The complex history of "War's greatest picture" - St Paul's in the Blitz

The photo of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral during an air-raid on London, one of the defining images of Britain at war, was taken 75 years ago, on 29 December 1940. New research by a Swansea University historian reveals the remarkable and complex history of this picture, and the many uses to which it has been put.

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Picture: Herbert Mason’s photograph:  version held by the Imperial War Museum.   Courtesy, Imperial War Museum.  This picture, altered to focus more on the dome and less on the ruins, featured on the front page of the Daily Mail on 31 December 1941, with the headline:  “War’s Greatest Picture: St Paul’s Stands Unharmed in the Midst of the Burning City”.

Dr Tom Allbeson, a cultural historian at Swansea University, argues that the history of this picture illustrates the crucial role of images in forming cultural memory; he calls on fellow historians to pay more attention to this process, and to move photography from the margins of historical research and place it at the centre.

Ask Dr Allbeson about the picture: see below
The picture was taken by photographer Herbert Mason on 29 December 1940, as waves of German bombs fell on London during the Blitz.   It was first published in the Daily Mail on 31 December, with the caption “War’s Greatest Picture; St Paul’s Stands Unharmed in the Midst of the Burning City”.
Yet the history of the picture is far more complex than this now-familiar interpretation might suggest.  Its many uses show its “adaptability” and “ambiguity”, argues Dr Allbeson.
Dr Allbeson’s research, published in the Journal of Modern History, shows:
•         Whilst the Daily Mail, followed by other British publications, used the picture to suggest resilience and defiance, the German media used it to show the scale of the devastation.
•         Mason’s original picture was modified by the Daily Mail; it was cropped to focus more attention on the dome, and less on the ruins around it; there is evidence that brush strokes were added to the bombed-out windows to suggest flames.
•         That the photograph was not simply “war’s greatest picture”, but also an important symbol in debates about post-war reconstruction; this evoked the history of the cathedral itself, which was built after the Great Fire of London of 1666 had decimated the city.

Famous names associated with the picture include the author J B Priestley, who wrote a book called “Britain Under Fire”, and American photographer Lee Miller, who took pictures for a book called “Grim Glory”: both publications featured versions of Mason’s picture on the cover.

St Paul - German paper smallPicture: Mason’s photograph used on the front cover of German newspaper, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (Berlin Illustrated Times), 23 January 1941.  The caption reads:  “The City of London burns.”  Courtesy, Deutsche NationalBibliothek, Axel Springer.

Dr Allbeson said:
“Mason’s photograph, the building and the bombing raid have become emblematic of both the British Blitz experience and the bombing war in Europe.
Through photography, St Paul’s under fire became a defining image in London, Britain and beyond for many more people than had seen it with their own eyes.
Yet in the very act of representing, photographs produce ways of seeing and thinking about their subject.  
This can be seen in the contrasting uses of the picture in the British and German newspapers at the time.
It can also be seen in its use in debates about post-war reconstruction, which are now all but forgotten.   In our day, the picture is most often mobilised to generate a nostalgic faith in past achievements rather than evoking creative potential for the future. That creative potential which characterised the post-war reconstruction, although much criticised today in the guise of modern architecture and town planning, delivered major step-changes for British society like the NHS.

Mason's photograph - though you wouldn't know it today - played a part in cultivating that post-war spirit of innovation and improved social provision.”

Dr Allbeson added that the history of Mason’s picture shows the need for historians to study photographs as much as other material:
“Images are as much agents of history as are ideas, institutions and individuals.
Iconic photographs should therefore be a pressing concern for historians, especially with the much wider spread of visual material because of the internet.
We need to move photography from the margins of historical research and writing on contemporary Europe and place it instead at the centre.”
Read Dr Allbeson's article in the Journal of Modern History

History and Classics at Swansea University

Find out more about St Paul's Cathedral

St Pauls cathedral logoExpert Dr Tom Allbeson answers questions about ‘war’s greatest picture’ - in conjunction with St Paul's Cathedral

To mark the 75th anniversary, cultural historian Dr Tom Allbeson offered the chance to answer questions about the image.  Questions were sent in via Twitter and Facebook, with Dr Allbeson responding.

Dr Allbeson explains how the image created emotional bonds with people:

‘To a British audience, the building was … a visual token of nothing short of civilisation itself’

He states that St Paul’s was ‘perfectly suited to being a significant wartime symbol’ as:

•    A place of worship, whose destruction would be sacrilege
•    A symbol of London as the capital of the  British Empire
•    An emblem of the Great Fire of 1666 - from which it had arisen as a phoenix

Swansea University academic Dr Allbeson is working on a book on photography and European cities from 1945-1961. Dr Allbeson notes that images can be just as influential as people, ideas or institutions.

He argues: ‘Photography has infiltrated every aspect of human experience’ and so contemporary history cannot be properly explained without considering photography. Press photos convey ideas, attitudes and values to large audiences.

Twenty eight bombs fell on St Paul’s on 29 December 1940, and Herbert Mason took three photographs The Daily Mail published the image – cropped and edited, with visible brushstrokes for fire.

While Britain saw the photograph as a symbol of civilisation and defiance, German media portrayed it as showing destruction.