The Wallace Collection During Wartime

Blog

The Wallace Collection During Wartime

As we approach VE Day, the anniversary of the official end of World War Two, Wallace Collection Archivist and Librarian Morwenna Roche looks back on the Wallace Collection during wartime.

In May 1940, Sir Winston Churchill famously said of the nation's art treasures: "Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island."

However, records in the Wallace Collection Archive show that planning for the possible evacuation of our collection started long before he uttered these immortal words.

From as early as 1933, the museum staff were preparing for the possibility of another war, and making plans for the care of the collection. Meetings were held on a regular basis to discuss where the items should be housed in case another conflict should start. When the Munich Crisis occurred in 1938, the rarest Sèvres porcelain and majolica in the collection was packed away as a precaution. Priority lists of works of art were created, and practice drills started.

As a national collection, exceptional measures would be needed to secure the art works from the threat of bombing raids on London, as any military action would likely involve high profile targets in heavily populated civilian areas.

On 23rd August 1939, when the Home Office gave the word to all national museums and galleries to start evacuating their artworks, the Wallace Collection was well prepared to start work.

By the time war was declared on the 3rd September 1939, the majority of the collection had been carefully packed for transport and was already safely out of London. It would remain so for the duration of the war.

An image of artworks being evacuated from Hertford House
Works of art being evacuated from Hertford House

The collection did not travel as far either across land or down under ground as the National Gallery’s paintings did (to a disused slate quarry at Manod in Snowdonia) but to two historic houses not far from London; Hall Barn in Buckinghamshire and Balls Park in Hertfordshire.

At the time these locations were a closely guarded secret, and only became known after the war was over and the works had been returned to their home in London.

It took 28 lorry journeys to carry the majority of the Collection away from its home in Hertford House, and as you can see from the images surviving from the time, transferring artworks was slightly different than it is today!

Image of the evacuation of Boucher's Rising of the Sun, 29 August 1939
Boucher's Rising of the Sun being evacuated from Hertford House

Only items that were either too large or heavy to safely move stayed in the basement of Hertford House, which was reinforced with concrete in case of bombing. Some staff also remained onsite as fire wardens in case anything happened to the building.

September and October 1940 saw the advent of 'the Blitz', when the centre of London was heavily bombed for 57 consecutive nights, which caused severe damage and casualties across the city. Cultural institutions including the Tate Gallery in Millbank (today's Tate Britain) and the National Gallery both suffered bomb damage to their buildings, some of which can still be seen today.

Luckily, although bombs fell nearby, Hertford House did not suffer too much damage.

On the night of September 18/19th 1940, a high explosive bomb fell in the front garden but only damaged the front gates and other parts of Manchester Square. On that night, the main building survived unscathed.

Incendiary bombs however fell on the roof in November 1940 and May 1941, and thankfully staff were able to put out the fires before any serious damage could ensue.

An image of bomb damage in Manchester Square, 1940
Manchester Square showing bomb damage

Wartime was at that point only the second time in the Wallace Collection's history that it was forced to close, the other occasion being World War One when the works of art were moved to the Post Office Underground Station at Paddington.

While Hertford House was mostly empty of Wallace Collection artworks, it still played a key part in the cultural role of London. Spaces were made available for temporary exhibitions during wartime, such as the Arts and Crafts (1941) and Artists Aid Russia (1942) exhibitions.

Below is a catalogue for the later exhibition signed by Sir Winston Churchill, which was auctioned for Mrs Churchill’s Aid for Russia fund and presented to the Wallace Collection by Sir Alec Martin in 1942.

An image of an 'Artists Aid Russia Exhibition' catalogue
Catalogue for the Artists Aid Russia exhibition, signed by Sir Winston Churchill

Following Germany's military surrender, and the announcement to British people over the radio that war had ended late in the day on 7th May, the collection returned to Hertford House and was able to reopen 20th July 1945.

According to newspaper reports from the time, the museum was one of the first to open with most of its collection on display, however only 12 out of 22 gallery rooms were suitable to open, so it must have been a bit of squeeze!

- Morwenna Roche, Archivist and Librarian at the Wallace Collection

More From Us