National Gallery Marks 75th Anniversary of VE Day




The National Gallery played an inspiring role during wartime including VE Day. It was one of the few places in London where you could find a programme of cultural activity – concerts. Many were organised by Dame Myra Hess with exhibitions of contemporary art, and a ‘Picture of the Month’, brought back from storage in a Welsh mine to delight the public.  

The last time the Gallery closed the doors on the pictures for a long period was during the Second World War – GF

Therefore, it is ironic that Victory in Europe Day – 8 May 1945 – one of only two days (the other being the following day, 9 May 1945) during the whole war that the National Gallery exceptionally closed – but it was for a very good reason; to allow huge celebrations marking the end of the war to take place in Trafalgar Square.

On August 23, 1939, with the Second World War looming, the National Gallery started evacuating the bulk of its collection to secret countryside locations for safe-keeping. By May 1940, the collection had been transferred to Manod Quarry, a slate mine in the Welsh mountains, beneath 200 feet of solid rock.

Upon the declaration of war, all cultural institutions – galleries, theatres, concert halls, museums – were shut. With the city under a cultural blackout, Londoners were left with nowhere to go for entertainment.

The National Gallery’s director Kenneth Clark was determined to keep the Gallery open for cultural pursuits rather than war ministry work, therefore he eagerly seized an opportunity offered by the famous concert pianist, Dame Myra Hess.

Myra Hess had meant to stop playing the piano for the duration of the war. Soon after war was declared, she held a tea party for some friends. That afternoon she intended to play for one last time before locking the lid of her grand piano. The friends, some of whom were refugees recently arrived from mainland Europe, begged her not to give up playing. The idea of the National Gallery concerts was born.

Starved of entertainment, crowds flocked to the Gallery for the lunchtime concerts. These performances were an opportunity to hear the foremost musicians of the day. Many were given by Myra Hess herself. Favourites in her repertoire were Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann. The aim was to make classical music accessible to all. The entrance price was set low at one shilling.

The concerts were a huge success. Even in the darkest days of the Blitz, they were nearly always full. An adjoining canteen serving delicious tea, coffee and sandwiches, concocted by a cohort of formidable ladies, added to their popularity.

The National Gallery was hit by bombs nine times between October 1940 and April 1941. The worst occasion was on 12 October 1940 – a high explosive bomb fell on the Gallery destroying the room where the Raphaels had hung just before the war.

On another occasion, an unexploded time bomb was discovered in the wreckage from an earlier attack. It later exploded while a lunchtime concert was being held at the other end of the building. Witnesses say that the musicians playing at the time of the explosion didn’t miss a beat.

During all this time the National Gallery had a continual stream of visitors through its doors. Concerts, exhibitions and lectures continued regardless. But the war did take its toll – by the end, not a single pane of glass in the roof was left intact. Many years passed before all the wartime damage was fully repaired.

On their way to the Myra Hess concerts in October 1939, visitors to the National Gallery couldn’t help noticing the forlorn bare walls where the paintings had been before the war.

Before long, a series of temporary exhibitions was organised – a rarity for museums and galleries at the time. There were also rolling displays of contemporary war art organised by the WAAC (War Artists’ Advisory Committee) that Kenneth Clark had helped set up at the outset of war.

The temporary exhibitions spanned a large variety of subjects, ranging from ‘Nineteenth-Century French Paintings’ and ‘British Painting since Whistler’ to ‘Design at Home’ and ‘Greater London: Towards a Master Plan’.

These exhibitions were often disrupted by the damage inflicted by the nightly bombing raids during the Blitz. This didn’t affect the large number of visitors attending. In fact, there was much debate as to whether visitors should be asked to leave during the many air-raid warnings that occurred each day.

By 1942 the bombing raids had lessened. It was now felt that one painting could be brought up to London from Manod every month. It was put on show in splendid isolation with some accompanying documentary material – the first to arrive was Titian’s Noli Me Tangere (about 1514).

Every night the work was removed from display and stored in the underground strong room for safety. The arrival of each painting was a news event. The ‘Picture of the Month’ scheme exists in the Gallery to this day.

In May 1945, within days of the cessation of hostilities in Europe, a selection of masterpieces from the collection in Wales was sent back to Trafalgar Square. In the National Gallery Archive you can see a telegram sent by Assistant Keeper Martin Davies from Manod on 4 May announcing the return of the ‘masterpieces.’

On 17 May, an exhibition of these works was opened in the few relatively undamaged rooms in the east wing of the Gallery by King George and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) along with the two princesses. Among the works that returned were van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), Hobbema’s The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689) and Bellini’s Doge Loredan (about 1501-2).

The National Gallery has weathered many national emergencies, and provided solace and respite for people in Britain and all over the world, for almost two centuries.

75 years after VE Day, inspired by the legacy of the Myra Hess concerts, the National Gallery is bringing its pictures to our homes in a major new digital programme of talks and creative sessions, designed in response to the coronavirus lockdown.

At the moment we can’t give people access to the pictures physically – like we did during the Second World War – however, with digital resources we can give people the chance to treasure great art, and make it their own, by looking at it and reflecting on it in their homes.

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, says: ‘The last time the Gallery closed the doors on the pictures for a long period was during the Second World War when the pianist Dame Myra Hess organised a musical programme here. It is a very remarkable National Gallery story and we consider ourselves the heirs of Myra Hess’s spirit as we plan our activities while the Gallery’s building is temporarily closed. With this exciting new digital programme, you will see that we are open all hours, with free art for everyone.”

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

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