A foreign wind

THERE IS A HOUSE in Hampstead’s Downshire Hill, where John Heartfield (1891-1968) lived between 1938 and 1943. Born in Germany as Helmut Herzfeld, he was an artist who employed art, and in particular photomontage, as a political weapon. He was anti-Nazi and fled Germany in 1933, arriving in England in 1938, having spent some time in Czechoslovakia. Nearby, are houses where three other artistic creators lived: Roland Penrose and his wife Lee Miller; and the creator of The Muppets, Jim Henson.

Heartfield’s home on Downshire Hill has a peculiar feature, which might have been added long after he lived there. It is a weathervane. That is not a particularly unusual embellishment, but on closer examination, it is not a run-of-the-mill British weathervane. Weathervanes in England often have the four points of the compass abbreviated as NSEW, that is, north, south, east, and west. The one on Heartfield’s former home has the letters NSOE. At first, I thought that the O was an abbreviation for the German for east, ‘Ost’. If the weathervane was German, it should have had the letters NSOW. Then, I thought that the O is probably an abbreviation for the Italian for west, ‘ovest’ or for ‘oeste’ the Portuguese and Spanish words for west. This makes sense because the other points of the compass in those languages are abbreviated as: N, S, and E. Short of ringing the doorbell to ask, the linguistic identity of the weathervane will have to remain a mystery to me for the present.

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