Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s: Book review

Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s contains a striking chapter on the graphic designer and illustrator Klara Biller (1910–1989). Pete Biller, the artist’s son, recalls the house he grew up in, enumerating its references to Hungarian culture. Living in a bungalow in Stanmore, Middlesex, Klara decorated the interiors with Hungarian folk textiles and pottery by Margit Kovács (1902–1977), a folk-art inspired ceramicist who was hugely popular in Hungary. Klara also owned a few Hungarian paintings, by Pál Molnár-C. (1894–1981) and János Kmetty (1889–1975), but – as her son explains – the art books she bought herself were all on international art, in particular, Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Frans Masereel (1889–1972). Bookshelves in the house were also heavily populated by books on Hungarian history, many discussing the Treaty of Trianon – but these books belonged not to Klara, but to her British husband, Victor Biller, who had developed an interest in Hungary years before he met his future wife in the 1930s. In fact, as Pete Biller’s sensitive account explains, his father nurtured a fascination with interwar ‘official’ Hungary, which must have been alienating to his mother, who was of Jewish descent and had to leave behind her country of birth precisely because of the increasing anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of that official culture and eventually led to genocide. Yet, this issue was never discussed in the family, and although Klara eventually told her sons about their Jewish heritage, she never informed Victor. Her relationship with the culture of her country of origin must have been highly conflicted, but it was a conflict she negotiated silently, within herself. And perhaps with her mother and sister, whose visits after their own emigration in the 1950s prompted Klara to turn towards Hungarian cooking and stock up her kitchen with paprika.

Klara Biller: Wartime cooking made easier

Klara Biller: Wartime cooking made easier, book cover design, early 1940s – photo: Their Safe Haven: Hungarian artists in Britain from the 1930s, p. 150

Klara Biller’s is a particularly poignant example of the types of stories Their Safe Haven tells about Hungarian artists in Britain. Compiled and edited by Robert Waterhouse, it is not an art historical monograph, and neither does it aim to be one. Its ambition is more modest: to present a variety of primary sources in such a way that they not only reflect the individual lives of the fourteen artists the editor has chosen, but also the parallels and contrasts between them. It focuses on their biographies, not on the development of their art. Yet, through these evocative sources, it illuminates many aspects of cultural exchange; small nuances that would be lost in a monograph concentrating on the evolution of artistic style. An artist’s adaptation to a new environment is a process of cultural translation, and that process is not confined to the art world. The work of fitting in is performed continuously everywhere: in galleries and art magazines, but also in the living room, the garden and the kitchen. The art that is produced is inseparable from how these processes play out. Indeed, the careers of immigrant artists provide us with striking reminders that art is part of life; that art is life – and not in a lofty, grandiose romantic sense, but at the the most mundane level.

The starting point for Their Safe Haven is an exhibition of Hungarian art organised by the Hungarian-born art dealer Charles (Károly) Rosner at the Hungarian Club, London, in 1943. Works by artists who lived in Britain were displayed in a separate room. Motivated by his interest in one of them, Jean-Georges (János György) Simon (1894–1968), Waterhouse decided to trace all of the artists, exploring their lives in Britain, their artistic careers, their contacts before and after they arrived. Although some of the artists knew each other and kept in touch, they did not work together or form a movement. It would be a mistake to treat this fairly random group of artists of the same nationality as an art historical entity and force them into a cohesive narrative. Instead, Their Safe Haven adopts a loose, patchwork-like structure, accentuated by the elegant layout design of this beautifully produced book. It is, however, based on meticulous research, which encompasses the testimonies of living relatives and friends, as well as documents from libraries and archives, even including the archive of MI5. It does not leave the reviewer with much to criticise, except for pointing out some misspellings of Hungarian names and small inaccuracies (e. g. on p. 21: there was no institution in interwar Budapest called the ‘Almos Jashik Academy’; the accurate reference would be ‘the independent art school run by the artist Álmos Jaschik [1885–1950]). This could have been picked up by a peer reviewer familiar with the Hungarian context before publication. It would also have been useful to make the most important biographical details of the artists accessible at first glance, rather than hiding them in various places in the book – the short biographies in the beginning are useful, but sometimes do not contain basic facts. All in all, however, this is a well-researched book that provides ample information for those interested in the subject, and its empathetic treatment of issues related to immigration and fitting in invite further musings on the relationship between art and life.

Self-portrait by George Mayer-Marton

George Mayer-Marton: Self-portrait, 1950s photo: theirsafehaven.com

Because it does not enforce a central narrative, Their Safe Haven can be read in different ways. From the perspective of the shared Central European tradition explored in the framework of CRAACE, it provides fascinating insight into how that tradition fared when transplanted into a new country. The lives of most of the artists in the book began in Austria-Hungary and were, in many cases, decisively shaped by the geopolitical changes that followed the First World War. George (György) Buday (1907–1990) for example, was born in 1907 in Kolozsvár, where his father was a professor at the university. After Kolozsvár – now Cluj – became part of Romania, the university relocated to Szeged, Hungary, and its professors moved with it, taking their families with them. Szeged became central to the artistic pursuits of the young Buday, as he became involved in ethno- and sociographical research conducted in villages and farmsteads in the plains around the town. By contrast, George (György, Georg) Mayer-Marton (1897–1960) was an artist in whose career the old networks of Austria-Hungary lived on, even after the state itself was gone: in the 1930s he was Vice-President of the Hagenbund artists’ society in Vienna, and lived in the Austrian capital until the Anschluss with Germany in 1938. After moving to Britain, they – like their fellow artists – built on their previous artistic knowledge when trying to find their way in a new artistic environment.

The question of how well that worked out offers another possible reading of Their Safe Haven, concentrating on factors that drove or inhibited artistic success in a new country. Many of the artists featured in the book were able to build new careers in Britain. Mayer-Marton, for instance, became a senior lecturer at Liverpool College of Art. The most stellar career was perhaps that of Joseph (József) Bato (1888–1966). Arriving in Britain in 1936, he found work in the film industry with the help of a fellow Hungarian, the director and producer Alexander Korda (1893–1956). By 1945 he was a leading art director at London Films and subsequently worked on classics such as The Third Man. But before he came to Britain, Bató was a painter. Having studied at the Nagybánya artists colony and with Matisse in Paris, he lived in Berlin after the First World War and sold his landscape paintings with much success. After fleeing the Nazis and emigrating to Britain, he had to change his career and reconsider his goals; this was a prerequisite for his success.

Joseph Bato: Connaught Mews, Marble Arch, W1, 1940

Joseph Bato: Connaught Mews, Marble Arch, W1, 1940 – photo: Their Safe Haven: Hungarian artists in Britain, p. 97

Other artists, too, had to leave behind past success for an uncertain future, and while that decision saved their lives, their careers did not always recover. The ceramicist Lili Márkus (1900–1960) was highly successful in Hungary and her work was often featured at international exhibitions, where folk-art inspired modern ceramics by her and other skilled women artists formed part of the self-representation of the Hungarian state. She still represented Hungary at the Berlin international trade exhibition in 1938, the same year that the rights of Jews such as Márkus were severely curtailed by the first Hungarian anti-Jewish law, which restricted the number of Jews employed in certain professions. The next year, Márkus and her family fled to Britain, where her husband was welcomed as a manufacturer of machine tools, and they were able to settle in safety and comfort. Nevertheless, despite her previous international profile, Márkus was never able to build a new career in Britain, even when she started making tapestries with British subject matter.

Lili Márkus: Tapestry illustrating lines from Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind'

Lili Márkus: Tapestry illustrating lines from Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, 1940s – photo: Their Safe Haven: Hungarian artists in Britain from the 1930s, p. 163

In Márkus’s case, it is fairly easy to identify the reasons behind the waning of her career. She had developed a form of folk-art inspired modernism whose imagery was endearingly familiar to the audience at home and could also represent a Hungarian formal language at exhibitions abroad. In Britain, suddenly, her artistic references became meaningless. Buday faced similar problems: the woodcuts that had brought him success in Hungary engaged with subject matter from Transylvanian folk ballads and the well-loved ballads of János Arany (1817–1882) – literary works barely known in Britain. Yet, he was able to produce English editions of these, while also using his old technique to depict new subject matter: British patriotic imagery during the war, and staples of British culture such as Christmas cards. He was elected to the Royal Society of Painters-Etchers (1953) and a fellow of the Society of Wood Engravers (1954). Despite this apparent success, he is perhaps the most tragic figure in the book. After the Second World War, he was offered positions in cultural politics in Hungary, but, wishing to stay in Britain, he opted for the directorship of the Hungarian Cultural Institute in London. Although he resigned from the Institute due to interference by the Communist Hungarian government in 1949, Buday remained associated with the Communist state in the eyes of British decisionmakers and, at the height of the Cold War, this led them to deny his application for citizenship. An additional spy drama involved was uncovered by Waterhouse during his research, and is one of the most fascinating episodes of the book. This ordeal, as well as the news of the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, broke Buday, and he spent the last decades of his life in a psychiatric hospital, where he created a series of illustrations for an 1980 Folio Society edition of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

George Buday: Britannia

George Buday: Britannia, Times Literary Supplement, 5 April 1941

This precarity, the sadness of never quite fitting in, is one of the meandering themes of the book. The wartime experiences of Hungarian artists in Britain who suddenly came to be treated as ‘aliens’ are examples of this. István Szegedi-Szüts (1893–1959), for instance, moved to England in 1936, settling in Cornwall with his British artist wife, Gwynedd Jones-Parry. In July 1940, the couple had to move away from the coast due to Szegedi-Szűts’s status as a (then) ‘neutral alien’, and they stayed in Malvern with Gwynedd’s aunt. The extract from Szegedi-Szüts’s wartime diary, reproduced in Their Safe Haven, does not say much about art; as a primary source, it is more relevant to historians of life in 1940s Britain than to art historians exploring the artistic trends of the time. Nevertheless, like the other sources in the book, it illuminates the wider context of immigrant life. Another example, more specific to the art world, comes from the biography of the sculptor Peter Lambda (1911–1995; originally Vilmos Levy), creator of elegant and expressive portrait busts, many of which found their way into the National Portrait Gallery, including portraits of politicians such as Aneurin Bevan and actors such as Laurence Olivier. In yet another example of the interconnectedness of Central Europe, Sigmund Freud was a family friend of the Levys, and Lambda had known him well since childhood. The two met in London when Freud arrived in 1938, and Lambda sculpted a portrait of the severely ill psychoanalyst. He offered the bust to the Portrait Gallery, which rejected it on the basis that the subject was not sufficiently British.

Klara Biller: Mary, Paul and Tzitzu

Klara Biller: Mary, Paul and Tzitzu, from Paul and Mary, published in 1941 photo: Their Safe Haven: Hungarian artists in Britain from the 1930s, p. 153

These examples of how the Central European heritage of these artists could often grate against expectations of Britishness provide Their Safe Haven with a melancholy air. But it is not a sad book, because its intention is not to judge the artists according to how well they could fit in and how successfully they were able to negotiate the intricacies of the British art establishment. Indeed, it might make us question what we mean by success in the first place. No, many of its stories are not success stories in the usual sense. But they are stories of exploring, adapting, hoping, failing, trying again, making the most of. Of discovering or building up small worlds where the old and the new can fruitfully meet (the wartime London Hungarian cabaret is a wonderful example of this). Of finding a safe haven at a time when control over one’s life is lost due to immensely powerful external circumstances. The book presents these stories with much empathy and insight, making us reconsider whether what an artist liked to cook for dinner is relevant to art historical enquiry. In the 1940s, Klara Biller illustrated several children’s books for Collins Publishers, using her Central European modernist training to depict English children, Mary and Paul, but playfully giving their cat a Hungarian name: ‘Tzitzu’. In the same way as the smell of chicken paprikás merrily drifted through her household, making up for the silences, the unspoken clash between interpretations of the Hungarian heritage, so her memories of her old life and her hopes for the new were united in her creative work.

Nóra Veszprémi

Their Safe Haven: Hungarian artists in Britain from the 1930s, compiled and edited by Robert Waterhouse (Manchester: Baquis Press, 2018). See also the website: theirsafehaven.com

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/6H3RG

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2 thoughts on “Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s: Book review

  1. Adrian says:

    Interesting publication – just ordered my copy.
    Just one thing about this unfortunate title – yet another time whole glory goes to Britain (as a safe haven), no credits to the artists, who enriched cultural life of UK.
    It was like that then, it is like that now…

    • Nóra Veszprémi says:

      Thank you for your comment! It is really worth ordering. As for the title, I think it is meant to contain a certain amount of irony (given the precarity of the situation of some of the artists), while also non-ironically indicating that moving to England saved their lives in many cases. The book reflects this complexity very well. I hope you will enjoy it!

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