100 firefighters save Royal Academy artworks

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Hundreds of Old Master paintings worth millions of pounds were moved to safety by a human chain of firefighters last night after fire broke out in the Royal Academy in London.

More than 100 firemen from across the capital fought the blaze at the Academy's home, Burlington House in Piccadilly. They managed to prevent it devastating this year's entries for the famous Summer Exhibition, which are currently being hung, although one oil painting and two architectural models were destroyed, and an unspecified number of drawings and paintings damaged.

But the firemen then had to cope with the threat posed by the water they had used to the Academy's permanent collection, much of which had been moved to a basement storeroom to make way for the exhibition. Works by Gainsborough, Constable and Turner were among canvases brought out by white-gloved firefighters.

The Academy, Britain's most historic private art institute, had come close to disaster, said its secretary, David Gordon. "Obviously any fire in a gallery such as this is a potential disaster," he said. "It is impossible to put a figure on the value of the pictures that could have been at risk. Fortunately we have a very tried and tested fire safety routine in place here and I'm delighted to report that it operated smoothly when it was required to."

The Summer Exhibition would be going ahead as planned next month, he said.

The fire broke out in the roof space above the two galleries where the exhibition is being held shortly after 8pm, sending a huge column of thick black smoke into the sky above the West End. Frank Whitford, who arranged the George Grosz exhibition currently showing at the Royal Academy, said he was devastated by the news. "The Royal Academy is at a time when it frankly needs no further problems. It is in dire financial straits, is just recovering from massive fraud and it is in a state of administrative flux with some of the old guard resistant to the new regime," he said.