Kurt Schwitters (20th June 1887 to 8th January 1948)


A few years ago I sated my interest in art when reading a small column-filler in a newspaper about the German artist Kurt Schwitters. His art piece Ja Was Bild had sold at Christie's in London for £13.9 million! I didn’t know him that well but knew he was a heavy influence to many artists since. More interestingly I read he had been buried for years in a quaint churchyard in the Lake District. On a long weekend up there I went to find him.


Kurt was born in Hanover to affluent parents. No matter how comfortable life was they couldn’t stop their son having an epileptic seizure at 20 years old (this exempted him from fighting in World War I.) After studying art at the Dresden Academy he started his career as a post-impressionist painter - as you can when your parents are well off. Aged 24 he had his first exhibition He did some normal work though - 18 months as a draftsman in a factory just outside Hanover.


He married his cousin Helma aged 18 and they had two sons (the first one died within a week of birth.) By 32 he was famous and part of the international avant-garde artists.


So how did he end up in England? When a man moves to another a country it usually one of the “w”s – work, woman or war. In this case it was the last one. As the Nazis controlled Germany Kurt was “wanted for an interview." He fled to Norway to join his son Ernst (who had already fled Germany) but his wife decided to remain in Hanover to manage their four properties. She visited Kurt in Norway for a few months each year up to the outbreak of World War II. They had a joint celebration for his mother’s 80th birthday and his son Ernst's engagement on 2nd June 1939 but it would be the last time the two met.


When the Nazis invaded Norway Kurt fled again to Leith in Scotland with his son and daughter-in-law. Aged 53 he lived between various internment camps one being in Isle of Man. There were about 1200 Germans or Austrians some who were a heady mix of artists, writers, university professors and other intellectuals. Kurt was produced over 200 works during his internment and even wrote for the camp newsletter “The Camp.” Art supplies were scarce and he would mix brick dust with sardine oil for paint, dig up clay when out on walks for sculpture and rip up the lino floors to make linocut prints.


Oddly his epileptic seizures starts again after about three decades. He applied for release from the camp and got it. He moved to Paddington, London where he met his future companion, Edith Thomas (27, half his age.)


Aged 56 in 1944 he showed 45 works in a solo exhibition at The Modern Art Gallery in December 1944. Only one sold. It was tough time: he heard his wife had died and suffered his first stroke and was temporarily paralysed on one side of his body.


He ended up in the Lake District as he went there on holiday with Edith in September 1942. He liked it so much he moved to Ambleside but suffered a second stroke. You may think Edith was with him Kurt for his wallet but he was almost penniless and was forced to paint portraits and landscape pictures to sell locally.


On 7th January 1948 he received the news that he had been granted British citizenship. The following day he died from heart failure in Kendal Hospital. He was buried here in an unmarked grave behind St. Mary's Church in Ambleside. In 1966 a stone was erected but in 1970 he was dug up and re-buried in Hanover.




Looking looking at the rear of the church…


Found you…

Kurt with Edith…

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Not a bad view of the church, Kurt…


Kurt was reburied in Germany…


Sold for £13.9 million in 2014