From the National Gallery to a Welsh slate mine

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On 12 August 1941, pictures from the National Gallery in London – works of art worth millions of pounds, even in those far-off days – began to be stored in the remote and long disused slate quarry of Manod near Blaenau Ffestiniog.

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London

The war was still less than 12 months old but in the summer of 1940, with the forces of Nazi Germany victorious in France, the outlook for Britain was bleak. The British Expeditionary Force had, by some miracle, been lifted off the beaches of Dunkirk but with most of their equipment left behind on the sands it seemed as if defeat was inevitable. Invasion was expected any hour. 

People in power began to turn their minds to Britain's assets and, more importantly, what would happen to them should the Nazis ever appear in the country. The gold bullion of the Bank of England was shipped off to Canada but when it came to the art works from the National Gallery, Prime Minister Churchill had other ideas.

Churchill was adamant that 'Not one picture shall leave this island'

When Churchill and Kenneth Clark, the director of the National Gallery, spoke about the issue, Churchill was clear. The threat from lurking U-Boats was too great and he did not intend to allow the Van Goghs, Constables and Rembrandts from the national collection to settle on the sea bed. He was adamant, declaring: 

"Hide them in caves and cellars but not one picture shall leave this island."

Churchill, of course, was backing a horse that had already passed the winning post. He and Clark both knew that many of the pictures from the gallery had already been dispersed. 

Fifty of the more valuable works of art had actually been sent out of London during the Munich Crisis of 1938 but had been brought back once Chamberlain and Hitler reached an agreement and war, it seemed, had been avoided. It was a short-lived respite. 

When war broke out in September 1939 the treasure trove had again been "evacuated", finding homes for themselves in places such as Penrhyn Castle and the University Colleges of Aberystwyth and Bangor. By spreading the pictures around a number of different locations it was hoped that they could be kept safe. At that time, the fear was of air attack – the possibility of defeat in France, let alone a potential invasion, had not even entered people's minds.

Everything changed after July 1940 and Kenneth Clark and others began to seriously consider the arrangement they had cobbled together regarding the safety of the pictures. It was, at best, a stopgap arrangement.

The risk of a stray German bomb falling on Bangor or Aberystwyth was felt to be too great. And, besides, the owner of Penrhyn Castle was apparently often drunk – what he might do or say was not something that Kenneth Clark could easily contemplate. 

The answer was found in the disused slate mine of Manod just outside Blaenau Ffestiniog. The site was examined and the decision made – that was where the pictures would be stored. On 12 August 1941 the complex process of transportation and storage began.

A disused slate mine at Manod proved to be the ideal hiding place

Explosives were used to enlarge the entrance to the mine and, once inside, a number of brick structures – "bungalows" as they were called – had to be built to house the pictures.

The route to the mine was tortuous, just one single track road along which the lorries carrying their precious loads bumped and slewed. It was a journey which required considerable skill from the drivers, surely one of the unsung actions of the war. Lorries from the London Midland and Scotland Railway picked up the pictures at Bangor station and then transported them to Manod.

One lorry, carrying Anthony van Dyck's King Charles on Horseback had to deflate its tyres in order to pass underneath a low bridge. The painting, the largest in the collection, was 12 feet high and over six feet wide, but like all of the others it had to go under the bridge. It was a moment of some irony as Charles had been only 5 feet 4 inches tall – the picture was twice the size of the man.

Richard Meirion Jones, chief engineer for the Ministry of Works, was charged with installing the paintings and then maintaining them in the correct temperature so that they were not damaged by cold or humidity. In fact, many important discoveries were made regarding the display and storage of paintings during their enforced stay at Manod. And, almost as a by-product, the collection was properly catalogued and recorded for the first time.

A painting in a sealed container is moved from the underground storeroom to the restoring studio in the Manod slate mine. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In all, some 2,000 works of art were stored at Manod during the war. They included works by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Gainsborough and John Constable. Nineteen paintings by the Dutch master Rembrandt were held there for the duration of the conflict. 

The decision to empty the National Gallery of its works of art was well founded. The building was hit nine times during the Blitz, several bombs falling on the Gallery where the Rembrandts were usually hung. The building was not entirely empty, however, as Dame Myra Hess regularly played lunchtime concerts there and from 1942 a decision was made to bring back one painting a month for display in the gallery.

These temporary exhibitions proved enormously popular, with service personnel and civilians alike. The idea of 'painting of the month' is something that has remained in use at the National Gallery ever since. 

The slate mine at Manod was emptied of its precious hoard once peace returned to the world in 1945. These days access to the mine is both dangerous and impossible but the place can at least bask in the knowledge – and the glory – of knowing that its gloomy caverns once held perhaps the finest collection of art that the world has ever known.

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