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British art experts who saved treasures during WWII were not impressed by 'uncultured' US curators


British art experts who saved priceless Italian manuscripts during World War Two held a snooty view of their ‘uncultured’ US colleagues, newly unearthed letters show.

The achievements of the 345 men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) in rescuing cultural treasures damaged or looted by the Nazis was brought to life in George Clooney’s 2014 film The Monuments Men.

Now research by Juliette Desplat of the National Archives has highlighted the work of four colleagues at Britain’s Public Records Office (PRO), Hilary Jenkinson, Humphrey Brooke, Roger Ellis and Harry Bell, and the ‘Herculean’ task they set upon. 

Though the exploits of the MFAA, set up in 1943 at the instigation of US curators, are well known, the work of the four British archivists has largely gone under the radar.

Jenkinson, Brooke, Ellis and Bell regularly risked their lives, as their work required them to operate near the front – making them vulnerable to shelling. 

They often moved with the advancing Allied forces so they could ‘pick up what [they knocked] down’, and entered the city of Bologna on the first day it was liberated. 

Dr Desplat has now uncovered their unsung work, and their sniffy opinion of their American peers, who they believed were ‘without a trace of cultural background’. 

The achievements of the 345 men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) in rescuing cultural treasures damaged or looted by the Nazis was brought to life in George Clooney's 2014 film The Monuments Men (pictured, Clooney with Matt Damon)

The achievements of the 345 men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) in rescuing cultural treasures damaged or looted by the Nazis was brought to life in George Clooney’s 2014 film The Monuments Men (pictured, Clooney with Matt Damon)

Research by Juliette Desplat of the National Archives has highlighted the work of four colleagues at Britain's Public Records Office (PRO), Hilary Jenkinson (pictured), Humphrey Brooke, Roger Ellis and Harry Bell, and the 'Herculean' task they set upon

Research by Juliette Desplat of the National Archives has highlighted the work of four colleagues at Britain’s Public Records Office (PRO), Hilary Jenkinson (pictured), Humphrey Brooke, Roger Ellis and Harry Bell, and the ‘Herculean’ task they set upon

American soldiers examine some of the art collection looted by the Nazis and Hermann Goering, near Berchtesgaden, Germany, 1945

American soldiers examine some of the art collection looted by the Nazis and Hermann Goering, near Berchtesgaden, Germany, 1945

In a blog post, she described their impression of William McCain, the first American archivist to arrive in Italy, with Brooke, 30, lamenting: ‘He was a trifle dismaying at first… He is not quite what one is used to in our profession.

‘It appears that the American Archivist can flourish like some lone palm in the desert – without a trace of cultural background.

He was, the Oxford graduate continued, ‘as remote from the European tradition as a native of the Solomon Islands’ but ‘a very decent chap’.  

Ellis, a 34-year-old former Classics student at Cambridge, was also unimpressed, commenting snootily: ‘Latin and French he once studies a bit at College’.

Dr Desplat also discovered that they had to expend energy to preserve papers from ‘souvenir-hunting’ by Allied comrades. 

The scholar describes how Brooke, 30, complained that ‘the intelligence agents simply removed certain things’ after visiting the Rocca delle Caminate, a medieval castle used by Mussolini as a summer residence, in 1944. 

Clooney pictured with Bill Murray, Sam Epstein and Bob Balaban in The Monuments Men

Clooney pictured with Bill Murray, Sam Epstein and Bob Balaban in The Monuments Men

Archivists holding a tray of looted art treasures hidden by the Nazis during World War Two

Archivists holding a tray of looted art treasures hidden by the Nazis during World War Two 

Jenkinson arrived in Italy at the start of 1944, and visited some 70 archives across the country, Dr Desplat – head of modern collections at the National Archives – wrote.

He found many records to be in a poor state, writing after one visit: ‘A building had been damaged and nothing had been done (…); the Archivist had disappeared and no one had taken his place; some thousands of volumes had become wet and no steps had been taken to dry them; and so forth’. 

Jenkinson went on to draw up a comprehensive list of Italian archives, with the aim of protecting them from Allied bombing, theft by occupying troops and ‘the indiscreet use of Modern Archives by Intelligence Officers and others’. 

Archives, he warned, ‘are not necessarily old or beautiful, though they often may be’. ‘Whether they date from (…) early periods or from the present day… all are in some sense unique and therefore irreplaceable’. 

Jenkinson returned Britain in the summer of 1944, leaving the protection of the Italian archives in the hands of trusted colleagues: Brooke, Ellis and Bell. 

He received many letters from the trio describing their experiences. 

Archivists carrying three paintings and walking through Neuschwanstein Castle at Fussen

Archivists carrying three paintings and walking through Neuschwanstein Castle at Fussen

PFC Tony Baea of the U.S. First Army, holding a Rubens painting looted by the Nazis and one of many valuable works found in an underground cave in Siegen, Germany

PFC Tony Baea of the U.S. First Army, holding a Rubens painting looted by the Nazis and one of many valuable works found in an underground cave in Siegen, Germany

Ellis described how, during one visit, he found ‘an immense heap of white dust with no documents visible at all’.

The task was long and difficult, Ellis wrote, but ‘this is the greatest fun and I have had many adventures already’. 

Concluding her blog, Dr Desplat wrote: ‘The role Jenkinson, Brooke, Ellis, and Bell played in the preservation of the European cultural heritage, and in the understanding of contemporary events, was absolutely vital. 

‘These men were archival heroes.’ She told The Times: ‘You don’t necessarily associate archivists with a sense of humour, especially in the 1940s, but the letters also show that they had a great sense of humour.’

Biographies of MFAA members can be read at the Monuments Men Foundation website at monumentsmenfoundation.org.

‘The greatest treasure hunt of all time’: The incredible true story behind George Clooney’s the Monuments Men 

Clooney pictured with Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville in the well-known 2014 movie

Clooney pictured with Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville in the well-known 2014 movie

Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) was set up at the instigation of US curators and Franklin Roosevelt in a bid to protect European culture and art from the ravages of war and looting by the Nazis.

Dubbed the Monuments Men, the rag-tag group was co-opted into the armed forces and sent into Europe following D-Day in 1944 on the greatest treasure hunt of all time, to recover and return the pieces of art to their rightful owners and reverse the cultural attack of an entire continent.  

The fascinating tale of the roughly 345 men and women from 14 countries who were part of the Monuments Men was given the Hollywood treatment in the shape of a George Clooney film in 2014. 

Based on the book, ‘The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History’ by Robert M. Edsel, Clooney plays Lieutenant Commande George Stout – who has to train his aesthetes in the art of war as they risk their lives to protect western cultural wealth from Hitler.

The story of the Monuments Men only came to light when Edel, rich from the sale of his Dallas oil and gas company, found himself standing in the art-drenched Italian city of Florence.

Standing on the city’s famous medieval covered bridge — the Ponte Vecchio — he began to contemplate how so many famous sites and works of art in Europe survived the destruction of World War II.

Matt Damon with Cate Blanchett in George Clooney's 2014 movie The Monuments Men

Matt Damon with Cate Blanchett in George Clooney’s 2014 movie The Monuments Men

With the answer, Edsel, the businessman who had developed a love for art, found a mission: ‘Honoring and continuing the work the Monuments Men, a group from Western Allied countries made up mostly of those with an art expertise who worked with the military to protect cultural treasures as battles were waged and, in the years after the war, returned works of art to their rightful owners.  

‘Among the items U.S. soldiers seized from Adolf Hitler’s Bavarian Alps hideaway in the closing days of World War II were albums meticulously documenting an often forgotten Nazi crime — the massive pillaging of artwork and other cultural items as German troops marched through Europe.

Two of those albums — one filled with photographs of works of art, the other with snapshots of furniture — were donated Tuesday to the U.S. National Archives, which now has custody of 43 albums in a set of what historians believe could be as high as 100.

Edsel, founder and president of the Dallas-based Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, which announced the discovery of the two new albums at a news conference, called them ‘key pieces of evidence taken from a crime scene that were prized possessions of Adolf Hitler.’

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