Caroline Shenton, author of National Treasures, tells how veterans of the First World War stepped out of its ‘Long Shadow’ to help save Britain’s art collections during the Second World War.
My latest book, National Treasures. Saving the Nation’s Art in World War Two, tells the true story of the adventures of our national collections and their curators when they were evacuated from London in 1939 to protect them from the Nazis. It’s a moment from our history when an unlikely coalition of mild-mannered civil servants, social oddballs and metropolitan aesthetes became the front line in the heritage war against Hitler.
I expected surprises, but as I researched the biographies of some of the men and women undertaking the evacuations of paintings, sculpture, antiquities and archives, I started to see a very significant pattern emerging which I hadn’t anticipated. It was the outline of the ‘Long Shadow‘ which the First World War cast over the lives of those about to live through another conflict, and one in which many of them were to become combatants for the second time, albeit of a very different kind.
As National Treasures is published on 11 November, Armistice Day, it seems appropriate to highlight on how, in protecting London’s national museums and galleries, some of my real-life cast of characters drew on their previous experience of war.
To begin with, many of them were already distinguished war heroes. For example, Bernard Ashmole (1894-1988) was Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum when the Second World War broke out. But during the First World War he had won the Military Cross, then second only to the Victoria Cross in terms of the hierarchy of bravery which it honoured. The MC was awarded for gallantry on the battlefield.
So when 46-year old Ashmole, who had been responsible for safeguarding the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles, among many other items, joined Home Guard he would have known his way round a gun and would have been unexpectedly competent for a curator in a tight corner, keeping watch from the top of his watertower for German parachutists in leafy Buckinghamshire.
Memories of war were strong too for Ashmole’s opposite number, Tom Kendrick (1895-1979), the Keeper of British and Medieval Collections. He was the man responsible for acquiring the Sutton Hoo treasure for the Museum, excavated just nine days before war broke out in 1939 (the story of which was recently told in Netflix’s The Dig – although Kendrick did not feature).
Having lain undisturbed in the sandy Suffolk soil for 13 centuries, the treasure only saw the light of day for a few weeks before having a reburial, this time deep in the Aldwych tube tunnels where they joined, among other things, the Lewis chessmen.
For Kendrick this was particularly ironic. He avoided the London Underground at all times because of his claustrophobia, a legacy – along with his locked knee and stiff gait – from his time in the trenches, where he had been severely injured.
Another of their colleagues, Professor Harold Plenderleith (1898-1997) the Museum’s main conservator, had also won the MC – at the tender age of 19 – in the Great War. He showed his mettle once again on the worst night of the Blitz, 10-11 May, 1941, when he crawled “like a snake” right into one of the burning bookstacks of the British Museum Library (today the British Library) to see what was going on with his precious collections (they were incinerated). He eventually lived to the age of 99.
At Windsor Castle, the Royal Librarian Sir Owen Morshead, DSO MC (1893–1977), devised his own subterranean ‘dug-outs’ (as he called them) for the protection of the most precious items in what today is the Royal Collection.
Under his lock and key as well there was an anonymous-looking Bath Oliver biscuit tin containing a glass preserving jar inside which were the core gems prised out of the Crown Jewels – which could be grabbed at a moment’s notice and spirited away if it looked like an invasion had begun.
And given his spectacular war record, this suave but presumably deadly courtier was clearly capable of undertaking such a dangerous mission if required.
Dug-out was also a word used by the National Portrait Gallery, as well as ‘the Refuge’, to describe its secret stores in a Buckinghamshire stately home: their echo of trenches very evident.
Perhaps most fascinating of all are the two elderly lesbian couples who took on the storage of many of the Tate Gallery’s paintings. They were Lady Helena Gleichen (1873-1947) and Nina Hollings (1862-1948) of Hellens Manor in Much Marcle, Herefordshire; and Gabrielle de Montgeon (1876-1944), and Frances ‘Donnie’ Donisthorpe (1870-1944) of Eastington Manor in Upton-on-Severn, Worcestershire.
Gleichen and Hollings had been joint commandants of the 4th Radiographic British Red Cross Unit near Gorizia (taking X-rays of wounded soldiers, thus enabling surgeons to identify exactly where bullets or shrapnel had lodged deep in the body prior to extraction).
For this extraordinary feat they were both awarded the Medaglia di bronzo al valor militare for gallantry by the Italian government and Helena was also made a Lady of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile Montgeon and Donisthorpe had actually met while volunteering as ambulance drivers for the unfortunately-named FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) in the Great War working with the French Army, and had similarly hair-raising stories of their times at war to tell (including Donnie’s earlier wartime service in Serbia).
For these characters and others whose stories I tell in National Treasures, many by 1939 in middle age or even older, the Second World War was a chance to serve their country once again.
This time, armed just with ‘No-Nails’ boxes, kapok, cotton-wool, blankets and brown paper, rather heavy artillery or rifles, they stepped out of the Long Shadow to do their bit for their country in World’s War Two just as they had in the Great War. To paraphrase Milton: they also serve, who only pack and wait.
National Treasures. Saving the Nation’s Art in World War Two by Caroline Shenton is published on 11 November 2021.
- The evacuation of paintings from London during the Second World War: Picryl
- Gassed (1919) by John Singer Sargent, evacuated from the Imperial War Museum in 1939 to Colworth House, Bedfordshire: Wikimedia
- Ornamental clasps from the Sutton Hoo Treasure: Wikimedia
- An ambulance unit of the FANY: Wikimedia Commons