The V&A at war: 1939–45
What happened to the Victoria and Albert Museum during World War II (1939–45) is a little-known story that can be pieced together from the records kept by the then director Sir Eric Maclagan and his staff.
The museum, much to most people's surprise, remained open to the public –some would say more open than usual with the roofs badly damaged by bombs and shrapnel. It was hit repeatedly, but very few objects were lost. Although many were secreted away from London, others stayed to survive the bombs, the fires and the floods.
In one report the director noted:
'The whole of one end of the roof of the Cast Courts was ablaze and burning beams of wood kept falling with loud crashes on the floor. I expected at least a quarter of all the casts would be destroyed, but in fact apart from two German recumbent effigies which have got pretty badly broken … I doubt if many have suffered much.'
He continued: 'Once the big fire in the roof of the Cast Courts had been got under control, the water became much more alarming than the flames. We were wading sometimes ankle deep in the passages and a cascade of water mixed with lumps of charred wood was pouring down the staircase in the Secretariat.'
A barrage balloon can clearly be seen in this photograph of the Aston Webb façade on Cromwell Road looking towards Exhibition Road. The balloon looks slightly deflated, as the top part of its tail is drooping.
There were many barrage balloons across London, used to prevent bombers and fighters from low flying and pinpoint bombing. Most balloons were moored to a lorry by a winch and steel cable. These cables were strong enough to destroy any aircraft colliding with them. May be if it hadn’t been for the balloon the V&A would have had more bomb damage.
Despite the ravages of war, the V&A and its staff soldiered on. The Museum initially closed at the end of August 1939 so the collections could be moved to safety. Some things stayed in the building, especially the largest exhibits, such as the Raphael Cartoons and the sculpture of Marchese Spinetta Malaspina. Reinforced bomb-proof stores were used for smaller, portable and precious items, such as the miniatures. The bulk of the objects found a home in the 'house in the West of England'. For security reasons it was not identified, but was in fact Montecute House in Somerset, owned by the National Trust and leased to the museum for the duration of the conflict. Most of the furniture, textiles, books and metalwork were transported there in the first few months of the war.
The risk of bombing because of Montecute's proximity to aircraft factories, as well as problems caused by moths and humidity, later prompted the V&A to move many of the objects deep underground to Westwood Quarry near Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire in 1942. Others, such as the ceramic collection, found a refuge in Aldwych Underground Station, which was shared with The British Museum.
Due to public pressure, museums and libraries were soon reopened. The galleries leading to the National Art Library from Exhibition Road were hastily redisplayed and the V&A opened again on 13 November 1939. Detailed air-raid precautions were planned. The basement area under the Secretariat block alongside the Brompton Oratory was reinforced to provide shelter for 450 people - RCA staff and students and any members of the public who were in the National Art Library, as well as V&A staff. People visiting the galleries, however, were expected to go to the nearest air-raid shelter at the Exhibition Road underground exit.
As can be seen in this picture a team of men were using sandbags to protect objects against enemy bombs. Many of the smaller and more portable items were taken to the bomb-proof stores in the basement of the Museum, to Montacute House, or to the Aldwych Underground Station. A photographer came round to the Museum to mark the event, keen he said to prove that the Museum was preparing for war and looking after its treasures which is why we have the photos of the sandbagging taking place.
In the picture you can see various objects although the sandbags obscure the objects that have been covered so far. The tomb sculpture with a figure on a horse, a stone archway and a roundel can all be seen as the next things that will be sandbagged. Both the roundel and the Spinetta Malaspina tomb monument can still be seen in the Museum today.
Extra fire-fighting equipment was made available and volunteers were asked to provide round-the-clock fire-watching protection. This was, indeed, needed as the museum was hit by incendiary bombs on a number of occasions. Maclagan reported with characteristic reserve in November 1940: 'We had our first high explosive bomb last night. The results as usual are surprising. One very heavy packing case was picked up by the bomb and thrown on the roof about 50-60 feet (15.2-18.2m) above the ground, where it is now peeping over the cornice.'
One of the worst bombs exploded outside the Exhibition Road entrance, where evidence of the shrapnel blast can still be seen. A report on the damage stated: 'The museum suffered considerable damage. Two powerful bombs hit in the vicinity on Exhibition Road. It has practically wrecked the west side of the museum. The surface of the masonry was badly knocked about and the Exhibition Road doors were blown in. Practically all windows, frames and iron grilles were destroyed and we have lost most of the glass roofing on that side of the museum.'
There was a great deal to clear up and the V&A closed for a few days. Maclagan's first worry though was 'the large mass of material still stored in the galleries and exposed to the wind and the weather'.
This photograph is likely to have been taken some time after the War but it shows how strong the blast had been. The V&A had to close for a few days to clear up the mess that had been left from the bomb. Most of the glass roofs were damaged and this was most worrying to the Director, Sir Eric Maclagan. The doors of the Museum's main entrance on Exhibition Road, at the time, the only one for the whole of the Museum were also ‘blown-in’ due to the blast.
Once the main damage had been rectified the stone blast holes were left since they were not affecting the structure of the building. In 1985 an American tourist contacted the V&A about the war damage asking why it had been left. Not long afterwards the V&A contacted David Kindersley, a calligrapher to do a tablet as a memorial. Kindersley thought that it would be better to use the stone itself rather than attaching something to the wall. After various attempts at the wording he managed to arrange the cutting of the stone around a bomb blast on one of the stones. It was finally finished in 1987 and can be seen on the right hand side of Exhibition Road entrance
He wrote to the keeper of textiles, Muriel Clayton, who was running Montecute House: 'Some of the textile cases containing works of art have been smashed. I noticed one with a Greek Island costume in particular. But although there is a lot of broken glass lying on top of the costumes and embroideries, I do not think they have been damaged.'
There was damage, however, to various pieces of furniture, and exhibits in one of the galleries had moved by 45cm. Marks on the Portland stone wall have been left as a 'memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict'. A visitor in 1985 asked why the wall had not been repaired in response the V&A commissioned David Kindersley, a pupil of Eric Gill, to carve the inscription that can still be seen there.
Various exhibitions were staged during the war, including those dedicated to the work of Eric Gill, Van Dyck and Holbein. They were seen as being part of the war effort to raise morale and counter the boredom experienced by troops on leave. As one member of the public put it in a letter to The Times in 1942: 'I was pleasantly surprised to find by accident that the V&A is open. It should spend more to advertise the fact for the airmen and soldiers that have time on their hands.'
The shows were, of course, not as large as pre-War ones. Nor did they include many original works, with photographs and lesser material being displayed instead. The show marking the 400th anniversary of the death of Holbein was opened by the Swiss ambassador. One article commented: 'In war time exhibitions of famous Old Masters must depend principally on reproductions.This is so with the present display, though it contains a notable group of original miniatures from the collections of the V&A and the Duke of Buccleuch.' Each night the miniatures were put into the bomb-proof store and brought out again in the morning. The article continued: 'Altogether this exhibition shows how much can be done with limited resources of the moment. It is both aesthetically enjoyable and in the best sense educational.'
Maclagan was not particularly happy about the other uses to which the V&A was simultaneously put. When it was asked to perform other roles, the opportunities to exhibit work and move remaining objects to places of greater safety within the museum were further limited. The director was approached to give up some galleries for children evacuated from Gibraltar. A total of 350 pupils and staff needed to be catered for: extra sanitation, space for exercise and security had to be provided, and rooms adapted for teaching.
Nor was he happy about the RAF using the institution as a canteen. The Natural History and Science Museums had given over rooms for teaching purposes, while food for this temporary training college was to be served in the V&A. Maclagan's greatest concern was that the humidity of the canteen would affect the Raphael Cartoons, at the time bricked up near the old restaurant: 'I have no wish to be unnecessarily alarmist, but after thinking over the whole business again I still feel that it ought not to be allowed.' He had further worries about the impact of new drainage pipes for the kitchen on tiles by Owen Jones.Yet in the end he felt he could not refuse the RAF.
The staff of the V&A was quickly diminished to about half its usual number, with people being drafted into the armed forces and to other war work. Those who were left struggled with the deprivations, often volunteering for fire-watch duty and dealing with the damage to the building. Eight members of staff died as a result of military action and five in bombing raids. The most senior of these, assistant keeper of woodwork John Roberts, was killed in the Italian campaign in 1944.
There is little information in the V&A archive about employees drafted into the forces or moved to government ministries. Leigh Ashton, who was to become the new director in April 1945, is one of the exceptions. He joined the Ministry of Information under Brendan Bracken and in 1942 was sent to the Middle East. This was a good choice as he was returning to an area he knew well - he had been there on behalf of the museum to buy objects in 1927. He became head of the press office at the British embassy in Ankara and soon contacted Maclagan for funds to buy pieces he had found for the collections. He was eventually wired money to purchase, among other things, an agate bowl of the 12th or 13th century, Egyptian textiles of the 6th-8th centuries and a crystal bottle with a kufic inscription.
In a letter discussing their transportation to the director in London, Ashton wrote: 'I'm afraid we will have to wait now till after the war as we can't really use the shipping space. I hope Rommel doesn't get them.' They remained safe in the basement of the embassy until peace was declared.
Maclagan retired just before the end of the war. He had discussed the reorganisation of the V&A with a committee in the 1930s.This now became the responsibility of Leigh Ashton. But with the lack of funds and labour shortages after 1945, staff could bring back the exhibits only a few at a time, and it was not until 1948 that the museum could open fully to the public.The V&A's war was finally over.
This article was produced using material from the V&A archives to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War (8 May 2005 in Europe and 15 August 2005 worldwide)
Katrina Royall, Course Administrator for the V&A / Royal College of Art MA in the History of Design, 2005.