Book Review - National Treasures: Saving the Nation’s Art in World War II
By Caroline Shenton
Have you ever wondered what happened to the art collections at the National Gallery, the V&A, and the National Portrait Gallery – even the Crown Jewels – during World War II? This book by Caroline Shenton tells all. Published in 2021, it tells the story of the evacuation from London of our historic and cultural treasures, held in trust for the nation, on the outbreak of war. It covers art galleries, museum artefacts and archives. It is meticulously researched and well written. Caroline Shenton, although now a full-time writer, was formerly an archivist at the National Archives, in Kew, and at the UK Parliamentary Archives.
The book is narrated chronologically, starting with preparations at the outbreak of war, by the then Ministry of Works, and ending when hostilities cease. There is also a useful epilogue. The index is easy to use, and the book is well structured. It includes several photographs of the period. It is full of interesting facts and figures, and several heroes emerge.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the portrayal of several eminent figures in the art world at the time, including Kenneth Clark (then the Director of the National Gallery), who went on to publish the seminal art history book Civilisation (made into a ground-breaking BBC2 documentary of the same title, in 1969, and recently re-made for television). The book explores related themes such as propaganda, maintaining morale during the blitz, and the emergence of what has become popularly known as “The Monuments Men”; art, archives and museum experts who were tasked, in the aftermath of WWII, with looking at the restitution of art works, across formerly occupied Europe, that were seized by the Nazis.
There are interesting and insightful anecdotes shared throughout the book. One of the most intriguing concerns the 4 extant copies of Magna Carta. In the early years of the war, before the USA entered the war as our allies, but were supporting Britain with aid and armaments, an interesting suggestion was put to Winston Churchill. As a means of thanking the American nation, the UK government considered presenting Roosevelt with a copy of the iconic, and priceless, Magna Carta (the one from Lincoln Cathedral, but on loan to the USA for an exhibition, at the outbreak of war), as a permanent gift (pp.209-210). But this gift to the American nation – due to be announced on BBC radio on 15th June 1941 – never came to pass. I’ll let you read the book to find out why!
I thoroughly enjoyed the book; I thought I already knew quite a bit about this period and what it meant for our national treasures, but this book sheds so much more light on a fascinating episode of WWII. I wasn’t so interested in the lengthy discussions of logistical issues involved in safely transporting huge art works across the UK, to safe havens, but very amused by the in-fighting, professional one-upmanship and quarrels between those who played a major part in this little known story. Highly recommended.