I get a little nerdy about World War II Art history. Nazi pilfering the Louvre, professors from the American Ivies bribing jeeps off platoon leaders to inspect bombed churches, the hunt for the missing art as the war wound down (spoiler alert: austrian salt mines and bavarian castles). Certifiably. Nerdy.
So naturally I geeked out a bit at this BombSight picture of Dame Myra Hess, concert pianist extraordinaire, performing lunch-time morale-booster concerts for beleaguered Londoners during the Blitz. Because, look! It’s a gallery filled with people but no art.
Just before the war, with the very real threat of war with Germany hovering, the National Portrait Gallery began making plans to secretly stowe away many of the museums’ greatest pieces at Mentmore - the countryside estate of the fancypants Lord Rosemore. The NPG built a bunker in the basement for things they couldn’t move. They had packing drills using replicas of paintings to prepare staff to essentially rip paintings off walls and shove them in crates and boxes.
By summers end the galleries were bare. Everything was moved to the gallery basements or out to the country. At Mentmore they carved out living quarters for four staff in the outbuilding they’d been given to store the artwork. They called it “the refuge”. They grew a victory garden. They took turns going into the city to see their families and checking in on the gallery.
And even though they’d had to evacuate or stow up their collections, not to be seen again for years, the museum staff weren’t about to roll over. If they could give the people paintings or sculpture, they’d give ‘em music.
Pretty badass, NPG. Pretty badass.