Art in Exile shows how museum prioritised artworks to remove from London for protection
As the second world war approached, Britain’s national museums had to decide what to move out of London. For the Imperial War Museum, it was obvious: paintings by William Orpen and Sir John Lavery.
Documents which shine light on the museum’s war planning are to go on display for the first time this summer as part of an exhibition telling the stories of how cultural treasures were protected during the second world war.
The documents reveal that the two artists were considered the biggest stars of the time, despite having fallen a long way down the art history pecking order since.
Every painting that the museum owned by them was urgently prioritised for evacuation, amounting to more than 60 works. Two other war artists, Paul Nash and CRW Nevinson, today considered as the century’s greatest, were included but only by a few works each. There were no works by women.
Orpen and Lavery were eminent artists in their day but are now far less well known said curator Alex Walton. “It shows how much our thoughts have changed.”
Even though there were no works by women on the priority list to be moved out of London, the exhibition will explore how progressive the museum was in commissioning female artists to paint scenes of women at work during the first world war.
Paintings by male artists of women at work, such as Randolph Schwabe’s The Women’s Land Army and German Prisoners 1918, did appear on the list.
“It is interesting and surprising, some of those female artists were big names of their day,” said Walton. “We will be questioning why [they were not on the list] in the exhibition.”
In total, 281 works of art and 305 albums of photographs were chosen for evacuation, less than 1% of the museum’s entire collection and 7% of its art collection.
“It is interesting how they chose the art and they chose the photographs and they didn’t delve into any other part of the collection,” said Walton.
The works went to the homes of trustees who said they had space: Ramster Hall in Surrey; Colworth House in Bedfordshire and Penn House near Amersham in Buckinghamshire, where archaeology best some of the paintings – including John Singer Sargent’s Gassed – were stored in the garage.
The exhibition will also tell stories of other museums such as the National Gallery, which sent its treasures to a disused slate mine in Snowdonia, as well as the British Museum and V&A, which both used stone quarries in Wiltshire.