‘There’s an ever-increasing interest in the Hitler émigrés, but the role of the Hungarians has yet to be discovered,’ said Matthias Sarkozi, former BBC newscaster in the Hungarian section, who introduced the fully booked launch event of Their Safe Haven: British-Hungarian Artists 1930 – 1980. In April 1943 and in the midst of war time London an inaugural exhibition of Hungarian Graphic Art, organised by the émigré critic and publisher Charles Rosner, showcased the work of fourteen Hungarian artists living in Britain.
The book’s author Robert Waterhouse was holidaying in 1960’s Costa Brava with his water colourist aunt Lois, when they met Jean-Georges Simon, one of the fourteen. A close friendship developed between the families. Aunt Lois supported the artist, buying many of his pictures. Simon’s widow subsequently willed his remaining pictures and papers to Waterhouse’s aunt.
Waterhouse undertook extensive research travelling throughout Britain, visiting Vienna and Budapest. His research included unpublished diaries and papers of all fourteen artists. In his book Waterhouse has produced a vivid and human account of their lives integrating it with beautifully reproduced images to illustrate their artistic development.
Sarkozi added, ’For this enormous work Robert should be given an award. Many of the artists had very interesting lives – worthy of a novel.’
Melissa, daughter of the illustrator and author Val Biro, spoke of her father’s selective memory, protesting that he could not remember the exhibition. She wondered if his desire to become British had generated a kind of amnesia. Coming to study art in London at the age of seventeen, he told her, ‘England was not so much a country but a concept…above all it represented freedom’. Biro spent his first summer in Cornwalland when war came he was ‘convinced war was inevitable and necessary.’ Always on the side of Britain, he had a profound emotional attachment to his country of adoption. Determined to make his mark, Biro trudged around the publishers to get work. An artist by day, he worked as a fireman by night – the only job allowed as a registered enemy alien. He married in 1945 and became involved in the bohemian crowd – ‘there was always money for clubbing, but not for furniture’. Melissa was born in 1951. Her father returned to Hungary for a visit in 1969 with considerable trepidation. ‘Did he feel it was like a homecoming? He spoke Hungarian badly with a strange pre-war dialect. In the end he died as he lived – the almost but not quite assimilated Englishman.’
As a teenager, Peter Miller recalled Charles Rosner visiting his parents as a ‘remarkable man, witty and stylish’. In his writings Rosner was the ‘George Soros of the art world – he had an international collection’ and ‘a pioneer in the study of the poster and dust jackets’. Miller posed questions about what was shown at Rosner’s 1943 exhibition as no catalogue exists and there are no surviving contemporary reviews. The remaining promotional leaflet merely lists the work of artists exhibited by room in the Hungarian Club in London.
George Mayer-Marton, painter and teacher was remembered by Nick Braithwaite as having a strong Hungarian identity up to a point. In the First World War Mayer-Marton fought in the Austro-Hungarian army. He competed in the 1929 Olympics – painting was a category then – but disqualified possibly as a Hungarian competing as an Austrian. His diary was insightful, revealing a raw bitterness about his loss of home. Braithwaite expressed gratitude to Waterhouse for his ‘thoroughness and diligence in revealing the talent of artists whose careers were destroyed by Hitler’.
Barbara Dickson recollected Mayer-Marton as ‘Uncle Gyuri’ boarding with her family in 1940s Lancashire. Returning from her first term at boarding school she was greeted by a ‘wonderful mural painted by Uncle Gyuri on her bedroom wall’. They shared a love of the violin and later, when he was lecturing at Liverpool Art school, they would enjoy playing Bartók together.
These personal reminisces at the centre of the event were completed by a moving performance of Bartók’s Duets by violinists Hazel Ross and Eloise Prouse, players with major international orchestras including the City of Birmingham and the Hallé.
Their Safe Haven – Hungarian artists in Britain from the 1930s. Compiled and edited by Robert Waterhouse, Baguis Press 2018.
Hazel Ross performing next – Live at Zedél, 2nd Oct. 2018 see:https://www.brasseriezedel.com/live-at-zedel