On August 23, 1939, in preparation for the impending war, the National Gallery in London closed its doors to the public and took down all its paintings. In addition to sending children away from London, the treasures in its museums inlcuding 1000s of years’ worth of historical documents like the Magna Carta, and its large collection of paintings had to be sent away for safekeeping.
Initially the paintings were spread-out all over England, in aristocratic homes and museums far away from London. After the Battle of Dunkirk in the summer of 1940 it became clear the German bombers would soon be targeting the entire island, and the current locations of the paintings would not be safe enough. For a while, the idea of sending everything to Canada was floated, but Churchill shot down the idea with an emphatic, “Hide them in caves and cellars but not one picture shall leave this island.”
In the end, that’s precisely what happened – the museum director Kenneth Clark sent the paintings to a large unused slate mine in Wales called the Manod Caverns for safekeeping. It was here that they spent the remainder of the war under the care of Andrew Davies, the chief curator who relocated to the Wales to be close to the paintings.
In France too, the Louvre closed its doors, officially for repair work, for three days on August 25, 1939. In three days, just 10 days before the German invasion, the treasures from the Louvre were moved to countryside chateaus and aristocratic homes all over France for safekeeping. The museum director, Jacques Jaujard, moved the paintings including the Mona Lisa in complete secrecy, so that when the Nazis entered the Louvre, they found only frames lining the walls. The details of where each painting went are still secret.
Jacques Jaujard was able to accomplish the herculean task of quickly moving 4000 pieces of Louvre’s collections because he was experienced at hiding paintings – having done it previously during the Spanish civil war in 1936 for Madrid’s Museo del Prado when the paintings were disbursed all over Spain. They were moved again in 1939, this time with the assistance of New York’s MOMA, the Louvre, and the National and Tate Galleries in London. With the support of these museums, in February 1939, the entire contents of the Prado including Las Meninas were transported to the headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva for safekeeping.
The Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands too closed its doors on August 25, 1939 to empty the museum under the guidance of Henricus Petrus Baard. He had started as a volunteer at the museum, and in 1939 was the museum’s scientific assistant of history. The museum’s treasures were sent to villages across the Netherlands: suddenly little villages found themselves responsible for the safekeeping of Vermeers and Rembrandts. But once the bombs started dropping, the paintings were shifted to newly constructed bomb-proof bunkers near the North Sea. The Night Watch shifted bunkers at least five times during the war.
None of the paintings that were transported and stored in mines and bunkers were damaged – each one returned to its rightful place at the end of the war. I think we owe an immense and unrepayable debt of gratitude to the museum directors and the people who helped to pack, transport, store, and care for these priceless treasures during the war.
(Images courtesy National Gallery (London), Musee de Louvre, Museo del Prado, Stedelijk Museum).