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.

Woodwork or Latin

A FRIEND POSTED A PICTURE of something he had created in wood at school when he was about 14 or 15 years old. It looks to be an extremely competent creation. Seeing this, reminded me of when I had to attend woodwork classes at roughly the same age at my secondary school, Highgate in north London.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Once a week, under the watchful eye of the woodwork teacher, Mr Bowles, I participated in a woodwork class in the school’s specially equipped workshop. Mr Bowles was well-known for saying of the timber he supplied in the class:

“Don’t waste it. You know that wood does not grow on trees.”

Although many years later, I was able to perform complex manual tasks whilst practising dentistry, in my early teens I was not skilled at performing three-dimensional manual exercises. I could draw and paint reasonably well, but model-making and woodwork were not amongst my skills.

I struggled with a tool called the sliding bevel when trying to create dovetail joints, which seemed to be of great importance to Mr Bowles. We were set what he regarded as simple tasks. With great difficulty, I completed two of these. I produced a tea tray, which was next to useless as it was only able to rest on two of its four corners at any one time. The bookshelf which could hold up to eight average thickness paperbacks suffered the same problem. Somehow, I had managed to introduce a twist into it so that its two ends were not in alignment. My parents, for whom it was suggested by our teacher that these would make fine gifts, were totally unimpressed. It would have been dishonest of them to have been otherwise.

My prospects of becoming a skilled carpenter were not looking great. Then, my fate changed suddenly one afternoon. I had just finished the school day and was walking across a polished wooden floor, when I slipped and fell. As I began to get back on my feet, I noticed that my left wrist was bent in an unnatural way and was a bit painful. Having recently completed a first-aid course, during which we were taught to tie complicated bandages instead of learning resuscitation and life support, I realised that I had most probably broken a bone.

I walked over to the caretaker’s home across the school’s quadrangle and found him. He said that he would ring my parents and while we were waiting for them to arrive, he gave me a cup of tea and biscuits. This kind gesture meant that I had to wait several hours before it was safe for me to have a general anaesthetic for setting my arm at the nearby Whittington Hospital.

My arm was encased in plaster, which remained in place for six weeks or longer. This accident was a lucky break for me. First of all, my popularity rating rocketed. Prior to my accident, many of my school fellows believed that I was rather unexciting and unadventurous, not even a ‘nerd’. Seeing my arm in plaster, suggested to these classmates that I must have been up to no good. Maybe, I had fallen out of a tree or had an accident on roller skates or on a bicycle. I kept quiet about the innocuous cause of my fracture and enjoyed experiencing the increase in my ‘street cred’. Even after my plaster was removed, my schoolmates retained their improved opinion of my personality.

Doing woodwork with one arm in plaster was not thought advisable. So, I was excused from the second and final term of woodwork classes. Actually, I doubt that using only one arm would have affected my woodwork much, as it was already appalling with two arms. 

At the end of the school year during which we had to study woodwork, we had to make subject choices. Basically, the choice was to follow the ‘arts’ or the ‘sciences’. The choices were history or physics; geography or chemistry; and … wait for it … Latin … or  … woodwork.  To be honest, the latter was a ‘no brainer’ of a choice. Woodwork did not get my (or my parents’) vote. But, as it is good to be truthful, my Latin was barely better than my woodwork. Although I struggled with Latin at school, it has proved useful especially when studying anatomy and, also, when wandering amongst tombstones. As for woodwork, Mr Bowles might be pleased to learn that over the years I have put up several shelves that were able to carry heavy loads. Now, as you read this, do not get any ideas about getting in touch with me to put up shelving in your homes.

Shakespeare in the forest

BIG WOOD SEEMED large to me when I was a child. Although it does not live up to its name, it feels like a big wood once you enter it. Located in the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’), this woodland and the much smaller nearby Little Wood are quite ancient. They were part of a forest that was at least 1000 years old, part of land given to Wealdhere, who became Bishop of London late in the 7th century. The woods and surrounding land remained church possessions until 1911, when they were leased to the HGS Trust by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. According to the londongardenstrust.org website:
“When Hampstead Garden Suburb was being planned in 1907, its instigator, Dame Henrietta Barnett, was committed to providing green spaces within the housing, planting trees and preserving those that existed. When additional land was acquired to extend the Suburb in 1911, Big Wood was leased from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and preserved as woodland. In 1933 Finchley UDC took on the freehold.”

BIG 12

Stage and auditorium of Little Wood Theatre

There is a report that circus elephants used to be kept in a field that existed between Big and Little Woods before the construction of houses in this location (now Denman Drive North and South). Colin Gregory wrote (www.hgs.org.uk):

“Before leaving this story, we should pay our respects to one of the last occupiers of Park Farm: the circus proprietor Lord’ George Sanger … His descendants continued the circus in operation until the 1960s. It is said that when he owned Park Farm he allowed the circus animals to winter on his land. An elderly resident of Denman Drive – constructed in 1908 on what was once Westminster Abbey’s land – used to recall ‘elephants grazing’ in the field between Big Wood and Little Wood, before Denman Drive North and Denman Drive South – constructed in 1912 on what was once the Bishop’s land – were completed.”

We re-visited the woods recently on a hot sunny afternoon. We entered Big Wood from the end of Temple Fortune Hill. At this entrance to the tiny forest there is a wooden gate that was put up to commemorate the 29 residents of HGS who died during WW2.  I do not remember seeing this gate when I was a child in the 1960s. Often in those days, my friends and I used to play in the woods, which I recall as being dark and dingy.

Lopa and I walked leisurely from one end of Big Wood to the other along good paths in about five minutes. This made the wood seem far smaller than its name suggests. However, when we wandered off the main tarred paths onto the numerous dirt tracks, made uneven by semi-exposed roots, threading their way amongst the trees, tree stumps, broken branches, and clumps of stinging nettles, the wood seemed dense and dank despite the fine blue sky above the tree tops. Calls of hidden birds punctuated the silence.  On these small paths, we lost all sense of direction and managed to get lost within the tiny area of woodland.

We had asked some locals how we could reach Little Wood from Big Wood and they had told us to follow a certain path, which they pointed out. We set off along it, but it kept bifurcating every few yards and we were clueless as to which of the two branching paths was the one to follow to arrive at Little Wood. Eventually after going around in circles, we gave up and left Big Wood via Oakwood Road, which is appropriately named as many of the trees in the two woods are oaks. We entered Little Wood from Denman Drive North, the continuation of Denman Drive South. These differently named sections of the same stretch of road link the two woods and must pass close to the field where circus elephants once grazed.

Little Wood, whose history is the same as that of Big Wood, contains one of London’s lesser-known performance spaces, a small open-air theatre.  This was created in 1920 by the Play and Pageant Union, one of two drama groups that later merged to form the Garden Suburb Theatre. It was restored in 1997, and now looks like it would benefit from some more restoration. The stage is a clearing in the woods surrounded by trees and bushes. The audience sits on a circular stepped auditorium consisting of three layers of paving stones set in a curve around the stage.

The theatre in Little Wood occupies an important place in my memories of childhood. It was here when I was about ten years old, back in the early 1960s, that I first saw a performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It must have been on a summer evening when I watched this with a sense of wonder that still lives with me. Apart from the odd logs, there were no other props. The actors and actresses appeared on, and disappeared from, the simple stage almost magically, popping through gaps between the trees and bushes surrounding the theatre.

I cannot begin to imagine what The Bard was thinking when he created The Dream, but I feel sure that he would have approved of its being acted out in on the sylvan stage in Little Wood. Furthermore, I think that he would have appreciated a play that contains six amateur actors in its plot being performed by a troupe of amateur actors such as we were watching that far-off evening. Since watching that play in Little Wood so many years ago, I have seen several other performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and only one has given me as much pleasure as that. It was a recent staging of the play directed by Nicholas Hytner at the relatively new Bridge Theatre near London’s Tower Bridge. In that recent show, as the theatre’s publicity said:

“The theatre becomes the forest – a dream world of flying fairies, contagious fogs and moonlight revels.”

And, the result at the Bridge was more than wonderful, although seeing the play in a real forest (Little Wood, in my case) is hard to beat.

Returning to the little theatre in Little Wood the other day, though it was out of use during the Covid-19 pandemic, it kindled many happy memories. Although I had not visited that theatre for many decades, it looked just as I remembered it.

A carved Crusader

A life no longer,

Remember’d in timber:

Farewell, Crusader knight

 

 

14th century wooden effigy in church at Paulerspury in Northamptonshire, England

 

For more information about this rare mediaeval carving, see: History of Paulerspury

website from which this information was extracted:

Under the arcade between the chancel and the north chapel, on a freestone tomb panelled with cusped ogee blind tracery enclosing shields, are wooden effigies of a lady (c. 1340) and an armoured man (c. 1346-9), now placed side by side but not necessarily originally associated with each other. The male figure may represent Sir Robert de Paveley.  The monument was restored by Frederick H. Crossley of Chester in 1920, following a report on its condition by the S.P.A.B. in 1915