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message 1: by Heather (new)

Heather The Art Hidden from Nazi Bombs

"“Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island.” So declared Winston Churchill in 1940, determined that the National Gallery’s collection should be saved from Nazi attacks – but also that the masterpieces should remain on home turf.

Or should that be under it? For the National Gallery did in fact keep its paintings safe by storing them underground, in an old slate mine in Manod, North Wales.

In London, the Elgin Marbles were hidden in Aldwych tube station – although, alarmingly, it was later revealed it wouldn’t have withstood a direct hit. In Paris, the Louvre was emptied out in 1939, with 3,600 paintings packed off to safe houses. The Mona Lisa – now considered too fragile to be moved – was shuttled round the country five times, moving from chateau to abbey to chateau, to keep her one step ahead of the Nazis.

A preservationist reads the humidity level of a room where paintings were kept – many techniques used for art preservation were developed at Manod (Credit: Getty Images)

The British Museum sent the Magna Carta, works by Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, and rare books including Shakespeare and Milton to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Even this wasn’t deemed safe enough however, and during the war they dug an underground cave, with a special heating system, in which to store the works.

But the determination to squirrel art away for after the war was just as strong among the Nazis. Hitler had grand plans to turn his childhood hometown of Linz into a super museum containing all the world’s greatest art. Nazi theft, in order to fulfil this hideously overblown ambition, was therefore huge and systematic.

The Nazis stored 6,500 paintings, including works by Michelangelo, Vermeer and Rembrandt, in a salt mine in Austria

The Nazis stored thousands of works in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, near Hitler’s ‘home town’ of Linz, where he planned for a massive museum to be built (Credit: Alamy)

That they ever made it out is almost miraculous: instructions had been given for the whole lot to be blown up in the event of German surrender. It is believed the plan was thwarted by local miners and a Nazi official, who swapped vast bombs waiting to send the whole collection sky-high for smaller ones that, when detonated, only brought down enough rubble to block the entrance. The work remained safe, underground, until the Monuments Men – an Allied taskforce charged with finding and saving Europe’s art – got to them after the war ended.

Still, for all that sticking grand masters in a salt mine might sound sacrilegious, at least it was dark and cool – not actually the worst conditions for the paintings. And one of the things that is fascinating about the history of Manod is that the relocation of 1,800 paintings to Wales ultimately ushered in a significant new era of conservation for the institution.

Some of the underground structures built in the slate mine at Manod are still standing today – and discarded art storage materials can be found (Credit: Robin Friend)

Six brick store houses were built inside the cavernous space, allowing them to control temperature and humidity.

This labyrinthine, subterranean world became thronged with art, but also life: many local men were employed to help look after the paintings.

Having to move to Manod meant a lot of thinking and research about how best to house the collection, and a team was able to closely monitor the paintings in controlled conditions.

“There was a small studio built outside the quarry where they did a lot of conservation work, it was actually a very formative time for the gallery,” says Moore-Ede. After the war, major renovations were needed anyway following bomb damage to the gallery, and so air conditioning was added, and a new scientific department established.

A night watchman at the Manod Quarry uses a portable telephone temporarily plugged into a wall outlet (Credit: Getty Images)

In the last couple years of the war, the National Gallery took to exhibiting a single ‘Picture of the Month’ in London, brought out of storage in Manod.

The aim was to buck up beleaguered British spirits, and it became a sensation – up to 30,000 visitors a month flocked to get a glimpse of just one painting, with popular choices including Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus and Titian’s Noli me Tangere.

In London, the National Gallery was “forever changed by what went on during the war,” according to Moore-Ede. Even in showing only one painting a month, this national institution connected more widely and powerfully with its public than ever before: as the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Well, until it’s temporarily hidden in a Welsh slate mine, at any rate.

message 2: by Connie (new)

Connie G (connie_g) | 376 comments Good article, Heather.

The excellent movie "The Monuments Men" is also about the Nazi looting, and the discovery of the hidden artwork in the Austrian mine. It's based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.


message 3: by Heather (new)

Heather I remember hearing about that movie and wanted to see it, then I completely forgot. Thank you for reminding me. I can’t wait to get my hands on it now!

Yes I thought this article was interesting, too. Now I’m more excited to know more!

message 4: by Ellen (new)

Ellen | 116 comments With respect. The book is tremendous a brilliant read. The movie was a dog and really focused on irrelevant crap like romance. Highly recommend the book.

message 5: by Heather (new)

Heather Ellen wrote: "With respect. The book is tremendous a brilliant read. The movie was a dog and really focused on irrelevant crap like romance. Highly recommend the book."

Oh! Thank you for the heads-up, Ellen! I don't want to see romance "crap" (I agree), I will definitely check out the book.

message 6: by Judi (new)

Judi (jvaughn) | 59 comments I liked the book as well, but I also liked the movie. I always try to read the book first, then enjoy the movie for can never match the depth of information that a book offers, can be fun to watch.

message 7: by Heather (new)

Heather I have usually found the books better than the movies. Sometimes the movies add extras to embellish interest. I love the movie A Beautiful Mind and read the book, also. But in that instance, though I did finish the book, I had a hard time getting through it. It is quite long and contained scientific information that I didn’t think was necessary to the story line and I couldn’t follow it anyway. So maybe I’ll do as you did and read the book first but because I have heard good things in the past about the movie, I want to see that, too.

message 8: by Lance (new)

Lance Charnes (lcharnes) | 83 comments Ellen wrote: "With respect. The book is tremendous a brilliant read. The movie was a dog and really focused on irrelevant crap like romance. Highly recommend the book."

I saw that film when it came out. It's biggest problem is that it can't decide if it wants to be Kelly's Heroes or The Dirty Dozen, and doesn't do either very well. But there's only one significant female character (played by Cate Blanchett, whose character is based on Rose Valland, who kept secret records of the transit of looted art through the Jeu de Paume during the war), and I don't remember any "romance" at all. There was bromance between the members of the squad, but that's a standard part of war movies.

message 9: by Connie (new)

Connie G (connie_g) | 376 comments In the movie they had to use fewer actors than the number of actual "monument men" that were involved in reality. The viewer would be confused if they had used thirty actors. The romance was so minor that I can't even remember which characters were involved. I just remember the feeling that people are always in danger of losing the people they love in wartime.

I haven't read the book, but I usually like books more since they can go into more detail than a film.

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