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.

Packed with art in St Ives, Cornwall

THE TATE GALLERY has two branches in the picturesque fishing port of St Ives in Cornwall. The artworks displayed at Tate St Ives are contained in a building overlooking Porthmeor Beach, constructed between 1983 and 1993. It replaced a disused gasworks, but I feel that the gallery’s almost fascistic architecture neither does anything to enhance the town or to match the beauty of many of the items displayed within it. The other part of The Tate in St Ives is house and gardens of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). A visit to her former home and its garden, filled with her sculptures, is a delightful experience.

 

Barbara Hepworth and her sculpture in the Penwith Gallery

Not far from the Tate St Ives, there is another ‘must-see’ attraction for lovers of modern and contemporary art. This is the Penwith Gallery on Back Road East. Less visited than the two Tate institutions in St Ives, the Penwith is the home of the Penwith Society of Arts, one of whose founders was Barbara Hepworth. The gallery contains one of the loveliest Hepworth sculptures that I have seen to date. Maybe I like it because it recalls the works of the Romanian born sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a sculptor whose works are much to my taste. To be frank, I am not a great lover of Hepworth’s sculpture and this piece in the Penwith is less typical of what I do not like about her work.

Returning to the gallery itself, its website reveals (https://penwithgallery.com/):

“The society was founded in 1949 by Barbara Hepworth,Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Sven Berlin and Wilhelmina Barns– Graham, amongst others. Later members have included Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Henry Moore (honorary member). This association with so many progressive and influential artists has given the Penwith Society a unique place in British art history.

Today the society continues to play a central role in the thriving and vibrant St. Ives art community, exhibiting contemporary art from Cornwall and beyond.”

The gallery is housed in a former pilchard packing factory. Its ceiling is supported with roughly hewn granite pillars, painted white. Part of the ceiling is glass-covered, allowing natural light into the largest of the three main display areas. The rest of the ceiling does not transmit light.

The gallery displays an ever-changing collection of artworks, which are on sale. Created by members of the Society or artists, who have worked in the Society’s studios, they include sculptures, prints, paintings, and ceramics. Some of the works are figurative and many of them are abstract. Some are halfway between the two extremes. I have enjoyed abstract art since my childhood. This is probably because my mother, who was a sculptor who enjoyed creating abstract pieces. The lovely Hepworth piece that stands next to a fine photograph of its sculptor, and several other works, form part of the Penwith’s permanent collection. A small range of books and cards are available for visitors to purchase.

Every time I visit the Penwith, I enjoy the gallery’s spaces and the works displayed within them.  Instead of being packed with pilchards, as it was in the past, and other tourists, as are the two Tate establishments, the Penwith is comfortably packed with pleasing works of art, which you can take home if you can afford them, and some of them are not excessively costly.

The Duke and Dunhill in London’s Mayfair

OUR YEARNING FOR visiting the art galleries in London’s West End is growing daily because the current covid19 lockdown has meant that they are all closed. So, when we read that the Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street, just north of Berkeley Square, had put on an exhibition that could be viewed from the street through its huge plate glass windows, we had to ‘take a gander’. The gallery is displaying some ceramic bowls created by Edmund de Waal until the 30th of January 2021 (https://gagosian.com/exhibitions/2020/edmund-de-waal-some-winter-pots/). Frankly, although they embody great craftsmanship, we were disappointed.  However, across the road, facing the Gagosian, there is a detached house that attracted more of my attention than the bowls. It was not only its antiquity that appealed to me but also some huge, inflated spheres with reflecting surfaces in its courtyard that produced fascinating reflections of the building and those nearby.

Bourdon House, a Georgian mansion completed in 1724, possibly designed by Isaac Ware (1704-1766), is now Dunhill’s exclusive shop for discerning “modern gentlemen”. The current building consists of two sections (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol40/pt2/pp69-76#h3-0002):

“On the west, with a return front to Davies Street, is a much-extended and enlarged early Georgian house built in the 1720’s, and to the east and south-east is a substantial Edwardian wing built in a matching style, with fronts to both Bourdon Street and Grosvenor Hill.”

Bourdon after whom the house was named in 1860, lived in the 18th century and was the first occupant of the house. He was a justice of the Peace for Middlesex and held other important positions.

Over the years, numerous people resided in Bourdon House, which underwent modifications as time moved on. In September 1916, Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster (1879-1953) took ownership of the house and lived there from 1917 until he died. When he moved in, his former home Grosvenor House, was being used by the Government in connection with WW1. The Duke liked Bourdon House so much that he decided not to return to Grosvenor House when the Government returned it to him in 1920 (it was demolished in the 1920s). During his occupancy of Bourdon House, the Duke divorced thrice.

On his death, the Duke’s fourth wife, Anne (née Sullivan; 1915-2003), whom he married in 1947, remained in Bourdon House until 1957. After she left, the house began to be used as commercial premises, first becoming an antique shop. In 2008, the house became a luxury emporium for the company of Alfred Dunhill. The company’s founder was Alfred Dunhill (1872-1959), who was a tobacconist, inventor, and entrepreneur. By the early 20th century, he was a pioneer in the creation of the modern luxury goods market. He was a collector of smokers’ pipes and, also, an author, publishing his “The Pipe Book” in 1924, and later “The Gentle Art of Smoking”.

Many years ago, in the late 1960s, one of my cousins visited London from his home overseas. He was on a trip to see the major cities of Europe. While he was in London, I spent a day showing him some of the sights, an activity I enjoyed in my teens. My relative, also in his teens, was very keen to visit one of Dunhill’s London shops, probably the one that was in Duke Street. His desire was to purchase a Dunhill pipe to add to the collection he was making whilst travelling around Europe. It is a shame that when he visited and wanted to buy a pipe, the shop in Bourdon House had not yet been established. I would have enjoyed seeing inside this historic building, but now I will have to wait until the lockdown is over before I can enter it on the pretence that I am considering buying some Dunhill t-shirts, most of which cost well over £200. At least, they are cheaper than the De Waal ceramics that can be purchased from the gallery opposite Bourdon House.