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Unassuming Welsh site’s vital wartime role

The slate quarry, in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, became the top secret hiding place for the British National Gallery’s most precious art collection during the Second World War, providing an indestructible tomb as a Nazi invasion seemed imminent.

According to a recent BBC News article, 2000 works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Turner and Constable had been stored in various Welsh locations since the beginning of the war, but none had proven their worth as a long-term safe haven.

Shipment to Canada was mooted but in 1940 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously demanded of the nation's art treasures: "Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island."

Manod Mountain had been a working quarry for more than a century. The quarry was unassuming and remote, and hundreds of metres of slate fortified the subterranean space bored out from years of excavation.

{{quote-A:R-W:150-I:2-Q:"Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island." -who:Winston Churchill}}To accommodate the paintings, 5000 tonnes of material was shifted and explosives were used to clear the entrance. Suzanne Bosman, the National Gallery's senior picture researcher and author of The National Gallery in Wartime, told the BBC that before the paintings’ arrival, six air-tight climate-controlled brick huts were built inside the mountain.

The largest paintings were packed in specially designed "elephant cases" and transported by road, while the smaller paintings were transported in Post Office vans and Cadbury delivery trucks to avoid detection.

"Van Dyck's Equestrian Portrait of Charles I is a monster, at 12’ by 9.5’ (10m2), and in its case, loaded on the back of the truck, it was considerably taller," Bosman said. "In the end they had to dig up the road surface to lower it by a few inches, and to this day you can see how the kerb in that section is noticeably higher than on the rest of the road; it's a measure of just how important the evacuation was."

The paintings were loaded on to a purpose-built railway and transported to the doors of the huts and unloaded. The government retained its lease on Manod until the 1950s, and it was expected to perform the same role if a third world war eventuated.

 

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More reading:
Braving the 186 steps
Exhibition pays tribute to quarry workers killed at Gallipoli
Slate pits recommended for world heritage status
French multimedia artists showcase quarries
Art gives defunct quarries new life
‘Lost’ van Gogh landscape drawing unveiled
 

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