The Walker Reveals A Wartime Life Behind Barbed Wire

By Corinne Field | 24 March 2004
Shows a photograph of a painting of camp internees wearing hats and coats. In the background appears to be a fence, behind which are some tents and a building.

Photo: Group of internees in hats and coats, Hugo Dachinger. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool.

Featuring work by two artists held at Huyton Alien Internment Camp during the Second World War, Art Behind Barbed Wire is the latest exhibition at The Walker, running until May 3.

Hugo Dachinger, an Austrian Jew, and Walter Nessler, a German, were both living in England when they were arrested and taken to Huyton in the summer of 1940.

Afraid that Austrians and Germans living in Britain posed a threat to Britain’s national security, Home Secretary Sir John Anderson ordered their arrest and imprisonment. Churchill's instruction was to "Collar the lot!". As a result some 27,000 men and women were interned in camps across the UK.

One of these camps was Huyton, near Liverpool. Comprised of streets of unoccupied council houses, it was, like most internment camps, made up mainly of Jewish people who fled to Britain to escape the Nazis. However, it also included intellectual and artistic refugees like Nessler.

Shows a photograph of an ink drawing of Huyton Alien Internment Camp.

Photo: The Camp, Walter Nessler. Courtesy of National Museums of Liverpool.

Born in Leipzig, Germany in 1902, Walter Nessler studied art in Dresden. He was one of a radical group of artists who’s work was denounced as degenerate by the Nazis and therefore had no choice but to work as a commercial artist to make a living.

Artistically unfulfilled and strongly opposed to the Nazi regime, Nessler decided to leave his motherland for good in 1937. He travelled to Britain with his English wife-to-be Prudence Ashbee and they set up home in Sevenoaks, Kent.

Three years later, following Churchill's edict, Nessler was arrested in May 1940 and taken to Liverpool and then to Huyton where he was interned until September the same year.

Nessler specialised in black ink landscapes. His bleak scenes with titles like The Camp, The Tent and How Are You?, on show at The Walker, capture the tedium of camp life.

Shows a photograph of a painting of a man wearing a blue sweater and a brown jacket. He is leaning on his elbow, supporting his head with his right hand.

Photo: Portrait of a man in blue sweater and brown jacket, Hugo Dachinger. Courtesy of National Museums of Liverpool.

Dachinger was one of many Jewish people who sought refuge in Britain. Born in 1908 in Gumunden, Austria, he studied fine art in Dresden, Germany before working as a window dresser for Saville & Co., an English company, in Vienna.

As a Jew, life became difficult under Hitler’s regime so, on the advice of his customers and with the support of his employers, the artist fled to England in 1939.

Arrested by the British authorities in 1940, Dachinger painted throughout his internment. In the absence of traditional artists materials he used newspapers and even wallpaper as canvas.

His paintings include images of fellow inmates. One shows a table of men peeling potatoes and another shows two internees bowing in front of an officer.

In October 1940 Dachinger was transferred to Mooragh Camp in Ramsey on the Isle of Man, where he held an exhibition of his internment pictures. He called this exhibition Art Behind Barbed Wire.

Shows a photograph of a painting of the dinner hall at Huyton Camp. It is a building with a beamed ceiling. There are two long tables, side by side, lined with men eating dinner. In-between the two rows of tables is a stove. The painting has been done on newspaper - the headlines and copy print are clearly visible.

Photo: Dinner/Vitamins enlisted to win the war, Hugo Dachinger. Courtesy of National Museums of Liverpool.

The Walker’s Art Behind Barbed Wire consists of some of the 32 watercolours and drawings that the gallery bought from Dachinger’s family after his death. Also part of the gallery’s collection, and on show at the exhibition, is work by Liverpool artist, Thomas Burke.

Like Nessler and Dachinger, Burke experienced camp life during the Second World War but in Germany. A radio officer in the British Merchant Navy, he was captured off the coast of Crete by the Nazis in 1941.

On show at The Walker are paintings and drawings, which are the product of Burke's time spent at Milag prisoner of war camp, Westertimke, north west Germany from 1943 to 1945.

Many of the drawings and paintings at the exhibition have never been seen in public before. All of them give a glimpse of what life was like in an enemy camp during the war.

Commenting on the exhibition, its curator Jessica Feather says, "These artworks perfectly capture the stifling atmosphere of uncertainty and quiet desperation in the camp."

As well as a catalogue written by Jessica Feather, local people and ex-internees have recorded their memories of the camp to accompany the exhibition.

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