In August 1939, with Britain on the brink of war with Germany, the National Gallery was instructed to close its doors and start moving its paintings to safety. Objecting to the Trustees’ suggestion that the collection be shipped to Canada, the Director, thirty-six- year- old Kenneth Clark, wrote immediately to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who replied: ‘Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island.’ 

The paintings were initially sent to different places across the country, but by the summer of 1940 the intensity of the bombing raids meant that more secure storage had to be found. The Manod quarry, a remote slate mine on the hillside above Blaenau Ffestiniog in north Wales, was identified as a suitable location. It contained a cave system two hundred feet underground that ran deep into the mountain, offering enough space to house the entire collection. 

Over the next year, brick storerooms for the pictures were constructed within the largest underground chambers and 5,000 tons of rock were removed to enlarge the entrance tunnel.  The paintings were brought to Manod by rail and road; for the largest works, such as Van Dyck’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles 1st, a triangular-shaped crate known as the ‘Elephant Case’ was constructed and accounts describe how the road beneath the railway bridge at Blaenau Ffestiniog had to be hollowed out to allow it to fit through. By September 1942, all of the National Gallery’s paintings had been moved underground. 

Despite the secrecy surrounding activities at Manod, locals were employed to help look after the site and some National Gallery staff accommodated nearby. Assistant Keeper, Martin Davies, undertook much of his catalogue research during the four years that the paintings were in the mine, where they were easily accessible for close examination. The natural climate within the caves created perfect conditions for the paintings, and information gathered during this time was to prove valuable for future conservation research. 

These recent photographs show the interior of Manod, the now abandoned slate mine in Snowdonia, where the National Gallery stored its paintings for safety during the Second World War. Evoking feelings of wonder and claustrophobia, the images convey the way in which these subterranean spaces have been reclaimed by the mountain. Avalanches of slate overwhelm the brick structures on which great masterpieces once hung, and water floods the cavernous chambers, once busy with people.

Over the last decade, Robin Friend’s work has focused on the pathos and mystery of this underground sanctuary and other abandoned mines in north Wales. Often working in complete darkness, with only the aid of a handheld torch, he uses ropes, harnesses and inflatable dinghies to obtain the right shot. His work discloses our uneasy relationship with the natural world as well as conveying the magic of the enclosed and labyrinthine world beneath our feet. 

by Dr Minna Moore Ede, National Gallery curator