Capital City

War's Greatest Picture/St Paul's Survives

Herbert Mason

War's Greatest Picture/St Paul's Survives

Vintage Gelatin Silver Print

19 x 24 cms (7.47 x 9.43 ins)

1940

HC 10263

Rare vintage print of the most famous image of the Blitz.

St Paul's Survives was taken in London during the night raid of 29th/30th December 1940, the 114th night of the Blitz of World War II. In the early hours of Monday morning, photographer Herbert Mason positioned on the roof of the Daily Mail building on Tudor Street, just off Fleet Street, took this image of St Paul's Cathedral surrounded by the smoke of burning buildings.

Mason later recalled: "I focused at intervals as the great dome loomed up through the smoke... The glare of many fires and sweeping clouds of smoke kept hiding the shape. Then a wind sprang up. Suddenly, the shining cross, dome and towers stood out like a symbol in the inferno. The scene was unbelievable. In that moment or two, I released my shutter."

The photograph became one of the most famous of the Second World War as a symbol of British resilience and courage. During the raid when the photograph was shot, more than 160 people died, over 500 were injured, and hundreds of buildings were destroyed in what became known as the Second Great Fire of London. This iconic work is discussed in Jeremy Paxman's The English (1998). Paxman refers to it as "the best known picture of the Blitz, the picture that told the British people they would never be beaten... this sense of being uniquely persecuted and uniquely guarded."

The photograph first appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail newspaper on 31st December 1940 captioned 'War's Greatest Picture. St Pauls stands unharmed in the midst of the burning city'. The paper went on to describe it as "a picture that all Britain will cherish - for it symbolises the steadiness of London's stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong."

It was subsequently appropriated by the German Press for the opposite reason, as a demonstration of the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe's intensive bombing campaign. The front cover of the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung of 23 January 1941 showed Mason's picture with the triumphant headline "The City of London Burns!"

A subtle but percepible difference between the reproduction of the photograph, as it appeared in England and in Germany, reinforced the message each country sought to convey to its readers. In Britain, the Daily Mail cropped the image and darkened it to emphaise the presence of St Paul's and to veil the destruction of the surrounding buildings, whilst in the German press a different cropping and a lighter printing of the photograph made more explicit the foreground damage and the skeletal forms of numerous destroyed buildings. (see additional images).

Despite the proliferation of images showing the aftermath of the bombing raids, Mason's photograph quickly became the definitive image of the Blitz. Despite the appearance of the image in Germany, for the British, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself recognised, the survival of St Paul's Cathedral, despite the heavy bombing, was a morale boost and this widely disseminated picture embodied this message.

In this context it is significant that it was chosen for inclusion in the exhibition Britain at War at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1942 and was illustrated min mthe accompanying 98 page publication. Once more the propagandist dimension was explicit, even overt, as the press release from MoMA makes clear: "As a demonstration of how a nation's artists can be used in national defense, the Museum believes this exhibition may prove useful to our own government. It has been arranged with the cooperation of Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery in London, who has been in charge of selecting and assembling the paintings from England... The exhibition has been directed and installed by Monroe Wheeler, recently appointed Director of Exhibitions and Publications of the Museum. In addition to paintings, watercolors and drawings, the exhibition includes sections devoted to camouflage, photographs, cartoons, posters and wartime industrial and architectural forms."

The publication developes this argument with Monroe Wheeler writing: "The honor the British have done their artists in summoning them to a particular role in the national defense may provide for us an object-lesson at a time when our own government is beginning the various enrollment of its citizens. No one pretends any more that international political issues and armed conflict are none of the artist's business. Like another man, he may be required to fight, and if his country loses, he may lose all that makes art possible. It would be tragic neglect, on the other hand, for anyone to be indifferent to the arts and the fate of artists in these times... "


British Photography / The Hyman Collection

Herbert Mason

War's Greatest Picture/St Paul's Survives

Vintage Gelatin Silver Print

19 x 24 cms (7.47 x 9.43 ins)

1940

HC 10263

All images © the artist or copyright holder | Website © The Hyman Collection 2019