Friday, February 5, 2010

Murder, Mutilation, And Rats: Portrait Of A Library And Archive

A Keeper of London's Secret History: The Entrance To The National Portrait Gallery.

A sensational shooting, vandalism by a hatchet-wielding suffragette, and an all-out war on rats. These are some of the surprising events revealed in the newly cataloged archive of the United Kingdom's National Portrait Gallery. In February 2010, the gallery made public previously secret files covering the 150 year history of its Heinz Archive and Library. The gallery has simultaneously begun a digitization program to create an online, searchable database of those records. Archivist Charlotte Brunskill said: "There are some fascinating stories in our archives and we are making them available." That turns out to be an understatement.

The museum, founded in 1856 "to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture," has quite a history of its own. Tales of how the collection of 160,000 portraits survived two world wars, a vermin invasion, and more than one instance of criminal activity, can all be found in the just released documents.

The National Portrait Gallery On Trafalgar Square.

A letter written in 1909 by gallery director James Milner details a headline-making murder-suicide at the museum. A "well-dressed elderly man in a silk hat and a fur coat" was strolling through the east wing of the gallery with a younger woman. As the two entered Room 27, they paused before a portrait and began arguing. The couple were said to have "gesticulated excitedly," just before the man pulled a revolver from his coat pocket. "Placing the muzzle close to the woman's head" he fired a single shot, then turned the weapon on himself and shot once more. The man died instantly; his victim later died at a nearby hospital.

Director Milner continues with an account of the aftermath: "I drew the Sergeant's attention to the shocking amount of blood which [the woman] had lost, and suggested that some cloths or wraps might be placed under her." The guard ignored his plea, and "carried the bleeding woman through the exhibition galleries down the main staircase to the front entrance, where the stretcher-ambulance was waiting." Mr. Milner concludes: "I instructed the Head Messenger to see that the messengers at once proceeded to wash away the bloodstains which had badly marked the floor over the whole distance she had been carried. Three attendants remained after the gallery was closed to clear up Room 27. Men were sent from His Majesty's Office of Works to remove by scraping such stains as remained in the floors after they had been washed over by the gallery charwomen." Miller did succeed in getting police to carry the killer's lifeless body out on a stretcher "to prevent any further disfigurement of the floor than could be possibly helped under the circumstances."

The murderer was 70-year-old American John Tempest Dawson. The victim, his 58-year-old wife, Nancy. After investigation, Mr. Dawson was determined to have been "delusional with a persecution complex; believing he was being stalked by an unknown enemy." He left a letter saying: "I cannot go on living, life is too terrible and friend after friend has dropped me. I may take my wife with me to save her from it all. If I have not the courage, God help her and the two children."

Portrait Of Thomas Carlyle By John Everett Millais (1877).

Another foreigner figures in the story of a savage 1914 attack on one of the gallery's paintings. A woman named Ann Hunt came to the attention of gallery staff due to "the closeness with which she examined the pictures." (This was taken as evidence she was an American.) When she returned a second time, a staffer dryly noted she couldn't be from the United States as "no American would have paid the entrance fee twice over." It turned out Miss Hunt, who was indeed from New England, was a "well-known militant" suffragette. She soon visited the gallery yet again, this time with a meat-cleaver concealed in the folds of her dress. She stopped before an 1877 John Everett Millais portrait of Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. Suddenly, she withdrew her weapon, and used it to smash through the glass and rip at the face in the center of the canvas. Then she began shouting: "This is a protest against the re-arrest of Mrs Pankhurst." Fortunately, Miss Hunt's previous conduct had made her suspicious enough that a guard was following her. He was able to disarm her before irreparable damage was done to the portrait.

War-Time Home Of The Gallery's Holdings: The Billiard Room At Mentmore, circa 1940.

The National Portrait Gallery's precious works of art were well protected during both World Wars as a matter of national pride. During the First World War, the most valuable portraits were stored in the King Edward Building Post Office Tube Station, close to St Paul's Cathedral. A 1918 letter marked "SECRET," advised that Director Milner adopt a new security policy: "The Aldwych Tube which is, as you know, used by the National Gallery [has] men... armed with revolvers. You will perhaps wish for a similar precaution to be taken at King Edward Building." The archives also reveal that, in 1939, the gallery's most important portraits were secretly moved out of London entirely, to Mentmore, the Buckinghamshire estate of Lord Rosebery. They stayed there, guarded by armed gallery attendants, until the end of the war.

The portraits were moved during World War II to prevent damage from the German bombing of London. But their relocation resulted in an immediate invasion of the gallery by another enemy: rats. The vermin were everywhere, and in their own miniature "Battle of Britain," valiant staffers made it their mission to eradicate the enemy. In records as detailed as any kept by the Ministry of Defense, the archive's "Rat Reports" list the names and tactics of every soldier in the take-no-prisoners war on rodents. A typical entry reads as follows: "Trapped in Library. Speared by Pittock with poker after it had escaped, with great excitement." Another day, another rat: "Boardroom windowsill, dropped to basement. Finished off by Dickenson." Some records appear to be encoded: "Staff hunt, sticks and brooms. 1 area." The enemy was beaten back, but did not surrender. The threat remains to this day.

A Rat-Free Gallery Is Enjoyed By All, circa 2009.

The stories mentioned here come from the first phase of the Heinz Library and Archive's cataloging and digitization project. The 15,000 items now in the database cover only about one-third of the National Portrait Gallery's historical documents. Records will continue to be entered on a regular basis. Items yet to be cataloged include letters, x-rays, videos, posters, press-cuttings, minutes and reports, as well as photographs. Let's hope those records include more of the exciting adventures of the museum's own "Rat Patrol."

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