An artist in Germany, Norway, Scotland, Isle of Man, then Somerset

AN UNUSUAL CRUCIFIX hands within the church of St Mary in Bruton, Somerset. It is a sculpture typical of early 20th century German Expressionism, yet it was created in 1969, long after the heyday of this artistic trend. The creator of this religious sculpture was Ernst Blensdorf (1896-1976). He was born Ernst Müller in North Germany, but after his marriage to his first wife, Ilse Blensdorf, in 1923, he changed his surname to ‘Müller-Blensdorf’, then later to ‘Blensdorf’.

At first, Blensdorf became a seaman. After having been interned as an enemy alien by the British during WW1, Ernst travelled to Johannesburg in South Africa with a fellow internee. It was here that he made a table-top wood carving of an African village. On his return to Germany, this fine carving persuaded Ernst’s father that his son had a future as an artist and was willing to support him towards this aim. While in Africa, Ernst had seen African art first-hand and exposure to this certainly helped influenced his future creations.

After a brief spell at an art school in Barmen, he left to become apprenticed to a master joiner. By 1922, he had become a journeyman for a furniture company, which specialised in manufacturing luxury items. During this period, he was influenced by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko. The skill that Ernest acquired and developed whilst manufacturing wooden objects for the furniture company became useful as he moved from applied craftsmanship to artistic endeavours. In addition to other activities, he taught at the art school in Barmen during the 1920s. By the 1930s, he had become an established sculptor and had exhibited his works at various exhibitions in Germany, where he received both private and public commissions.

When the Nazis took power in Germany, Blensdorf became one of the first artists whose works were categorised as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler and his regime. This led to him losing his teaching post at Barmen and his studio being wrecked by the Nazi’s loutish followers. Ernst, his wife, and children, moved to Norway, where he was planning a giant peace monument to honour the Norwegian statesman and Nobel Peace prize winner Fridjtof Nansen. In Norway, he worked on this project and made a living creating and selling artistic ceramic works, alongside the Norwegian ceramicist Eilif Whist. 

When the Germans invaded Norway in spring 1940, Blensdorf and his children fled to Scotland. His wife, Ilse, remained behind, saying that she was a follower of Adolf Hitler. Following his arrival in the UK, Blensdorf was once again interned as an ‘enemy alien’. Along with many others, including a good number of men with artistic talent and German nationality, he was interned on the Isle of Man (from 1940 to 1941). His children were placed in a couple of orphanages. While interned, he, along with fellow artists, were allowed to satisfy their creative urges and even to sell their creations. Using whatever materials he could find during this period of scarcity, Blensdorf’s creative output was impressively large. For the first time in his life, he had plenty of time to undertake artistic work in the absence of anxieties such as he had experienced before arriving on the Isle of Man.

Blensdorf was released from internment in 1941. He went to live with an Austrian couple, the Schreiners, whom he had met in the internment camp. They lived in Charlton Musgrove in Somerset. With him, the Schreiners planned to set up an art school, but this failed for financial reasons. Ernst remained in Somerset. His first job was teaching pottery at a school in Bratton Seymour. It was here that he met his second wife, Jane Lawson. They married in 1942 and moved into a house near Wincanton, where they were joined by his children. Blensdorf taught in various schools in Somerset including the King’s School in Bruton.

In 1943, Blensdorf and his family bought a run-down 17th century house close to Bruton. Gradually, the house was restored and improved. It remained his home for the rest of his life. Although he exhibited often and in prestigious venues, Blensdorf never realised the great reputations that other artists, such as Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Anthony Caro, and Barbara Hepworth, gained in the UK and beyond. For this reason, seeing his work for the first time during my first visit to the lovely Bruton Museum in July 2021, was a wonderful surprise and an exciting eye-opener.  In one corner of this small museum, there is a large glass cabinet that contains examples of Blensdorf’s sketches, ceramics, and sculptures. When I told the lady, who was looking after the museum, how much I liked what I had seen of his works, she told me about the crucifix in the local church, which fortunately I was able to see. She also sold me a copy of a well-illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of his works that was held some time ago in the Bruton Museum. It is from this publication that I have extracted much of the information above. Bruton is a gem of a town. Visiting its museum is a ‘must’ because not only does it allow you to ‘discover’ the works of Blensdorf but also to see a display of artefacts relating to the author John Steinbeck, who lived close to Bruton between March and September 1959 … but that is another story.

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