I have been reading a very interesting book by Gaynor Kavanagh, Museums and the First World War published by Leicester University Press, the product no doubt of Leicester’s excellent Museum Studies Programme.
Gaynor Kavanagh’s book is an interesting parallel to what I have been researching about how institutions such as zoos and botanic gardens survived the challenges of both world wars. Staffing challenges and casualties, evacuation of collections, closure or requisition of buildings, air raid precautions and damage – there are many similarities between the wartime stories of museums and zoos, or between galleries and botanic gardens and other ‘places of entertainment’.
Describing them all as places of entertainment seems a little frivolous. However as the zoologists at London Zoo or botanists at Kew, camoufleur artists from galleries and the art world or geologists and scientists from museum collections found, they often had extremely useful skills in wartime ranging from geology to sanitation, cryptic camouflage to food production, pest control to code-breaking and intelligence work.
Early on in my research I read the story of how Britain’s Art Treasures were hidden away underground, whilst more recently I have been reading Gerri Chanel’s remarkable story Saving Mona Lisa about how the treasures of the French museums and galleries (including the Mona Lisa) were saved and hidden in occupied France during WW2. A staff war memorial for the Musee Nationaux casualties exists in Galerie Denon, Louvre for both WW 1 and WW2
Sadly one recurrent theme across many sites, especially in the First World War, was the casualty lists.
One of the Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery staff, its director Gilbert Ramsay, was another 1915 casualty at Gallipoli. The previous director James Paton, who had retired in 1914 aged 71, stepped back into the post until 1919.
Lance Corporal Gilbert Anderson Ramsay, No. 2253 died in Gallipoli on 12 July 1915 aged 35, serving with the 6th Battalion (City of Glasgow) Highland Light Infantry (Territorials) in Gallipoli.
He has no known grave and is remebered on Panel 174 of the Helles Memorial to the missing of the Gallipoli campaign. The Additional Information listed by CWGC describes him as the “son of Mr. G. A. Ramsay, of Glenlee, Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire. A Director of Glasgow Art Galleries.”
Ramsay also features on the Glasgow Art Club war memorial, pictured here: http://warmemscot.s4.bizhat.com/warmemscot-ntopic3063.html
and on the Glasgow School of Art War Memorial where he was a student.
De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour gives further biographical details: Born on 7 June 1880 in Greenock, educated at Greenock Academy and Glasgow School of Art before becoming an architect. He was director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery from 1911-14, before being appointed to be Superintendent (Director) of Glasgow Corporation Art Galleries in May 1914. By Oct 1914 he had enlisted and arrived in Gallipoli in May (medal card says July) 1915. He was killed “whilst charging with his regiment” on 12 July 1915.
Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ blog A Historian’s Tears notes of Ramsay’s involvement with the Toynbee Hall university settlement in the East End, during his Whitechapel Gallery years.
“Most of these men were unmarried and childless. As the obituary of Gilbert Anderson Ramsay commented on his death in July 1915 ‘he was struck by a shell, and instantly killed. So died, in his thirty-sixth year, childless and unmarried, one of the most gifted, and surely one of the most lovable of Toynbee men’. Ramsay was instrumental in the decorative schemes of Toynbee in the Edwardian period and he worked tirelessly at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. His weekend jaunts with fellow settlers to Essex were remembered with fondness together with his ability to cook chops. For Francis Gordon Shirreff, Ramsay’s death forced him to ‘look upon an empty world’ and ask ‘Can anything, however, high and holy, repay the loss of such a life? So we ask ourselves in our utter desolation? But the measure of our loss, is in reality, the measure of our reply. All we loved is in the dust: all we loved has laid it there’ (December 1915)…
His time at Whitechapel Art Gallery http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/about/history/ was at an interesting and exciting time for British art:
“However, in 1914 proposals for an exhibitian of Twentieth Century Art, organised by Aitken and Gilbert Ramsey, who had become Director when Aitken moved to the Tate, caused Henrietta Barnett to write to plead with them “not to get too many examples of the extreme thought of this century, for we must never forget that the Whitechapel Gallery is intended for Whitechapel people, who have to be delicately led and will not understand the Post impressionist or futuristic methods of seeing or representing things”
Letter to Ramsay by Barnett, 7 Feb 1914 (Whitechapel Art Gallery archives) Quoted from the Passmore Edwards website. http://www.passmoreedwards.org.uk/pages/history/Libraries/Whitechapel%20art%20gallery/history%202.htm
This 20th Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements summer exhibition did eventually open at Whitechapel Art Gallery from 8 May to 20 June 1914, by which time Ramsay was heading for Glasgow. Just over a year later Ramsay was dead at Gallipoli. The Toynbee Art Club exhibitions ran from 1911 to 1915 and then continued postwar.
The 20th Century Art summer exhibition is widely covered in many books including an article (11) by Juliet Steyn p. 212. – 230 entitled “Inside Out: Assumptions of ‘English Modernism’ in the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Summer 1914” in Art Apart: Art Institutions and Ideology Across England and North America (edited By Marcia R. Pointon) and also London, Modernism, and 1914 by Michael J. K. Walsh.
The tiny number of paintings in the exhibition by the few Futurists and Cubist artists received disproportionate coverage out the 494 works of art featured, but these featured artists such as Bomberg, Nevinson and Wyndham-Lewis are now seen by some as prophetic of and highly influenced by the coming war. Their war art regularly features in visual representations of the dehumanised battlefield, industrial slaughter and mechanised warfare of the First World War.
Gilbert Ramsay, art gallery curator, remembered amongst the dead of Gallipoli.
Posted by: Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo, World War Zoo Gardens project
In future blog posts I will feature the British Museum staff war memorial names starting this centenary anniversary with the death this week in 1915 of E. George Gentry.