In one of those coincidences probably born from being attuned to the subject, whilst I was reading Robert Edsel’s inspiring book The Monuments Men the DCMS announced that it is considering again, in the light of fresh evidence, the provenance of John Constable’s 1824 painting ‘Beaching A Boat, Brighton’, now in the Tate Gallery. Last year (2014) the Spoliation Advisory Panel identified it as being looted during the Second World War and advised its return to the heir of the current pre- Second World War owner; a reminder of the impact of war on heritage and its long-term consequences for the cultural property in question and the individuals who owned them.
The very existence of a Spoliation Advisory Panel, which ‘resolves claims from people or their heirs who lost property during the Nazi era, which is now held in UK national collections’ is a direct consequence of the efforts of a small band of scholars working during the Second World War to save historic items and sites for future generations known as The Monuments Men. This gripping story is ably recorded in Edsel’s book and conveyed quite well in the recent Hollywood film. The threat to the ruins of the Roman city of Leptis Magna in Libya reported at the end of 2014 is a contrast to, and a reminder of, the efforts taken by two of these Monuments Men. John Ward Perkins & Mortimer Wheeler, amongst Britain’s greatest mid-20th archaeologist, struggled successfully to protect the ruins at Leptis Magna in 1943 during the North African campaigns.
Yet despite the existence of the Spoliation Advisory Panel the UK has still to ratify the UNESCO Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed Conflict. This document is designed to protect looted antiquities, art, books and archives from sale or destruction. The convention dates back to 1954 and is a direct consequence of the work of the Monument Men. Though the need for UK ratification has been raised by many bodies on numerous occasions, such as following the occupation of Iraq in 2004, the UK government remains, according to the Council for British Archaeology, ‘one of the few powers with an interventionist foreign policy not to have ratified the convention.’ As a letter to The Times of London calling for ratification, published on 19th February 2015 and signed by four leading UK archaeologists including Dr Mike Heyworth the Director of the CBA, notes ‘A draft Bill was scrutinised [by the UK Parliament] in 2008 and needs only minor amendment to be passed into law.’
Whether the Constable painting is found to be looted or not, the spirt of the Monuments Men lives on amongst our heritage community. Looking at the recent reports on the devastation of the crusader castle of Krak de Chevaliers in Syria and the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq, it’s an international spirit that will be needed when the long conflicts in those countries have ended. In the words of George Stout, the inspiration behind the Second World War Monuments Men, written in a 1942 pamphlet entitled Protection of Monuments: A Proposal for Consideration During War and Rehabilitation, and still relevant in the early 21st century:
‘In areas torn by bombardment and fire are monuments cherished by the people of those countrysides or towns: churches, shrines, statues, pictures, many kinds of works. Some may be destroyed; some damaged. All risk further injury, looting or destruction … To safeguard these things will not affect the course of battles, but it will affect the relations of invading armies with those peoples and [their] governments … To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind. To safeguard these things is part of the responsibility that lies on the governments of the United Nations. These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man’s creative power. They are expressions of faith, and they stand for man’s struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God.’