Interned artists (2): Hugo Dachinger and Hellmuth Weissenborn

I wrote in an earlier blog post about John Heartfield and Kurt Schwitters who shared the experience of being interned during World War Two. This post will highlight two more artists interned by Britain because they were foreign nationals: the Austrian Hugo Dachinger and the German Hellmuth Weissenborn. After the war both men made Britain their home until their deaths much later in the 20th century.

Hugo Dachinger was working in Vienna when, as a Jew, he felt the need to leave his home country after the Austrian Anschluss in 1938. He travelled to England via Denmark and settled in London. In June 1940 when the British internment policy was introduced he was among many to be interned, first at Huyton near Liverpool and then at Mooragh camp on the Isle of Man where he remained until January 1941 when he was released.

In my previous post on interned artists I quoted the phrase “Art cannot live behind barbed wire” from a letter sent in August 1940 to the New Statesman and Nation (NPR.C.622) by a group of artists interned on the Isle of Man. At the time, Dachinger was in Huyton camp so it seems unlikely that he would have been aware of this. However, he did manage to produce artwork while in the camps and an exhibition held in the camp drew on the same theme with the title “Art behind barbed wire.” Dachinger painted views of camp life and portraits of fellow internees using whatever supplies he could lay his hands on. Paper was scarce so he often painted on discarded newspaper and improvised with toothpaste or gravy browning when actual paints were not available.

Some of his works were acquired by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in 1999 and were included in a 2004 exhibition there, also entitled “Art behind barbed wire.” The cover of the exhibition catalogue features detail from a work by Dachinger called “Empty days” which shows a guard keeping  watch over prisoners below, painted on newspaper. We can see an example of his portrait work, also painted on newspaper with a toothpaste wash, on the cover of the recent book Internment in Britain in 1940: life and art behind the wire (C217.c.6585). This portrait, now in London’s Ben Uri gallery, has only recently been identified as being Wilhelm Hollitscher, an Austrian émigré (grandfather of the Labour MP Margaret Hodge) who was in his late 60s when he had to endure the difficult camp conditions for 10 weeks before being released. He left behind a diary of life at Huyton.

Following his release in early 1941 an exhibition of forty of Dachinger’s works was mounted at the Redfern Gallery in London in April. Here is what the Times newspaper reviewer thought:

Very little has as yet been written about Hugo Dachinger. We know significantly more about the life and works of Hellmuth Weissenborn, not least because he was the subject of a 2012 biography, From Leipzig to London: the life and work of the émigré artist Hellmuth Weissenborn by Anna Nyburg (404:23.c.201.3). Ten years older than Dachinger, he had been appointed to a professorship at the prestigious Leipzig Academy of Fine Arts when still in his twenties – he may even have taught Dachinger who studied there from 1929 to 1932. Dismissed from this post because he was married to a Jew, Weissenborn fled to Britain in early 1939.

He was interned in Hutchinson camp, Isle of Man and along with Kurt Schwitters and fifteen others, was one of the signatories of the New Statesman letter referred to earlier, although his name was incorrectly given as Weisserbonn. In an autobiographical introduction to Hellmuth Weissenborn: engraver (S404:5.a.9.69) he wrote:

the time of imprisonment was for me a continuous torment which was only softened by being cook for twenty-four men in my house.

The hardship of being interned was no doubt made worse by difficulties in his personal life. Indeed, he was served with divorce papers while in the camp. Nevertheless, it was a productive time for him artistically. Ronald Stent wrote of window panes that had been painted midnight blue (instead of blackout curtains) which Weissenborn engraved with his own designs, scratching mythological scenes or floral fantasies with nails or razor blades (in A bespattered page? 539:1.c.800.65). And Rachel Dickson (in Insiders outsiders S950.a.201.6858) describes further improvisation:

Weissenborn used a washing mangle as a printing press,
cut linoleum from attic floors for linocuts and produced ersatz ink from margarine and graphite.

Examples of his internment artwork are held by the Imperial War Museum and can be viewed online (the Museum also has a 1978 recording of him remembering earlier times in its sound archive).

Upon release at the end of 1940 Weissenborn returned to London and gradually established himself as both a teacher and freelance book illustrator. With his second wife he set up the Acorn Press and worked prolifically right up until his death in 1982. The University Library holds many works containing engravings or linocuts by him, some in large format and produced in limited editions by various private presses. However, to illustrate this blog post I am concentrating on the illustrations he produced in the 1940s. One early commission during wartime was illustrating Michael Home’s Autumn fields and Spring sowing (477.c.90.7-8); his images were used at the beginning and end of each chapter. It is interesting to see that he already had an understanding of peculiarly English things such as cricket and Punch and Judy:

Another commission was the illustration of Miss Bendix (1948.7.101) by Naomi Royde Smith, a new version of a novel written ten years earlier, now with a new ending in response to, according to the dustjacket, “the recent catastrophic attempt to disrupt the cohesion of nature” It was a tale of a “gentlewoman’s struggle to reconcile her newly acquired knowledge of scientific truth with the religious teaching which she had found adequate until the death of her mother.”

Soon after his arrival in England Hellmuth Weissenborn met and befriended Victor Bonham-Carter – they remained friends and it was Bonham-Carter who wrote the Times obituary for Weissenborn after his death. The two collaborated on the 1946 A posy of wildflowers (1947.6.23), a small book with beautiful and very small (about 5 cm square) illustrations using a variety of colours:

In his memoir, What countryman, sir? (1999.8.344)  Bonham-Carter later summed up his friend neatly thus:

Hellmuth himself was an outspoken character, free with coarse language and inclined, like many of his countrymen, to make speeches at you when he felt strongly about something, but with it all a deeply human and warm-hearted man, who hated humbug and tyranny before all else.

The remaining illustrations are selected from early Acorn Press books and show a range of styles and subject matter – in all cases, click on the individual images to see enlarged versions:

The joyful year (1947, S721.d.94.32)


The Poetical ark (1946, 1946.7.807)


A Picture ABC (1946.11.15) and Counting (1946.11.26)


The final book to be featured here, Raven the rascal (1947.11.9) shows a distinctly different style of illustration. Weissenborn wrote the text of this children’s story too, demonstrating his fluency with English. It is poignantly dedicated to his son Florian, then aged 14, who he had last seen at the age of 11 before his mother took him to America.  The book tells the story of a woodland raven caught by Peter, a farmer’s son. After playing pranks on other animals he is caged by the farmer but escapes, meets a wise owl and then ultimately a mate.

Any books mentioned in this post which lack a hyperlink to the catalogue can currently only be found in the card catalogue.

Katharine Dicks

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