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How the concerts started

The outbreak of war created a ‘cultural black-out’ in London as theatres and museums closed, including the National Gallery. And then the celebrated pianist Myra Hess had a revolutionary idea…
  1. The idea
  2. Preparations
  3. The first concert
  4. Royal visits
  5. New Year’s Day fun

The idea

The bold decision to turn one of London’s major art galleries into a venue for musical concerts was taken little more than a month after the outbreak of war in September 1939. It was the result of what Kenneth Clark, the National Gallery’s Director, called ‘the cultural black-out’ that followed the announcement of hostilities.

Wartime view of National Gallery
Wartime view of National Gallery
Silent video of the empty National gallery, with paintings removed.

As the real black-out came into force, and the city fell dark at night, its theatres, galleries, cinemas, and concert halls shut their doors in response to a government ruling. Bombing raids were a serious threat and the Home Office was keen to avoid the mass casualties that would ensue if public venues were targeted.

The National Gallery closed on 23 August 1939, the evacuation of its pictures having already begun. Every day containers of paintings left London for secret destinations in Gloucestershire and Wales, where they could be kept safe. Find out where the paintings were stored  and how the Gallery fared during wartime.

Clark described the scene following the departure of the paintings: ‘Every picture had been taken away, but the frames remained and multiplied the general emptiness with a series of smaller emptinesses. When I returned to the Gallery, after the first all-absorbing task of evacuation was more or less safely over, I walked round those large, dirty, and (as it turned out) ill-proportioned rooms, in deep depression.’

The National Gallery in wartime
Suzanne Bosman, author, and Alan Crookham, archivist at the National Gallery describe the evacuation of the paintings and the first Myra Hess concert.
Suzanne Bosman, author of The National Gallery in wartime and Alan Crookham, archivist at the National Gallery describe the evacuation of the paintings

With the pictures evacuated, the Director waited for notification that the Gallery would be requisitioned for administrative purposes, saddened by its inability to offer Londoners comfort just when they needed it most.

Then one day, just a few weeks after the outbreak of war, he was visited by the famous pianist, Myra Hess. She shared his dismay. The arts, she believed, played a powerful spiritual role in the health of the nation at the best of times – and would play an greater role now during wartime.

Hess proposed using the Gallery as a venue for music – and the Director agreed. There was precedent after all, for concerts had been given at the Gallery to raise funds during a brief period in 1922.

Extract from announcement about concerts, written by Director Kenneth Clark

Extract from announcement made by Director Kenneth Clark

And as Clark told listeners to a radio broadcast a month or so later, he ‘was delighted at the thought of the Gallery being used again for its true purposes, the enjoyment of beauty, rather than for the filling in of forms or the sticking up of envelopes’. Asked whether it might be possible to give an occasional lunchtime concert at the venue, he replied, ‘Why not give one every day?’

Next: Preparations

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