From Leipzig to London: The Life and Work of the Émigré Artist Hellmuth Weissenborn

By Anna Nyburn. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2012. 192 pp. $29.95 (hardcover) ISBN 9781584563143

From the time the National Socialists seized Germany in 1933 to the official ban of emigration in 1941, a large number of German nationals emigrated to other parts of Europe.  While there is no survey that documents the occupations of these German émigrés, it is known that artists and graphic designers were amongst those who arrived in Great Britain.[1] As a result, there was an artistic phenomenon in which German émigré artists had a unique opportunity to contribute to the British art world through their creativity, craftsmanship, and innovation.

As the title indicates, the book under review introduces the reader to the life and work of Hellmuth Weissenborn, one of the German graphic artists who emigrated to Britain during the pre-World War II era. The opening chapter, titled, “The Émigré Publishers and Book Artists in Britain,” sets the wider context for Weissenborn’s forthcoming career in Britain. It provides an excellent survey of the history of books arts and publishing, not only in that country, but also in Germany. By understanding the national differences between these industries, the reader learns how the presence of Weissenborn and other experienced German émigré artists influenced the British publishing industry.
After the opening chapter, the book is organized chronologically and deals with Weissenborn’s early life and academic career in Germany. Weissenborn had served as a soldier in World War I before going on to study at the Leipzig Academy for Graphic Arts and Book Arts. He was well trained and later advanced to become one of the Academy’s faculty members. The reader also learns more about the Nazi politics that prompted Weissenborn’s decision to move his family to Britain. Although Weissenborn was not Jewish himself, he realized the serious implications of the Nazi regime for his Jewish wife and family and, in 1938, made the decision to leave Germany. Weissenborn’s perspective on this critical moment is found in the following quotation: “My son Florian was then about six, now he was destined to grow up as a second-class citizen, so my intention to see a new existence in exile became a certainty” (p. 70).
Upon Weissenborn’s arrival in Britain, Nyburg continues the chronology by explaining some of the professional and artistic relationships Weissenborn developed. He became part of a supportive network of both German and British artists and intellectuals, including Victor Bonham-Carter, and earned some professional successes through his bookplate designs and illustrations. But Weissenborn also faced serious personal challenges. Though initially classified as a “friendly alien,” he became part of a mass internment on the Isle of Man for several months. This was the start of another difficult period in Weissenborn’s life for, after his release from the internment camp, Weissenborn and his first wife struggled through a tumultuous divorce that also caused periods of separation from his son, Florian.
In addition to the descriptive account of Weissenborn’s life in Britain, the book provides substantial analysis of Weissenborn’s creative process and artistic work, including a close examination of his bookplates and a discussion of how the London Blitz influenced the subject of many of his prints. Drawing upon a range of unpublished primary source material, the book is suitably well-illustrated and includes Weissenborn family photographs, diary entries, ephemera, and excerpts from personal interviews. An interesting anecdote from one of Weissenborn’s interviews recounts how, as a German alien living in Britain, he was reluctant to be seen sketching at bomb sites. Instead, he found a compromise: “…the danger was if I would have been sketching then it may have sent me back to the camp you know – it wasn’t worth it. So I actually only made memorising sketches, I made linocuts…It is not absolutely an [accurate] reproduction of the scenes but it is rather a metaphorical interpretation of the London scene” (p. 111). Despite personal hardships, Weissenborn found professional success in Britain through his teaching and exhibitions. He also remarried and founded The Acorn Press in partnership with his new wife.  Both his new business and his art work allowed him to remain creatively active for the remainder of his life.
Through a richly detailed account of the life and experience of Hellmuth Weissenborn, Nyburg provides the reader with a wealth of information relevant to the history of graphic arts in Britain. Even for the reader not well informed about graphic arts or the modern history of publishing, the book contains substantial historical context to support its discussions.
Weissenborn’s life and career is just one story of the German artistic influence in Britain. But it is an important one because it exemplifies the social and political factors that affected the creative output of the German émigré artists. This book sheds light on a segment of the German population that deserves attention for their important contributions to modern art in Britain.

Amy Andres

Art History Librarian

Virginia Commonwealth University, Qatar

[1] Robin Kinross, “Émigré Graphic Designers in Britain: Around the Second World War and Afterwards,” Journal of Design History 3, no. 1 (1990): 35.