Book Review of Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis by Gerri Chanel

I’m not usually a fan of World War Two, although I know many others are, so this book was an unusual choice for me. I really brought it as I have visited the Louvre many times and didn’t know the story of how the museum had dealt with keeping the priceless treasures safe during a time of war. After reading this book, which describes the dangerous situations, often at the threat of the lives of museum staff, as well as the many times the art was nearly taken by the Nazis, has made me realise just how much we take these amazing institutions for granted. It does try and focus on a good mixture of the fate of the curators and other museum staff, as well as their families. There is a keen focus on Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the Musee Nationaux, who was instrumental to the evacuation process and dealing with the Nazis once they occupied France. This gives the book a very personal feel and at some points, makes the reader feel very connected with those involved.

Whilst the book doesn’t instantly talk about the evacuation, I thought the background on how the Louvre became a museum, as well as explanations as to why the staff had learnt from previous threats to the museum, all contribute to a greater understanding of the challenges and logistics required to organise such a venture.

Despite the title, the book does cover all the art evacuated from the Louvre, and other French museums in preparation for the Second World War, which had to be spread across many different chateaus for safety reasons. I do like though that it covers all the art works, with mentions of the Mona Lisa sprinkled throughout. Personally I liked this as I felt a bit disappointed at easing the Mona Lisa, as I much preferred other paintings in the museum. This also helps to demonstrate the enormous challenges the staff faced in such an evacuation, especially with the larger paintings and sculptures. Whilst I enjoyed this part, I feel others would find this hard to get into as it is more background context than specifically focuses on the World War Two topic promised. However, if this isn’t to your taste, once you get a few chapters in, you won’t be disappointed.

There are some graphic description of violence and war, which is to be expected considering the topic, but I must admit these parts were hard to read. Although these are important to the narrative and explain the genuine dangers the museum staff had to contend with. I would be prepared for these as I had to take a break from reading at this point. These, alongside mentions of wider war issues, such as food shortages, the difference between Occupied and Vichy France, could have used with better context, but I understand this wasn’t necessarily the scope of this book. However, it could easily be used as a platform for further learning about the period.

I do especially like the epilogue, which mentions what happened to the main people after the end of the war, including the awards given in recognition for the courage, bravery and can do attitude that all museum staff had in the face of great adversity. This was a touching tribute and I must admit I was quite emotional to see the recognition the staff had received. It was a very fitting way to end what is a very fascinating and easy read. Thank you to Gerri Chanel for writing this book in acknowledgment for the achievements of the staff.

I would definitely recommend this book as the easy writing style made it very hard to put down. Whilst it’s a nonfiction book, it very much reads like a novel in its easy style, reading much like an adventure story. This has definitely been one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. Whenever I am finally able to go back to Paris, especially the Louvre, I will now look on it in a new and grateful light for the sacrifice the staff and their families made at the time to keep the art protected for the world, not just for France.

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill

As someone whose first interest in history was the Wars of the Roses, I first came across Horace Walpole through his book Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III, in which he defended the reputation of Richard, including denying popular views that he murdered his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Horace was the rather eccentric son of Britain’s first prime minster, Robert Walpole. He was a historian, collector, social and political commentator, writer, and author. He is perhaps most well known for writing the first gothic novel, and for leaving behind around 7,000 letters, and an account of the historical items in his collection at Strawberry Hill, his house in Twickenham.[1] Strawberry Hill itself is one of the earliest examples of Gothic Revival architecture and reflects Walpole’s interest in the medieval. The unique house was a source of fascination to the polite middle classes who were becoming interested in the country houses of the rich. However, this was not how the building began its life.

Horace Walpole by John Giles Eccardt (1754), © National Portrait Gallery, London

As a younger son, Horace didn’t have his own country seat to use as a summer residence and he looked for the perfect place to convert into one. In 1747, he acquired the site in Twickenham, when it was as a rather ordinary late-seventeenth century cottage called Chopped Straw Hall.[2] It came with 5 acres of land but before long, it expanded to include 46 acres.[3] The beginning of the transformation into the building Horace wished was initially low key. The first mention of any connection to the Gothic was mentioned in a letter from Horace to a friend on the 28th of September 1749, where he mentioned about creating battlements.[4] From then on, the Gothic architecture would be developed by the ‘Committee of Taste’, including Walpole and two of his friends, John Chute and Richard Bentley. Chute had met Walpole on the Grand Tour around Europe and owned his own Tudor Gothic home in Hampshire, whereas Bentley created the drawings and plans based on Walpole and Chute’s ideas.[5] These ideas were mainly inspired by Gothic features seen elsewhere.

E. Rooker, Strawberry Hill near Twickenham (1774), British Library

The rooms created for Strawberry Hill were purposefully created to be an exaggerated and theatrical version of the classic Gothic architecture seen in the medieval period.[6] The style created was from Walpole’s imagination, but had elements that were recognisable as Gothic. It meant that a more theatrical version of the Gothic was created for the brash Georgian era. As what we now call Gothic Revival was in its infancy, there was not yet any set rules for the style. Walpole’s version of this was certainly theatrical and reflected the uniqueness of the objects he collected.[7] The building work, not including the contents, cost £21,000, around £925,000 in today’s money, so it was a rather expensive renovation project.[8]

The collection that was created at Strawberry Hill was a rather random collection almost in the style of a cabinet of curiosities but were collected by Walpole to create a museum to England’s history and heritage, especially time periods that were not seen as fashionable at the time.[9] The Georgians very much focused on items from ancient civilisations like Rome or Greece, but Walpole’s focus was very much on the medieval, right through to the Stuarts in the previous century. Some of the treasured items in his collection included locks of hair of Edward IV and Mary I, a hat that once belonged to Cardinal Wolsey, a comb of Mary Queen of Scots and a watch of George II.[10] The way these items were displayed and described were based on a mixture of “provenance, description, association and imagination”, possibly saying more about Walpole than the items.[11] Despite the criticism this has brought Walpole, both in his own time and now, there is no doubting that he tried to widen the circle of what was worthy to study as history.

Print from: A description of the villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex: with an inventory of the furniture, pictures, curiosities, & c. Strawberry-Hill, printed by Thomas Kirgate, 1784, Rijksmuseum

To create the museum like home he wanted, it was essential for Strawberry Hill was open to the public to see the collections. This is where Walpole’s selectively anti-social behaviour really shone through. Whilst he was open to hosting foreign ambassadors, royalty, and aristocracy, it was the middling classes he found rather annoying.[12] In a letter to Sir Horace Mann dated 30th of July 1783, he wrote of the many visitors coming to Strawberry Hill, which meant he was “tormented all day and every day by people that come to see my house”.[13] He was especially peeved by the visitors who came as an escape from the illnesses circulating in London, suggesting “You see the plague! You are the plague.”[14] In a list of visitors kept for Strawberry Hill between 1784 and 1797, it shows that when the house was open between May and September, around 300 people a year viewed the house.[15]

The tour around the house is not self-guided as we would understand from a county house visit today. They would have been shown round by the housekeeper on a set route. Walpole was often known to hide under his bed when the housekeeper showed groups around.[16] Despite the aggravation these visitors caused, the house was never shut to visitors during Walpole’s lifetime. Perhaps this was partly because these tourists were the reason for his ‘museum’ existing. Instead, he chose to curb their behaviour by only allowing visitors with tickets given out with his signature on to be admitted. From 1784, a page of rules was also given to prospective tourists to ensure they knew the rules they had to follow to gain admittance. First and foremost, anyone applying for a tour would have to give their name and the number in their party, alongside the date they wished to attend. This information would be then given to the housekeeper if Walpole agreed to allow the party around the house.[17] Further rules would also have to be abided by:

  1. The person applying must give at least a day or two’s notice and would only be allowed to be a party of 4 people. Also, only one party to be shown around per day.
  2. The day given on the ticket would be valid for the day shown and if more than 4 people arrived without prior permission, the housekeeper would be allowed to turn them away.
  3. The party could only be shown around between 12 and 3 pm.
  4. No group would be admitted after dinner.
  5. If the ticket couldn’t be used on the date written on it, then prior knowledge must be given so another party could be allowed the opportunity to go.
  6. No children.

These rules may sound strict, but there could be leniency given on all of them other than the no children one, as there was always a strict no children policy.[18]

T. Rowlinson, Temple at Strawberry Hill, from “Sketches from Nature” (1822), Metropolitan Museum

Sadly, after Horace died, the building was left rather neglected and unloved by its owners and the novelty of the building and its contents wore off for visitors, meaning no one really wished to visit as a tourist. As Horace died unmarried, the house went through various distant female relatives. It wasn’t until George, the 7th Earl of Waldegrave inherited it that the building was really hated. He decided to leave the house to ruin and sold off the collection in 1842.[19] It could have ended disastrously for this once unique and popular building if it hadn’t had been for George’s widow, Frances. She had been left a lot of money by George and went on to have another rich husband, meaning she could afford to add extensions to the house in a style like Walpole’s original fantasy Gothic.[20] It is her, alongside the current owners, St Mary’s University College, that we have to thank for the survival of such an unusual, and in my opinion beautiful, building that we can now enjoy.

I have yet to visit Strawberry Hill, but it’s certainly another one to add to my to visit list when things are better and we can travel again. Of particular interest to me is the cottage in the garden that once housed Walpole’s printing press which he used to publish he works from. This printing press was the first one to be privately owned in England, and strangely housed in the only building in the garden that wasn’t built in the Gothic style, instead it was built in traditional Georgian brick. I still wonder what Horace’s thinking was behind that.[21]


[1] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[2] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination: Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill (Oxon: Routledge, 2016), p. xvii.

[3] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, Metropolitan Museum Studies, 5.1 (1934), p. 60.

[4] Cited in Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, p. 62.

[5] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, pp. 63-64.

[6] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, p. 4.

[7] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, p. 4; Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[8] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, p. 60.

[9] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, p. 4.

[10] P. Bains, ‘”All of the House of Forgery”: Walpole. Chatterton and Antiquarian Collecting’, Poetica, 39/40 (1993), cited in Mack, R., ‘Horace Walpole and the Objects of Literary History’, ELH, 75.2 (2008), p. 374.

[11] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, pp. 2-3.

[12] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[13] Cited in Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist: A History of Country House Visiting (London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd, 1998), p. 91.

[14] Cited in Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 91.

[15] Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 92.

[16] Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 92.

[17] Cited in Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 96.

[18] Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, pp. 96 and 98.

[19] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[20] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[21] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, p. 87.

Creation of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is now one of the things to visit in London, but it had a rather rocky first 10 years after it was opened by King George VI on 27th of April 1937. Small scale ideas for some form of national museum to celebrate Britain’s seafaring history had been in circulation since the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905, but none of these stuck until 1927.[1] From 1927, the Society for Nautical Research led a campaign to create some from of a national maritime museum. This was helped by a wealthy member of the Society, Sir James Caird, who purchased a large collection of naval themed items known as the A. G. H. MacPherson collection.[2] Originally, the museum was to be called the National Maritime Museum, as ingeniously thought up by Rudyard Kipling.[3]

Sir James Caird, Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

These acquisitions, alongside items either belonging to, or associated with, Lord Horatio Nelson, which had already been bought for the nation a long time before, formed the beginnings of the museum’s collection. It had built upon the small art gallery that had already been in existence at Greenwich, a former naval hospital similar to its army sister hospital at Chelsea, since the early 1800s.[4] This made Greenwich the perfect place to house the museum. However, the location being chosen, the process of turning the buildings into a museum worthy of the nation’s maritime heritage couldn’t take place until two things had happened. First, the Royal Hospital School, for sons of naval men, that already used the site had to move out, which they did when it moved to Suffolk in 1933; and secondly, an official act passed by Parliament granting the site national status was passed in 1934.[5]

On the 29th of April 1937, the museum officially opened to the public. Around 5,000 people attended on the first day alone, which in a time of financial hardship, was no mean feat.[6] One of the most popular galleries was No. 10, which was dedicated to all things Nelson. Sadly though, less than 3 years after it had opened, the museum had to close its doors at the outbreak of the Second World War.[7] The threat of bombs meant many of the precious items had to be moved outside of London, a decision which proved to be right as the site was bombed many times during the war.

When the museum was finally allowed to reopen at after the end of the war, things had changed very much. Sir Geoffrey Callender, the first Director of the museum, who had been an integral part of the creation of the museum, had recently died, leaving a large hole in the staff.[8] There was also a vacancy on the Board of Trustees, which was filled by the late Prince Philip, then a 27-year-old who was just out of the Navy himself.[9] This was a role he took seriously, not just for his own interests with the navy, but also preserving naval history for future generations, just as with his involvement in saving the Cutty Sark. The role as trustee was one he held until 2000, a total of 52 years. His long legacy with the museum will continue there through the Prince Philip Maritime Collection Centre, where royal maritime collections are held and cutting-edge conservation is practised.

With all the turmoil the National Maritime Museum faced in its first 10 years of life, it’s wonderful to see it thriving now. Sadly though, that isn’t really true with the current pandemic, but I sincerely hope it will last for many more years to come, especially as it’s on my list of places to visit one day when we can go places again.


[1] Littlewood, K. and Butler, B., Of Ships and Stars: Maritime Heritage and the Founding of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (London: The Athlone Press, 1998), p. 24.

[2] Royal Museums Greenwich, History of the National Maritime Museum, https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history

[3] Royal Museums Greenwich, History of the National Maritime Museum, https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history

[4] Royal Museums Greenwich, History of the National Maritime Museum, https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history

[5] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel: The Extraordinary Story of the Lost Diamond Chelengk (Stroud: The History Press, 2017), pp. 230-231.

[6] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel, p. 231.

[7] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel, p. 231.

[8] Littlewood, K. and Butler, B., Of Ships and Stars, p. IX.

[9] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel, p. 232.

Victorian Art Depicting the Poor

Social Realist paintings were created as direct response to the squalid conditions the poor were living in. The theme was short lived, only really lasting in the 1870s. It aimed to protest against the harshness of the Poor Law, which had meant that outdoor relief was cut and relief was centralised to the workhouse.[1] Despite prior attempts to show the plight of the poor and the conditions they lived in, there still remained a reluctance to portray any hardness in the lifestyle surrounding any image of them.[2] There was a fear that poverty had changed its meaning since industrialisation, so there was some desire to portray it in order to gain understanding. However, attempts often felt otherworldly as they sought  to portray the ‘new citizens of the Empire’.[3] The main theme of art from the early nineteenth century onwards was patriotic, portraying national greatness and reaffirming the superiority of middle class contemporary morality.[4] This meant that there was little appeal for paintings depicting the poor as they were seen as undoing national greatness. It was especially evident in the theory suggesting that the condition of people’s bodies reflected the health of the State. If the poor were in ill health, they were living in “conditions which might give rise to social and political unrest.”[5] To outwardly make not of this possibility would undo the State as a whole. For this reason, many portrayals of the poor showed them in a ‘fashionable’ light, where they still had some invisibility or were purposefully kept at a distance from the intended audience. This helped to reinforce the upper classes social standing because they still were able to control the way in which the poor were portrayed.

S. L. Fildes (1844-1927), Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, 1874; Royal Holloway, University of London

In the 1870s, there was a change to the work of some artists, most notably Luke Fildes, known for his famous Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874). It was based on a similar engraving that featured in The Graphic newspaper, which encourage artists to capture real life, especially if it helped make poverty a public rather than private concern.[6] The idea for the painting came from the experiences Fildes had when he first moved to London, and in his own words he described how he would never “forget seeing somewhere near the Portland Road snowy winter’s night the applicants for the admission to a casual ward”.[7] It purposefully painting showed the different types of people who were reliant on this new form of indoor relief by showing the darkness that a life in poverty created.[8] Art critics had a mixed response to the painting. Some believed that it was “the most notable piece of realism” showing “the startling impression off all wayward and unlovely reality” but others saw it as “revolting for an art which should seek to please, refine and elevate” the poor in the eyes of others.[9] Fildes used this painting as a protest against the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which stopped all outdoor relief and centred the relief of the poor only within the workhouse. In terms of the painting, it is a direct condemnation of the indignity many poor had to go through to get help. They would first have to report to a police station in order to gain a night ticket for the workhouse, as seen by the policeman in the far left who is talking to a gentleman who looks like a lost ‘explorer’ of the slum.[10] The people who did manage to get some help were often called the ‘undeserving’ poor, so called as they had to prove they were deserving of relief offered by the parish.

D. G. C. Rossetti, Found, c.1869; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, USA

The ’undeserving’ poor were not allowed help as they were classed as undeserving and were left to fend for themselves. A main category of this type of poverty depicted in art at the time was the fallen woman, a woman who prostituted herself. The image of the fallen woman came to represent the idea of sexual immorality that the middle class believed was rife within the working classes. Female weakness within Victorian art was seen as a way of showing some compassion but not enough to put off a middle-class audience.[11] The Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, used his unfinished painting Found (c.1869), to represent the prostitution that Dickens and Mayhew had already debated about in their writings.[12] The painting depicts a rural man encountering an old lover who had moved to the city and has now become a prostitute. Urbanisation and industrialisation are seen as the reason for her moral ‘affliction’ and is purposefully compared with the righteousness of her rural lover.[13] The loss of rural innocence and her possible fate is symbolised in the calf that has come into the city from a rural life only to be led to slaughter.[14] Women who did not conform to middle class feminine ideals were used by artists because it was able to create more distance between the audience and the poor they depicted. Distance was also created by the frozen sense of drama which Lamborne indicates was a key feature of paintings depicting fallen women.[15]

In contrast to the fallen woman being used metaphorically for the wrongs of the working poor, the masculinity of the labouring man was the metaphor for how the city was able to improve people’s spiritual life. Ford Madox Brown (another Pre-Raphaelite artist) was able to portray moral concerns surrounding the poor in Work, one of the most famous paintings of the Victorian age.Even Brown himself suggested the inspiration for the painting was his belief that labourers were “at least as worthy of the powers of an English painter as the fisherman of the Adriatic, the peasant of the Campagna or the Neapolitan lassarone”, because they were still working, even they were the lowest in society.[16] The navvies who do the main and physical work are seen as heroes who bask in light whereas the aristocracy are in the dark background as they do not participate in work.[17] The street urchin girl at the front also shows a feminine ideal of work as she shows a motherly persona towards her siblings but the red colour of her dress and her exposed shoulders subtly indicate that she has the signs of a future prostitute.[18]

F. M. Brown, Work, 1852-65; Manchester Art Gallery, UK

Despite the good intensions of Social Realism, it was never fashionable as the middle class were the main buyers of art, meaning those depicted would have represented their work force. For this reason, they were not interested in the pity created in the paintings, for the people in them were their capital.[19] Despite the artists hoping to create a realistic portrayal of the poor, the Victorian poor, sentimentality did play a role. With the middle-class audience in mind, an altered image was needed to create a hidden message of social realism. This came in two forms: the idea of the fallen woman, who appealed to the middle class because it did not conform to their feminine ideals, thus distance was created between themselves and the model within the painting; the masculinity of the working poor could also appeal to the middle class connection with work and moral improvement.[20] There also would have been those who purposefully wanted to turn a blind eye, so having a painting of the poor would have been just too close to home for some.


[1] Paxman, J., The Victorians: Britain Through the Paintings of the Age (London: BBC Books, 2009), p. 68; Des Cars, L., The Pre-Raphaelites: Romance and Realism (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 49.

[2] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 63.                                   

[3] Flint, K., The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 156.

[4] D’Arcy Wood, G., ‘Visual Pleasures, Visual States: Art, Entertainment, and the Nation’ in Klancher, J. (ed), A Concise Companion to the Romantic Age (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p. 246; Pulham, P., ‘The Arts’ in Williams, C. (ed), A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007) p. 449.

[5] Flint, K., The Victorians and the Visual Imagination, pp. 152-153.

[6] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 66; Korda, A., Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London: The Graphic and Social Realism, 1869-1891 (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), p. 93.

[7] Fildes cited in Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 69.

[8] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 78.

[9] Art Journal, July 1874 cited in Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 70.

[10] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 68.

[11] Des Cars, L., The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 52.

[12] Des Cars, L., The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 52.

[13] Des Cars, L., The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 52; Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, Second Edition(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 109.

[14] Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, p. 109.

[15] Lamborne, L., Victorian Painting (London: Phiadon Press Limited, 1999), pulp. 375.

[16] Ford Madox Brown cited in Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 81.

[17] Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, pp. 113-114.

[18] Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, p. 115.

[19] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 72; Pulham, P., ‘The Arts’, p. 450.

[20] Korda, A., Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London, p. 94; Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, p. 18.