Art Behind Barbed Wire

Two rows of human figures sat on benches eating outside a tent

26 February 2004 - 03 May 2004

This exhibition has now closed

Amongst the large number of refugees arriving in Britain between 1933-39, a small but significant number were artists, fleeing persecution for their opposition to Hitler's regime. Many who reached Britain were subsequently interned.

Established and younger artists and a variety of artistic styles were represented in the internment camps. Most famous was the artistic community in Hutchinson Camp, Douglas, on the Isle of Man, which included the renowned Kurt Schwitters. Huyton Alien Internment Camp too had its distinguished artist residents, including John Heartfield, Martin Bloch and Samson Schames.

In 1999, Walker Art Gallery purchased a group of watercolours and drawings by two refugees, Hugo Dachinger and Walter Nessler which were created during the artists' internment at Huyton. They were shown for the first time in this exhibition, a testament to the power of art to assert itself in desperate circumstances and a record of one of the more shameful episodes of British wartime history.

While inside, these artists produced a series of fascinating watercolours and sketches of scenes in the camp, painted on fragile newspaper including copies of The Times and Manchester Guardian and other scraps of paper because no proper artists' materials were available.

This exhibition also included works from Walker Art Gallery's collection by Thomas Burke, a Liverpool-born artist who served as a Merchant Seaman and was captured and subsequently imprisoned at Milag Camp, Westertimke, Germany until 1945.

Huyton Alien Internment Camp 

In summer 1940, as the Allied position deteriorated, Home Secretary Sir John Anderson ordered the arrest and imprisonment of many Germans and Austrians living in Britain. Fearing that a small number of these 'enemy aliens' posed a risk to national security, Churchill's instruction was to ''Collar the lot!''. Around 27,000 men and women, mostly Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, were interned in hastily erected camps all over the country.

One of these was at Huyton, near Liverpool. Internees were housed in the recently built Woolfall Heath Estate, which was divided by an eight-metre high barbed wire fence. Conditions were often appalling: inmates lived crowded into unfurnished houses and tents, many sleeping on mattresses on the floor. Food was limited in quantity and monotonous. Morale amongst inmates was understandably low and there were instances of insanity and suicide.

Only a huge public outcry and heated debate in Parliament forced the Government to change its policy. By early 1941, most internees had been freed. At Huyton, conditions improved and by October, the camp had released its inmates and was being used as a military facility.

Thomas Burke

Sketch drawing of a man with a moustache wearing a cap

'Self portrait'

Burke was born in 1906 in Liverpool. During the 1920s and 30s he studied art at Liverpool College of Art and the Royal College of Art, London.

In 1941 he joined the Merchant Navy as 3rd Radio Officer on the ship the Dalesman. In May that year, the Dalesman was bombed and sunk by enemy aircraft off the coast of Crete. Burke, along with other Merchant Navy personnel, was transferred to Milag (Marine Internierten Lager, or Marine Internment Camp) at Westertimke, north west Germany. Whilst imprisoned, he produced many drawings and watercolours. These included images of camp life, portraits and set designs for theatrical productions.

In 1945, Burke was repatriated to Britain. He died the same year, probably of blackwater fever which he had contracted in the camps.

Colourful painting of characters on stage in Japanese costume

'Costume and set design for Milag camp performance of the Mikado', Thomas Burke

Sketch drawing of four men sat at a table playing cards

'Milag camp: four prisoners of war playing cards', Thomas Burke

Hugo Dachinger

Portrait painting on newspaper

'Portrait of a man in brown jacket and blue striped tie'

Dachinger was born in 1908 in Gmunden, Upper Austria and studied fine art in Leipzig, Germany. Unable to make a living as an artist, he worked in Vienna, Austria as a window-dresser for the English company Saville and Co. As a Jew, life under the Nazis became increasingly dangerous for Dachinger. By 1939 he had been persuaded by his British customers, with the support of his employers, to move to England.

In June 1940, Dachinger was arrested and taken to Huyton. At the camp, he produced a large number of drawings depicting the physical aspects of the estate, the men's daily activities as well as more intimate portraits of his fellow internees. In many cases he used improvised materials such as discarded newspaper and wallpaper.

By October 1940, Dachinger had been transferred to the Mooragh Camp, Ramsey, Isle of Man. Whilst at the camp, he held an exhibition of his internment pictures called Art Behind Barbed Wire. He was released in January 1941. In April that year, forty of his internment works were exhibited to critical acclaim at the Redfern Gallery in London, Dachinger's first exhibition in Britain as a free man.

'Portrait of a man wearing blue shirt and red tie', Hugo Dachinger

Portrait of a seated man resting his head on his right hand

'Portrait of a man in blue sweater and brown jacket', Hugo Dachinger

Painting of men in an inernment camp painted on newspaper

'Empty Days', Hugo Dachinger

Rough unfinished sketch painting

'Two internees bowing in front of an officer', Hugo Dachinger

Sketch of men sat at a table

'Waiting, Waiting', Hugo Dachinger

Walter Nessler

Sketch drawing of three men

'How are you?'

Nessler was born in 1912 in Leipzig, Germany and studied art in Dresden. Although not Jewish, he was one of a radical group of artists whose work was denounced as degenerate by the Nazi Government. He was obliged to work as a commercial artist in order to make a living. Vehemently opposed to the Nazi party, Nessler left for a holiday in England in 1937 with his English wife-to-be, Prudence Ashbee. They had no intention of returning to Germany.

Nessler was arrested in May 1940 when living in Sevenoaks, Kent. He was subsequently taken to Liverpool and then on to Huyton. Nessler spent much of his internment drawing and his monochromatic, black ink landscapes capture the dreariness and monotony of the experience.

In September 1940, Nessler was released from Huyton and allowed to join the Pioneer Corps, which until the general releases of internees began was the only way of escaping the camps.

Sketch drawing of buildings on a cloudy day

'The Camp', Walter Nessler

Sketch drawing of a tent in front of buildings

'The Tent', Walter Nessler