Thursday, 4 February 2010

Rats and murder in the National Portrait Gallery

by Kathryn Hadley

The National Portrait Gallery announced yesterday, Wednesday February 3rd, the launch of its archive catalogue online. Featuring papers belonging to the various directors of the gallery, minutes of the gallery’s committees, publicity material, press cuttings, as well as records on acquiring, conserving and displaying new portraits, organising and staging exhibitions and managing and developing the building, the archive provides an insight into the history of the gallery since its foundation in 1856.

In a document dated February 26th, 1909, the director of the gallery at the time, James Milner, reports on a murder and suicide in the gallery which occurred two days earlier.

‘A well-dressed elderly man and woman… proceeded towards the end of the East
Wing, where they could have been only a few minutes… when a pistol shot was
heard in that direction… Both were shot through the head… when I arrived the
woman was still living but the man was apparently dead… both were swathed in

Other archived documents include a list of the rats ‘trapped and killed in the Gallery’ during two outbreaks, between 1940 and 1946, giving the date, the place the rat was seen, and who killed it and how. Two rats were, for example, found trapped in the Library. One was ‘speared by Pittock with [a] poker after it had escaped with great excitement’; the second was ‘drowned by Pitkin’.

Records relating to the First and Second World Wars document the efforts of the gallery’s directors to ensure the safety of the nation’s portraits. During the First World War, some portraits stored in the King Edward Building Post Office Tube Station near St Paul’s Cathedral where they were guarded by gallery staff carrying guns; others were stored at Aldwych station. A search for the Second World War yields a series of papers describing the transportation and subsequent storage of the gallery’s portraits at Mentmore stately home in Buckinghamshire.

Papers of former gallery directors include those of Sir Lionel Cust, who was director of the National Portrait Gallery from 1895 to 1909, and Sir Roy Strong. Sir Roy Strong became assistant keeper of the National Portrait Gallery, in 1959, and director eight years later. Aged 32, he became the youngest director of the gallery.

Yesterday’s launch is the culmination of a two-year project and approximately one third of the gallery’s archive has currently been catalogued. Records continue to be added on a daily basis. A month ago, the gallery received a grant from the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives to catalogue the papers of Sir George Scharf (1820-1895), the first Secretary, Keeper and Director of the National Portrait Gallery. His papers cover the first 38 years of the gallery’s existence and are due to be included shortly in the online catalogue.

Sir George Scharf was appointed director in 1857. His papers include around 230 notebooks and sketchbooks, which range from business to personal and family records and document the National Portrait Gallery’s formative years when there was a growing interest in national identity and awareness of the role that portraiture might play in representing British history.

The National Portrait Gallery has also implemented an online catalogue of the Gallery’s library collection, which currently lists almost 10,000 items including published books, periodicals and electronic resources.

To search the archive, visit


- National Portrait Gallery, Long Gallery, 1885 (National Portrait Gallery, London)
- 1909 Gallery Warding Staff (National Portrait Gallery, London)
- War-time portrait store in the Billiard Room at Mentmore House, with wardens, 1940s (National Portrait Gallery, London)

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