Interned Artists: Ben Uri and the 80th Anniversary of Internment

In memory of Eva Aldbrook 1925-2020


On the 80th anniversary of internment in Britain, Ben Uri is celebrating the many artist internees who are represented within its permanent collection through this online exhibition. 

At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, some 74,000 former German and Austrian citizens who resided in Britain — many who had arrived as refugees from Nazi persecution — were registered as ‘enemy aliens’ and categorised by regional tribunals, according to the level of security risk that they supposedly presented. Months later, in late spring 1940, the fear of invasion after the fall of France, concern for Fifth Column activity and resulting media agitation, led to the sudden and dramatic implementation of the Government’s mass internment policy. In the wake of newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s directive to ‘Collar the Lot!’, 27,000 émigrés were apprehended and even so-called ‘friendly aliens’ were faced with immediate incarceration.  With an imperfect system in place, wholesale and haphazard arrests occurred nationwide, cutting across categories, gender, families, generations, professions, religion, and political alignment, and often regardless of an individual’s well-being. Transit camps were swiftly established on the mainland — some in wholly unsuitable locations such as Kempton and Ascot racecourses, Huyton in an unoccupied Liverpool council housing estate, and Warth Mills, an abandoned cotton mill outside Manchester — from where many internees were transferred to more permanent locations in Britain and distant parts of the Commonwealth, including Australia and Canada. Numerous émigré artists, designers and architects were inevitably caught up in this process — including those whom the Hitler regime had previously designated as ‘degenerate’ — left-wing, modernist and/or Jewish, whose work was banned, with many being shipped to the Isle of Man.  The island thus found itself, at its peak in August 1940, as an unwitting home to 14,000 men, women and children in ten camps, mostly requisitioned seaside boarding houses around Douglas: Hutchinson (the so-called ‘artists’ camp’, due to the number of renowned practitioners it housed), Onchan, Palace, Metropole, Central Promenade, Sefton and Granville, together with Peveril Camp in Peel, and Mooragh Camp in Ramsey. Around 4,000 women (including Erna Nonnenmacher and Pamina Liebert-Mahrenholz) were interned in Rushen camp, in the southwest of the island, comprising Port Erin and Port St. Mary. Remarkably quickly, the internees established a cultural life across the camps. According to one statistic, 8.6% of Onchan internees were artists, writers and authors. Furthermore, the presence of distinguished academics from a range of disciplines, in camps such as Hutchinson and Onchan, resulted in a flourishing and intellectual milieu within which art would secure its own important position.


Martin Bloch (1883-1954), Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966), Alfred Lomnitz (1892-1953), Hugo ‘Puck’ Dachinger (1908-1995) and Walter Nessler (1912-2001) all passed through Huyton, while Hutchinson boasted the greatest number of artists with international reputations, notably Dadaist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948); Ludwig Meidner, the leading expressionist, and figurative sculptors, Georg Ehrlich (1897-1966) and Siegfried Charoux (1896-1967). Alongside them were artists whose names are less familiar today: painter Erich Kahn (1904-1980); painter and printmaker Herman Fechenbach (1897-1986); sculptors, Ernst Blensdorf (1896-1976) and Paul Hamann (1891-1973); printmaker and engraver, Hellmuth Weissenborn (1898-1982), and painter/art historian, Fritz Solomonski (1899-1980), who became Ben Uri's first salaried secretary/curator in 1944. Onchan’s artists and designers, embracing a younger generation, included: Ernst Eisenmayer (1920-2018); graphic designer, F H K Henrion (1914-1990); sculptor, Hermann Nonnenmacher (1892-1988);  printmaker, Klaus Meyer (1918-2002), and Jack Bilbo (1907-1967), the flamboyant camp impresario who organised art exhibitions and a cabaret behind the wire; while camp publications provided further creative outlets for text and image.

Internment art was characterised by the artists’ use of improvised materials, ranging from toothpaste, vegetable dyes, and brick dust mixed with oil from sardine cans, for pigments; twigs burnt to make charcoal sticks; wiry beard hair for brushes, and newspaper as a ground to paint and draw on. 


Sixteen artists — both men and women — included in Ben Uri’s collection were either themselves interned, or depicted former internees, creating a rich and unique visual resource documenting this difficult time in British wartime history.


The credit lines reflect the ownership of artworks at the time of the original display.