Next year Burgh House will stage a major retrospective of the work of Fred Uhlman
17 November, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
HE sat in a big wooden rocker smoking a long-stem pipe, the elegant room in Downshire Hill, Hampstead, surrounded by his collection of African art and always pontificating on art and politics in his own profound way.
That’s where I met Fred Uhlman, a man at home with Diana, his wife, the daughter of a Brigadier General who advised Churchill as his Under-Secretary of State for War in 1940, was elevated to the peerage and inherited Croft Castle, in Herefordshire.
And Fred, a lawyer turned artist and author made his mark as a supporter of painters, helping in particular the Hampstead Artist’s Council seek exhibition space with the open-air summer exhibition at the top of Heath Street and create Camden Arts Centre.
Born in Stuttgart, Germany, into a prosperous middle-class family in 1901, Uhlman gained a law doctorate and moved to Paris to start a new life just two months before Hitler was sworn in as Germany’s Chancellor.
But foreigners were banned from taking paid employment so Uhlman supported himself by selling his drawings and paintings, moving to the small Costa Brava fishing village of Tossa de Mar in 1936.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War sent him back to France. And on September 3, 1936, Uhlman landed in England with no money and unable to speak the language. But fate was again on his side.
Two months later he married Diana Croft against her parents’ wishes and they set up home in artistic Hampstead.
He founded the Free German League of Culture, whose members included Oskar Kokoschka and Stefan Zweig, before yet another hurdle came when, nine months after the outbreak of war he was interned as an 18B alien on the Isle of Man, where he met the artist Kurt Schwitters, a fellow internee.
Six months later Uhlman was released and reunited with his wife and with his daughter, born while he was being held.
His subsequent career, both as an artist and the author of the novel Reunion, adapted as a play and then as a film by Harold Pinter, brought him success and kudos before his death in 1985, aged 84.
Fred Uhlman’s Manor Lodge, c 1950s-60s
Now, I am pleased to report, that Uhlman is returning home to Hampstead, the first UK retrospective of his work in half a century being staged at Burgh House, New End Square, next year. And it is being poignantly called The Making of an Englishman, the title that refugee Uhlman gave to his own memoirs.
The touring exhibition will bring together paintings and drawings by Uhlman from 1928 to 1971, notably a selection of early Mediterranean scenes, a number of drawings made while he was interned, and his later Welsh landscapes he made visiting Croft Castle, some never exhibited before.
On show too will be previously unseen archival material and objects from Uhlman’s personal collection of 72 African sculptures, the majority of which are now on permanent display at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, as well as representations of Uhlman by Schwitters, fellow Hampstead artist Milein Cosman, Jewish painter and printmaker Jankel Adler and the sculptress Karin Jonzen.
Uhlman’s internment drawings, all executed in 1940, are at once potent and poignant, each a strikingly affective response to the torture of captivity, his belief in the culpability of the clergy for the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and his horror of events unfolding in Europe. Many feature a child, a symbol of hope and of “joy and liberty” inspired by his new-born daughter Caroline.
He described this figure as “marching with sure, unfaltering steps through the valley of death and terror – totally undisturbed, untouchable and triumphant”. By contrast, Uhlman’s paintings of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s have often been described as naïve, colourful and, latterly, romantic.
Alternately fiery and brooding, and yet always meticulous, the landscapes he produced in North Wales in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s evoke Uhlman’s feeling for “the loneliness and overwhelming grandeur of the country”.
The exhibition seeks not only to celebrate Uhlman’s life and work and his unique contribution to Hampstead’s cultural and political history, but also to reflect on one of the most turbulent times in European history, as well as the universally relevant themes of identity and migration now sadly once again an international issue.
• The Making of an Englishman is at Burgh House, New End Square, NW3 1LT from January 24 to May 27, 2018. Tel: 020 7431 0144.