Kurt Schwitters was a lifelong creator and multitalented painter, sculptor, poet, graphic designer and performance artist. Having left his home country of Germany in 1937, he finally settled in Ambleside as a refugee in 1945. Many artworks he produced here were portraits of local people.
When Schwitters landed in Britain in 1940, the Second World War was gathering pace. As a German he was officially detained as a presumed spy, and immediately interned. After his release from Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man in late 1941, he moved to London. It was in September 1942 that he experienced his first visit to the Lake District, and later moved in 1945.
It was not always easy to make connections or new contacts as a German refugee in Ambleside, but Schwitters did make some significant relationships including with Dr Johnston, Charles Simpson and the Vartys – all of whom had their portraits painted by Schwitters.
These people, whilst being important members of the community, also became Schwitters’ good friends. Dr Johnston and Charles Simpson would often play chess with Kurt, and Arnold Varty, husband of Molly, introduced him to contacts that led to more portrait commissions.
In 1946, Dr Johnston’s portrait in an Ambleside shop window captured the attention of a passer-by. This passer-by was Harry Pierce, who sought out Schwitters and commissioned him to paint family portraits.
At the Pierce home in Elterwater, Langdale, Schwitters found a new site for his latest “Merzbau” creation. However, to support his living and to continue to evolve the installation, Schwitters needed money. The income derived from his talents as a portrait painter thus became essential. Sometimes he was commissioned to paint portraits for individuals or families, sometimes he produced them in exchange for goods and services.
So in this display for 2024, we are exploring another side to Schwitters as an artist – we’re attempting to understand his interactions as a member of the community, as well as discovering more about the people of Ambleside and their stories.
See our Kurt Schwitters collection page for more information.