Discover the story of the Wallace Collection during the First World War and how it was protected.
Not long ago I stumbled across a black and white picture of our magnificent 3.1 metre by 2.6 metre painter Rising of the Sun by the François Boucher being loaded, in an undignified fashion, into the back of a truck.
Intrigued, I investigated further, expecting some desperado tale of theft. No such luck, but instead, after much rifling through the archives, I discovered the files chronicling 1914-1920. So to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of First World War, here is the story of the Wallace at War.
The Wallace Collection in 1914 was much the same as today; same location, same building, same collection. Though many of the most important works had been removed in 1913 for fear of a suffragette rampage, our visitors certainly today wouldn’t feel too lost, and remarkably for the first years of the war the situation remained the same. However, by February 1916, as many of the gallery attendants had enlisted and the police were no longer able to assist as security guards, the Collection was forced to close. Further, most of the Collection was removed into the basement to protect it from feared air raids.
As the building, called and still known as Hertford House, was no longer in use, the Geographical Section of the Admiralty Intelligence Department commandeered the upper floors. This surprising change in fortunes for the building was noted in a pamphlet produced to chronicle the Collection during the war years, commenting that the building had been in its lifetime, ‘a private mansion, embassy, museum and was now like a university’ as academics, artists and architects laboured over the ‘re-parcelling’ of the globe following peace.
By 1917 the threat from the air had significantly increased. Minutes kept of the Trustees proceedings noted that the Trustees in reaction to the ‘probable increase in the power of the enemies’ offensive’ resolved to remove the Collection to a section of the tube line near Paddington. To a modern museum, with its state of the art climate control, the decision to send the artwork to an unprotected, damp and dirty tube line seems appalling! Attempts were made to improve conditions: concrete floors were laid and a ventilation of sorts implemented, though the minutes noted that they had ‘great difficulties owing to moisture in construction’ and also with ‘labour and materials’. Still the move went ahead and the first objects were removed on 8 April 1918 in vans and the move continued until October (one month before Armistice). It was a gigantic task as
254 Packing Cases
335 ‘bales of objects of art’ (including sculpture, furniture and armour)
were removed. Not all the objects were so unfortunate though, as Buckingham Palace did find some room for some pictures.
From September 1918 the whole of the building was taken up by the accounts of the Munitions Ministry, ‘the university became a counting house’, and they did not leave until the end of 1919, a full year after the Armistice, despite attempts from the Trustees to regain Hertford House. Finally, following the restoration of the building back into a gallery and the re-installation of the objects the Collection finally reopened in November 1920.
So the Collection and Hertford House had survived, as it would twenty years later with the outbreak of the Second World War, despite some near misses as the picture below shows.
The intriguing picture of the Boucher which had started this blog was actually taken of the removal of the greater part of the Collection to Hall Barn in Buckinghamshire.
We hope you have enjoyed the story of the Wallace at War and if you like more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.