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How émigré Jewish dealers enriched the UK art market

Gillan Ayres, Brood, 1962
Gillan Ayres, Brood, 1962  Credit: Sam Mundy

It’s not often that the big auction rooms pay homage to art dealers; they are usually too busy poaching the dealers’ business and clients. But, in an exhibition that opens this week in London, Sotheby’s doffs its cap to the émigré Jewish dealers who came to Britain from Europe to escape Nazi atrocities.

They added significantly to the cultural landscape of Britain and to the London art market, helping to turn it into the international force it has become since the Second World War. Some of those businesses are still going strong today. Among them is Marlborough Fine Art, founded in 1946 by Harry Fischer and Franz Levai (who changed his name to Frank Lloyd). The two had fled Vienna in 1938 on the eve of Anschluss – Levai to Paris, Fischer to Switzerland, before finding their way to London.

Among the British artists they came to represent were Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Frank Auerbach; from Austria, Oskar Kokoschka and Gustav Klimt; and from America, Mark Rothko and the estate of Jackson Pollock. They adopted a model that paid their artists a regular income, high fees, and rented palazzos in Venice during the Biennale to show their work.

Bernard Cohen, untitled 3 from Flowers

Another survivor is Annely Juda Fine Art. Juda left Germany in the mid-Thirties, settling in London in 1960, when she founded a gallery exhibiting British avant-garde artists Gillian Ayres, Bernard Cohen and William Turnbull. She later became the most reliable dealer from whom to buy Russian avant-garde art, and represented Leon Kossoff, David Hockney and Anthony Caro. Caro had previously been represented by Gimpel Fils.

The sons of dealer René Gimpel, who died in a labour camp, Peter and Charles Gimpel, were not strictly refugees as they were already based in England before the war. In 1946, though, they opened a gallery, where they were willing to exhibit artists early in their career, such as the Scottish abstract expressionist Alan Davie.

They started the talent exhibition Young Contemporaries (now Bloomberg New Contemporaries), and arranged exhibitions for artists such as Peter Lanyon at the Martha Jackson gallery in New York. Charles’s son, René, believes the émigré dealers tended to be avant-garde because they were outsiders. “As survivors, they were always recreating a dialogue because establishment dialogues were not their own.”

Also with a toe-hold in Britain were the German Jewish dealers Henry Roland and Gustave Delbanco, who set up shop in London in 1930. In 1945, they formed a partnership with Lillian Browse to launch the Roland, Browse & Delbanco gallery (now just Browse & Derby in Cork Street). Roland particularly supported émigré Jewish artists and exhibited the Polish expressionist painter, Josef Herman, for 35 years.  

Alan Davie, Monk's Vision

Hungarian-born Andras Kalman studied at Leeds University and worked as an air raid warden during the war. After his parents were murdered at Auschwitz, he established roots in England, opening a gallery (Crane Kalman, which his children now run) where he exhibited not only British artists such as L S Lowry and Ben and Winifred Nicholson, but also an international roster of artists that he shared with Swiss gallerists Ernst Beyeler and Jan Krugier.

Then there were the dealers whose galleries no longer operate, such as the Austrian art dealer Paul Wengraf, who arrived in London in 1938. Supported by the engineer Ove Arup, he opened the Arcade Gallery and staged the first and only UK exhibition for the German photomontage artist John Heartfield, who had escaped the Nazi purge by jumping from the balcony of his Berlin home and hiding in a dustbin.

These dealers formed a network. Erica Brausen, for instance, who became famous as the first dealer to exhibit Francis Bacon, was supported by Lea Bondi Jaray, who had arrived in London in 1939 having had to relinquish her gallery in Vienna. Jaray introduced modern German and Austrian artists like Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka to the London market through the St George’s Gallery, but is best known today for the restitution case over her Schiele Portrait of Wally that was returned to her heirs in 2010, valued at $19 million.

Restitution will surface in the discussion programme, where René Gimpel, whose family is fighting a lawsuit in France for the return of three fauvist paintings by André Derain, will speak. As none of the works in the exhibition is for sale, restitution may be its financial raison d’être. Such works could be Sotheby’s to sell one day. Cynicism apart, the exhibition, for which Lund Humphries’s recent publication Insiders/Outsiders is required reading, touches on an extraordinary phenomenon from which British culture emerged immeasurably richer.

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