombs. The architect Charles Holden was instructed to design a tunnel or cave in the rock of Grogythan, underneath the Library’s building to house some of this material. It was in use from July 1940 until May 1945. Its size however, precluded storing anything other than some of the British Museum’s material inside.
At Bangor, North Wales, however, the situation was even more critical. The National Gallery had also evacuated its entire collection of 1600 pictures, together with the Royal Collections from Windsor, Hampton Court and Buckingham Palace and most of these collections had been stored in the Great Hall of the University of Wales at Bangor and some at Penrhyn Castle. To their alarm, the National Gallery trustees found that German bombers were raiding Merseyside and enemy airplanes were flying over Bangor to reach their targets.
A letter from the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill sent to Sir Kenneth Clarke, Director of the National Gallery, at the beginning of the war survives. In it the Prime Minister had forbidden the move of Britain’s art treasures to Canada for safety and instead spoke of hiding them in cellars and caves. This suggestion now seems to have been acted upon and a frantic search was undertaken to find a quarry or mine with sufficient access and space to store the works of art. Eventually a slate mine named Manod Quarry, near Ffestiniog was located, made safe and water-tight and the collections were transported there in August 1941. This tended to raise concerns about the vulnerability of Aberystwyth, where of course, the vast majority of the material stored was above ground. The director of the National Library of Wales, William Llewellyn Davies enquired of the National Gallery if Manod Quarry could accommodate any of the special cases which belonged to private owners. The reply was that space was ‘very much limited with little opportunity of storing pictures beside our own”. In the event, no Dulwich pictures ever went to Manod, they would remain at Aberystwyth throughout the war.
On the night of 20/21 July 1944 a V1 ‘Flying Bomb’ exploded in Gallery Road causing severe damage to the Gallery and the Chapel and destroying Gallery Cottage. The bomb had fallen in the middle of Gallery Road, leaving a 15’ deep crater and fracturing the large sewer. The remaining pictures and books left in the Gallery, on the whole, did not sustain serious injury, although some of the furniture was slightly damaged, a miracle really, in view of the damage to the building itself. The pictures were immediately removed and taken to Dulwich College where they were stored in the north block shelter.
On 11th May 1945 with the war now ended, Davies asked if some of the Dulwich pictures could go in an exhibition at Aberystwyth “because there are thousands of people of Wales who never get opportunity to see great works of art”. The Dulwich College Picture Gallery committee, strengthened by this time by the appointment of Sir Gerald Kelly, the Keeper of the Royal Academy, agreed to this request and Kelly went to Wales, taking with him an expert restorer, Dr Hell, to examine the pictures and undertake any restoration work thought necessary.
The exhibition was a great success and was extended until November 1945 when the pictures returned to Dulwich for storage in Bell House, College Road which was unoccupied and where Dr Hell could continue his restoration work. The cost of the restoration of the collection, including the frames was finally estimated at £10,500. However two years later Dulwich College wished to resume the occupancy of Bell House for boarders and the transfer of the collection to the Gallery, upon which repairs had been commenced was considered. In the event the collection was exhibited at the National Gallery from June 1947 The Gallery finally reopened in 1952.