Artists, intellectuals, writers and musicians have been attracted to the physical and cultural attractions of this leafy area of northwest London since the late eighteenth century.
“I can never approach my house in Downshire Hill without a feeling of wonder, joy and fear. Wonder that something so lovely should exist less than half an hour from Leicester Square, joy at seeing the white regency houses with the Italianate blue sky, at hearing the noise of the woodpeckers and jays and owls in my garden, and fear that this may only be a dream, a figment of my imagination which may have disappeared the next morning.”
Fred Uhlman, Journal of a Painter I, 1965-70
It was in the 1930s and 40s, however, that Hampstead village and the surrounding areas of West Hampstead, Swiss Cottage, St John’s Wood and Golders Green occupied a unique place in the history of British art and culture.
The rise of fascism in the 1930s saw an influx of émigrés taking refuge here, in large part due to the British-born individuals who welcomed, supported and worked alongside them. By 1940 there were around 14,000 refugees in the area, among them some of the most outstanding figures in the world of European culture.
The legacy of this generation lives on today through the many blue plaques that can be found here, including one unveiled this November at the former home of Milein Cosman and Hans Keller at 50, Willow Road and through buildings now open to the public like the Lawn Road Flats and Ernö Goldfinger’s house at 2 Willow Road.
Hampstead has featured prominently throughout the festival, with some of the highlights including:
Art Aiding Politics: Hampstead in the 1930s and 40s at Burgh House and Hampstead Museum examined the response of some of Hampstead’s most creative residents to the tumultuous political events of the mid-twentieth century, from the Spanish Civil War to the rise of the Nazi party and the outbreak of the Second World War and beyond.
John Heartfield, the passionately anti-fascist German visual artist who pioneered the use of photomontage as a political weapon and who spent the years 1938-50 in the UK, was celebrated in John Heartfield: One Man’s War at Four Corners Gallery, Bethnal Green, east London at the beginning of the year.
Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain 1933-66 at the Royal Institute of British Architects, included a significant amount of material relating to Hampstead. Concurrent with this, László Moholy-Nagy in Britain: Between the New Vison and the New Bauhaus threw new light on this Bauhaus Master’s activities while living in London between 1937 and 1939.
The Tate Archive Gallery has recently been re-named the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Archive Gallery in recognition of a generous donation from the trust set up in her name. A unique display of over 350 items, drawing on the personal papers of this émigré painter, who lived in Hampstead for many years, was on display throughout the festival.
A unique event entitled An Insistence on Freedom will be held in Austrian-born sculptor Siegfried Charoux’s former studio in Hampstead Garden Suburb later this year (event rescheduled due to the coronavirus situation). The studio has rarely been opened to the public since his death in 1967. The current owners and custodians of the studio will share the story of their discovery of the building and its history; while Dr Melanie Veasey and Gregor-Anatol Bockstefl, custodian of the Siegfried Charoux Estate at the Langenzersdorf Museum in Austria, will talk about Charoux’s life and work.
The spirit of the Cosmo Café on Finchleystrasse (aka Finchley Road) was recreated recently in Pamela Howard’s much-anticipated sell-out ‘singspiel’, The Ballad of the Cosmo Café, in which its importance as a place of refuge and reminiscence was celebrated with warmth, wit and empathy. Since it is hoped that the show will be performed again, do keep an eye on our website and social media channels for details. A taster clip (filmed by Andrew Snell with Eileen Hughes) can be viewed here.
And throughout the run of the festival there were a number of walking tours that gave participants a chance to explore the rich cultural history of this fascinating area of London. More tours will be held at a later date.
Further reading and viewing:
Confirming Hampstead’s importance to the theme of the festival, a chapter on this topic by Monica Bohm-Duchen is included in the companion volume, Insiders/Outsiders: Refugees from Nazi Europe and their Contribution to British Visual Culture.