A brush with life in exile

During the Second World War, German and Austrian artists fleeing to Britain were held in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. A show at Tate Britain reveals how they created a cultural haven behind barbed wire. By Audrey Ward

23 December 2012
The Sunday Times Magazine

The Sunday Times Magazine 12.2.2012 Seventy years ago, on a speck of land in the middle of the Irish Sea, Freddy Godshaw, a Jewish teenager from Hanover, befriended a circus impresario and lion-tamer known as Neunzer. Godshaw, now 89, remembers him as a fascinating character. “He had been to Africa to catch the animals before actually training them. He always carried a little lasso and, for a party trick, he used to pick flowers with the lasso.”

The two men were German refugees who, in July 1940, met behind barbed wire in Hutchinson Camp, one of several camps on the Isle of Man. By then, France had fallen to Germany and the British Army had been evacuated from Dunkirk. Growing suspicious of the Austrian and German nationals living in the country, the British government had called for almost 27,000 of these “enemy aliens” to be interned. “Collar the lot,” declared the prime minister, Winston Churchill. It appeared that Godshaw, who had escaped to Britain five weeks before the start of the war, and his German friend had swapped one form of restriction for another.

The interns were crammed, 30 men per building, into Edwardian terraced houses on a hill behind the promenade in Douglas, the barbed wire doubling as their washing line. In his new home, Neunzer wanted to dispel the gloom created by the blue-tinted windows and orange light bulbs, which had been painted to prevent bright light being seen from the air.

Using a razor blade, he scraped a series of animal drawings out of the paint so that from his window emerged elegant giraffes, plodding camels, widemouthed hippos and elephants’ bottoms. His fellow internees followed suit and Godshaw vividly remembers more windows appearing around the camp, “with images of landscapes, flowers and erotic female figures”.

It soon became clear that this camp was very different to any other. Within days of Godshaw’s arrival, the grassy lawn of Hutchinson Square was teeming with German and Austrian intellectuals, scientists, musicians, Oxford and Cambridge professors, authors and artists, all of whom had been thrown together on this remote island by pure chance.

As magnificent as Neunzer’s circus animals were, his artistic endeavours paled when compared with those of the other accomplished — and in some cases internationally renowned — artists who had arrived. The Viennese sculptors Siegfried Charoux and Georg Ehrlich were cast alongside the likes of the Germanborn painter and writer Fred Uhlman and Erich Kahn, an expressionist.

“They were refugees because their work, Jewish origins and/or their political beliefs had put them at odds with the Nazi regime.

Hitler condemned modern art as ‘degenerate’ and ridiculed it,” according to Yvonne Cresswell, curator of social history at the Manx National Heritage organisation.

However, it was Kurt Schwitters, one of more than 300 artists who came to Britain between 1933 and 1945 to escape the Nazis, who would become the main star of the camp. “Not only was he a famous artist, but he wrote poetry and was a marvellous raconteur,” says Godshaw. With his tendency to sleep under his bed and his love of intermittently barking like a dog, he raised the spirits of his fellow internees.

Schwitters, who is perhaps most renowned for his collages, or Merz pictures (a term he invented that referred to the making of new works out of old fragments), had fled Germany to Norway. When Hitler invaded he caught the last fishing boat out of Scandinavia, surviving a torpedo attack before arriving in Scotland. He was then taken to the Isle of Man to join nearly 1,200 other German and Austrian refugees.

Artistic materials on the island were scarce, but this didn’t stop Schwitters and his fellow internees from making the best of what they could find. They dismantled a piano, tore up linoleum from floors, collected stamps, toilet paper and other debris. Hellmuth Weissenborn, who would Weissenborn , go on to work as a printer after his release from the camp, mixed margarine with graphite from pencils to create an ink for printing. He also used a washing mangle as a press, while Kahn sketched on the back of cigarette packets.

Schwitters also pilfered from the half-empty breakfast bowls of his fellow internees for the sake of his art. In his memoirs, Uhlman recalls the day in October 1940 when he went to Schwitters’s makeshift attic studio to have his portrait painted: “The room stank. A musty, sour, indescribable stink that came from three dada sculptures, which he had created from porridge. The porridge had developed mildew and the statues were covered with greenish hair and blueish excrements of an unknown type of bacteria.”

Schwitters’s porridge sculptures didn’t stand the test of time. Thankfully, many of his other works created before, during and after his internment years did survive.

This winter, an exhibition at Tate Britain in London will bring these works, which have inspired the likes of Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley, into the spotlight. Entitled Schwitters in Britain, the exhibition will cover a 30-year period and include about 20 of the 200 works created by the artist while on the Isle of Man.

Schwitters worked on landscape drawings, paintings and portraits of his friends and fellow internees, some of which he sold to his sitters for £5 each (the equivalent of about £250 today). Godshaw, who himself was drawn by Schwitters days before he left the camp, recalls the speed at which he worked. All these years later, the pencil sketch is one of his most prized possessions.

Much of Schwitters’s art is easily identified as belonging to a specific period. “You can trace where Schwitters was by looking at his works and what he used in them,” says Dr Jenny Powell, assistant curator of modern British art at Tate Britain. “In the internment camp, you can see letters that say ‘censored’ in the collages.” One of his abstract collages from this time features half a ping-pong ball. Powell imagines the internees playing with the ball on the lawn, then Schwitters stealing it to use in his work.

The exhibition will also display a select few pieces from an album containing the works of 18 other artists who were interned with Schwitters. They deserve the attention, given that they too helped to create one of Europe’s most extraordinary and influential cultural scenes.

The album was a gift from the internees to the camp’s commandant, Captain HO Daniel, and it has been loaned to Tate Britain by Daniel’s son, Peter. It includes landscape oil paintings, cartoons poking fun at Daniel, and paintings of half-naked dancing ladies. Schwitters’s contribution — a small, abstract oval picture — and Hermann Fechenbach’s lithograph, which depicts two internees in a barn, caged in by the barbed wire, will be shown.

The abundance of artistic activity in the camp was in no small part due to Daniel’s support. He provided the internees with materials such as paint, oils, watercolours and paper. Peter Daniel, a sprightly, bearded man in his eighties, was 16 when he arrived at the camp with his parents. “Without my father, there would be nothing here,” he says, pointing to the album of art. He recalls his father turning one of the buildings ina ISLAND OF CREATIVITY Previous pages, clockwise from left: Hermann Fechenbach’s lithograph Internment; Fred Uhlman’s pen-andwatercolour drawing Douglas IOM; The Pied-Piper of Hamlen (sic); linocut by Paul Henning with watercolour wash. This page, bottom right: the camp newspaper. Bottom left: the cover of an album presented to the commandant, Captain HO Daniel (right), illustrated by Hellmuth Weissenborn. Schwitters (above) contributed an untitled watercolour (left) to the album. Far right: a cartoon of Capt Daniel

Hutchinson Square into a studio where the artists could work. “He made it possible for the internees to continue with their art,” he says proudly.

During the internment, Klaus Hinrichsen was another champion of the artists. Having fled to Britain during the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution, he spent 11 months in Hutchinson Camp. He helped to found what became known as Hutchinson University. Each evening, lectures were held in subjects such as philosophy and theology. “We had 52 professors in that camp,” says Godshaw.

As head of the cultural department, Hinrichsen curated two art exhibitions. One took place in September 1940. The second show, held two months later, featured work by Schwitters and the sculptor Ernst Müller-Blensdorf, whose relief panels were carved on mahogany salvaged from a piano. The artists were turning their attention to making money at this point and the camp’s newspaper stated that “this time” they were offering their works for sale.

The comedian and author David Baddiel has written a novel, The Secret Purposes, about life on the Isle of Man during internment. “A really extraordinary thing about the whole process was that most of the people who got out of Germany were fairly eminent,” he says. “The easiest way to get out of Germany was if you had supporters in Britain, who could apply to people in Germany who were professors and artists and important musicians. As a result, on the Isle of Man, you had six or seven Nobel prizewinners and the Amadeus Quartet. Left to their own devices they set up a university, held opera recitals and, within a week, it’s Vienna on the Isle of Man.”

Baddiel’s book was inspired by his grandfather Ernst, who spent 18 months on the island. Ernst’s letters from the camp have been translated from German into English and relay how he went to the lectures, attended the music recitals and met lots of interesting characters. “One of the things he said about it, which was kind of unusual, was that it was great.” However, Baddiel is unwilling to give the impression that the internees’ lives were bliss. “I don’t want to make it too much of a cakewalk. My grandfather lost everything in Germany. After the war, he became clinically depressed. I wouldn’t blame that on the internment, but just the trauma in general. A lot of his friends in Germany were murdered. He ended his life as a porter, working in Cambridge colleges. He was devastated.”

Although it was a difficult time for many, Godshaw claims that Schwitters — and some of the others — didn’t bother to apply for release when the time came. “He was comfortable there. He could paint all day without having to worry about money or other such things. He also had a captive audience for all his poetry recitals and stories.”

Within three months of his arrival on the island, Godshaw and the other internees were encouraged to apply to be released, as the immediate threat of an invasion had passed. He was one of the first to be allowed to leave, and his friend Neunzer was given permission to return to his wife, who was struggling to manage the lions by herself.

Soon afterwards, Schwitters wrote a letter to his wife, Helma. “I am now the last artist here, all the others are free. But all things are equal. If I stay here, then I have plenty to occupy myself. If I am released, then I will enjoy freedom… You carry your own joy with you wherever you go.”

He was finally released on November 21, 1941 and, after a spell in London, he moved to the Lake District, where he died seven years later. Hutchinson Camp, having originally held Austrian and German internees, later went on to hold military prisoners of war before closing in 1944.

Looking back on those four months in captivity, Godshaw has fond memories.

“It was no hardship for youngsters like me. I can only say that they were probably the most interesting months of my life.”

It was also a prolific time for the artists. Despite a letter from Schwitters and 15 of his fellow artists to the New Statesman and Nation in August 1940, declaring, “Art cannot live behind barbed wire”, they were proved wrong. Amazingly, with the help of Daniel and through the artists’ own ingenuity, their art not only lived but thrived n Schwitters in Britain is at Tate Britain, London SW1, January 30-May 12, 2013