Nostalgia by Alison Bailey

During WWII our area became a haven for evacuees from London.

These included a group of Hampstead émigrés with two women artists, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky and Mary Durasová (anglicised to Duras).

Both women were born in Vienna but had Czech nationality which made it much easier for them to enter Britain as refugees.

Mary Duras, the older by 10 years, was an established sculptor in Prague, before fleeing the Nazis with very little money.

She exhibited her work throughout Europe and was awarded a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1937.

Marie-Louise, from a wealthy Jewish family, was just at the start of her artistic career when she decided to leave Vienna the day the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany) was declared on March 13 1938. She held her first solo exhibition in Amsterdam in 1939.

Both women left behind loved ones. Mary’s Jewish husband, Arnold Schὕck, survived Auschwitz but never fully recovered, and Marie-Louise’s brother, Karl, died there in 1943.

After becoming firm friends in Hampstead, Marie-Louise may have followed Mary Duras out to Amersham in 1941.

Mary chose her country escape by spreading a map out and allowing her finger to fall on it at random.

Her haphazard selection was Amersham, but she could not find accommodation in the overcrowded town and rented a cottage at Small Dean Farm in Wendover Dean.

After establishing a sculpture studio in the kitchen her work included busts of Winston Churchill, Jan Masaryk, Foreign Minister of the Czech Government-in-Exile in Wingrave, and Marie-Louise.

More successful in finding lodgings, Marie-Louise, her mother, Henriette and her nanny Marie Hauptmann, initially lodged with the eccentric Gordon Milburn and his wife, Mary in their house called Durris in Stubbs Wood.

Later they bought Cornerways in Chestnut Lane.

They spoke very little English, had strong Viennese accents and must have been regarded with great suspicion by local residents.

They were independently wealthy which made their exile easier, but they also used their money and connections to support émigré friends who were not so lucky.

Cornerways soon became a home with their pet dogs and Marie’s Viennese cooking.

The house was filled with family heirlooms, old Viennese furniture and the von Motesiczky art collection which Karl successfully shipped out to them.

Marie-Louise’s studio in the comfortable sitting room became a meeting place for other émigrés, intellectuals, poets, artists, and writers.

Elias Canetti, the German-language writer of Auto-da-Fé, who later won the Noble Prize for Literature, followed Marie-Louise out to Buckinghamshire. His extensive library filled all the bookshelves in Cornerways. With his wife Veza, he lodged with Father Milburn who he harshly satirised in his memoir Party in the Blitz.

Marie-Louise’s 1958 portrait of Father Milburn, now in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, is a much kinder portrayal of the elderly priest. Other visitors included the Czech poet and anthropologist, Franz Baermann Steiner and the expressionist Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka who was a major influence on Marie-Louise’s work.

Frederick Kankam Boadu, a student and anti-colonial activist from The Gold Coast (now Ghana), also visited Marie-Louise in Amersham.

In 1942 both women artists took part in the Allied Artists Exhibition which toured Britain.

In 1944 the Czechoslovak Institute held an “Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture by Marie-Louise Motesiczky and Mary Duras” with both artists’ work reflecting their experience of exile and isolation. Oskar Kokoschka made an unsuccessful attempt to get The Tate Gallery to purchase some of Marie-Louise’s pictures at this time.

Today the Tate owns seven of her paintings and has named a gallery the Marie-Louise Archive Gallery in her honour.

An exhibition to celebrate her life and work is being held at the gallery in Tate Britain until March 22nd.

Three paintings have been given by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust to the Amersham Museum where they are on permanent display.

Books on Marie-Louise von Motesiczky and Neil Rees’ The Czech Connection are available to buy at Amersham Museum.

Amersham Museum is commemorating 75 years since VE Day with an exhibition beginning on April 29 and a garden party on May 8. Please share your family stories or any photos with us.