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Rats, Murder and Secret Wartime Bunkers...Archive Goes Online
Photograph showing the war-time portrait store in the Billiard Room at Mentmore House, with warders, 1940s. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The National Portrait Gallery has launched its archive catalogue on the web, revealing to a wider audience fascinating stories about the Gallery's activities since it was founded in 1856. An Edwardian murder and suicide in the public galleries, an outbreak of rats and the extraordinary lengths directors went to in order to ensure the safety of the nation's portraits during the First and Second World Wars are among the discoveries available at the click of a button.

The launch of the online archive today is the culmination of a two-year project to catalogue previously unseen material. It comes a month after the Gallery's award of £17,909 from the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives to catalogue the papers of its first director Sir George Scharf (1820-1895).

The Scharf papers will join those of other former Gallery directors, such as Sir Lionel Cust and Sir Roy Strong, already available in the new online archive catalogue. It includes records on acquiring, conserving and displaying portraits, organising and staging exhibitions and constructing, managing and developing the building.

The catalogue reveals what happened to the Gallery in times of national crisis. During the First World War, some portraits were stored in the King Edward Building Post Office Tube Station, close to St Paul's Cathedral, where they were guarded by Gallery staff carrying guns.

A search for "Second World War" yields details of the Collection's transportation and subsequent storage in a Buckinghamshire stately home:

If you've ever wanted to know about the rat-killing activities of Gallery warding staff in the 1940s (which seem to have been undertaken with some vigour) there are precise details of location of discovery, the staff members unfortunate enough to stumble across them and even the method of dispatch!

Correspondence from Sir Roy Strong's official papers offers a glimpse into the revolutionary look and style of the Gallery's first photographic exhibition in the 1960s. The landmark Cecil Beaton retrospective of 1968 left visitors intrigued by its accompanying innovations. ('Is it too much to ask,' wrote one visitor to the exhibition of photographs, 'that if you continue this adventurous policy, it can be done with pictures simply set, on a plain wall, without music, without joss-sticks, without flashguns; without, in fact, trying to stage a "happening"?')

One of the most bizarre stories to be documented is the 1909 tragedy in which an elderly man shot a woman and then himself in one of the galleries minutes after they had been seen looking at portraits together. The event is recorded in minute detail with particular importance being attached to the need to wash away the blood stains which 'badly marked the floor over the whole distance' that the woman's body had been carried in order to get her to hospital.

The catalogue, which currently comprises over 15,000 file-level descriptions containing information about all types of records, including letters, x-rays, videos, posters, press-cuttings, minutes and reports as well as photographs. Approximately one third of the Gallery's Archive has been catalogued: records continue to be added on a regular basis. While the new online facility is a catalogue of the Archive and not its entire contents, visitors can make an appointment to see any of the documents listed at the Gallery's Heinz Archive and Library.

Among the most important papers soon to be included are those of Sir George Scharf, the first Secretary, Keeper and Director of the National Portrait Gallery. A recent grant to catalogue his papers by the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives has enabled the Gallery to recruit for an Archivist. Further details can be found on the Gallery's website.

Sir George Scharf was appointed in 1857, shortly after the Gallery was founded. His papers cover the first 38 years of the institution's existence. They document its formative years, during which period there was a growing interest in national identity and awareness of the role that portraiture might play in representing British history.

The papers comprise business, personal and family records. They include, in particular, some 230 notebooks and sketchbooks, in which Scharf made detailed notes and meticulous drawings of portraits, people and places including Winston Churchill as a baby, Coventry before it was bombed and Wellington's funeral. They also include Scharf's observations on British private and public art collections.

As well as the Archive, the Gallery has implemented an online catalogue of its library collection ( The library catalogue records all published books, periodicals and electronic resources acquired by the Heinz Archive & Library since 1994, and it currently lists and describes nearly 10,000 items. Additional records for older acquisitions are added daily as the department moves forward with a three-year retrospective cataloguing project. Subject areas that receive the greatest use are being catalogued first and the working library of Sir George Scharf will be catalogued before the end of 2010.

The National Portrait Gallery | Sir George Scharf | Sir Lionel Cust | Sir Roy Strong |

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