Gerty Simon’s Subjects in London

27.7.2021 by Barbara Warnock

In autumn 1933, Gerty Simon arrived in London as an exile from Berlin. She later wrote that she left Nazi Germany as “I found myself as a Jew in particular danger, because as a photographer, I had taken numerous photographs of Social Democratic and anti-fascist personalities and exhibited them in public.”

Simon appears to have come to London equipped to re-establish her career rapidly: she travelled with press clippings about her previous shows and examples of her work. She set up a studio in London, and, remarkably, within a year of her arrival, staged her first show of photographic portraits at the Storran Gallery in Chelsea. Simon seems to have managed to obtain clients because her professional reputation preceded her, as well as through the exile circles to which she was connected in London, her own efforts at self-promotion, and word of mouth.

In London, Simon’s subjects represented a remarkable cross section of leading figures in Britain’s interconnected artistic, theatrical, political and social worlds. As in Berlin, Simon photographed at least as many women as men, and, in London, she also photographed other exiles from Nazi Germany, some of whom she had personal connections with, such as gallerist Alfred Flechtheim, who curated her second London show, and the actress Lotte Lenya.

Some of Simon’s most striking portraits from her time in London are of artists – painters, sculptors and print-makers like Paul Nash, Iain Macnab, Frank Dobson, Sir William Rothenstein, Freda Lady Forres, and Gladys Calthorp, a set designer. According to the newspaper the Daily Sketch, Gerty Simon “likes ‘shooting’ painters because they understand exactly what she wants in the way of compositions, lighting and pose.” Simon photographed Royal Academicians Sir Alfred Munnings and Sir John Lavery, who gave the opening speech at her second London exhibition, Camera Portraits, mounted at the Camera Club in 1935. This exhibition also featured her picture of the then-Director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark, who had been appointed to his position in June 1934 aged just 30.

The Camera Portraits show included a number of portraits of fellow exiles from Nazism: Flechtheim and Lenya, as well as physician Professor Ulrich Friedemann, who had emigrated to Britain in 1933. Kurt Battsek, also of German-Jewish origin, had been based in Britain for longer. He was the London representative of the Berlin-based Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden, and very active in the Central British Fund for German Jewry, which raised funds to support refugees from Nazism.See Naomi Shepherd, Wilfred Israel – German Jewry’s Secret Ambassador (London, 1984), 91.

As in Berlin, Simon photographed actors, such as Peggy Ashcroft, Constance Cummings and Oriel Ross, as well as politicians. Simon portrayed Conservative MP Sir Philip Dawson and also Labour politicians Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee, captured in a lively pair of portraits in 1934. Lee was elected Labour MP for North Lanarkshire in 1929, aged 24, before women her age even had the vote. She later established the Open University. Bevan, MP for Ebbw Vale from 1929-1960, founded the National Health Service. Aneurin Bevan also campaigned actively to raise money to support German refugees: Constance Cummings and her husband Labour MP Benn Levy later took in two children from the Kindertransport scheme to rescue Jewish children threated by Nazi Germany.

Simon also photographed many members of the aristocracy during her time in London, including the Conservative and Unionist politician Lord Balniel, Lord Forres and Lady Allington. Aristocratic or socialite women, representatives of “fashion” according to The Daily Telegraph’s T.W. Earp,T.W. Earp, ‘New Art Exhibitions’, The Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1935. were also amongst Simon’s subjects, including Violet Kingcote, June de Trafford, Lady Katherine Rollo, Princess de Chimay, Veronica Fitzgerald, Nemone Balfour and Jennifer Fry. Other notables captured by Gerty Simon included General Sir Hubert Gough, Commander of the Fifth Army 1916-1918; Shiela Grant Duff, journalist and later opponent of the policy of appeasement; economist Sir George Paish; and the aviators Eric Gordon England and Lord Sempill.

Individual pictures stand out: that of Lucy Moser for example shows the same ability to make profound portraits of older subjects as had also been reflected in Simon’s Berlin photographs of Max Liebermann and Käthe Kollwitz. Ballet dancer and choreographer Alicia Markova and an unknown subject labelled as ‘Spaniard’ both engage the viewer with a direct uncompromising look.

In her London portraits, Gerty Simon produced a strong and distinctive body of work, capturing a range of leading figures in British society, politics and culture. Her work in London continued to reflect the highly expressive style that she had developed in Berlin. That Simon managed to re-establish her career in this way so rapidly after the rupture of her departure from Berlin makes her portraits all the more remarkable.

All photographs © The Bernard Simon Estate, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections