Leonardo da Vinci Returns To Wales 70 Years After WWII Evacuation

By Culture24 Staff | 14 January 2009
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National Museum Wales. Courtesy National Museuum Wales

Ten rare Leonardo da Vinci sketches have returned to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth 70 years after their last visit and this time they are on display to the public.

The pieces were some of a huge range of artefacts and works of art that were evacuated to The National Library of Wales during the Second World War for safekeeping.

Plans for the evacuation began in 1933 when the Right Hon. W A Ormsby-Gore (later Lord Harlech), in his role as Commissioner of Works in Stanley Baldwin’s Government, gathered all the major institutions together to enquire about their plans for an evacuation.

In 1934 the secretary of the British Museum, Dr Arundell Esdaile wrote to The National Library of Wales asking if it would look after the collections for the duration of the war.

Within hours of the declaration of war in 1939 collections were crated up and transported to Wales – The British Museum alone sent more than 25 crates weighing more than 90 tonnes.

The library made the decision to construct a special cave to ensure that the most precious pieces were protected from any bombs dropped by German planes during raids.

Other artists keeping da Vinci company in the caves were Blake and Turner as well as fellow Italians Michelangelo, Raphael and del Pimbo. Conditions in the cave were carefully monitored to make sure none of the pieces were damaged.

Rare books including the Authorized Versions, the Folios and Quartos of Shakespeare, Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress were also kept safe in the cave.

a black and white photograph of an underground passageway

Entrance to the uderground hiding place of the Da Vinci sketches. Courtesy National Museuum Wales

According to Jacob Leveen, Deputy Keeper, Department of Oriental Printed books and Manuscripts of The British Museum, who accompanied the museums collections to Aberystwyth, “The Torch of learning was far from being extinguished in Aberystwyth.

“It was a pleasure to work under such admirable conditions in one of the most beautifully situated and appointed Libraries in the world… it is pleasant to recall the harmony and goodwill that prevailed between staff of the British Museum and their opposite numbers in The National Library.”

Sir William Llywelyn Davies, the Library’s war time Librarian, said that providing a safe-house during Britain’s hour of need was “a form of National Service which it was a privilege to render in the years of crisis by caring for and preserving some of Britain’s artistic and cultural treasures.”

By May 1946 all material housed in the Library during the war was returned by rail to their collective institutions and the Library cave has remained empty ever since.

The Ten Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci: An Exhibition to Celebrate the Sixtieth Birthday of HRH The Prince of Wales will be showing until February 7 2009 at The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

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