From 'Selbstbiographie in Bildern' (MBH 3/2/21)

Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag (sometimes also Margareta or Gretl) was born in 1902 to parents Richard Hamerschlag and Pauline Hamerschlag (née Herz). Her father, born on 7 October 1872, was a secular Jewish doctor with strong sense of social justice, and the son of a military officer from Bohemia, Adolf Hamerschlag. Her mother was born on 1 June 1875 to Babette (née Selig) and Berthold Herz. Richard and Pauline were married in Vienna on 29 May 1900. Margarete’s sister Cornelia (also known as Nelly or Helene), was born on 9 October 1904. The family lived in the Reinlgasse in Vienna until about 1909, when they moved to a large flat in the Breitenseerstrasse. They took holidays abroad regularly and had a small number of house servants, including a British governess, Nancy Harvey, from whom they learnt English.

From 1911, on the recommendation of the artist Kolo Moser, Margarete went to the junior art class run by Franz Cižek and from 1917 until 1922 she attended the Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Art). She attended classes run by the architect und stage designer Oskar Strnad and the interior designer and head of the fashion department of the Wiener Werkstätte, Eduard Wimmer-Wisgrill, and workshops on printing technique led by Bertold Löffler. Margarete lithographed two books: Kinderfreuden, in which she produced both the text and illustrations, and E.A. Poe’s Die Maske des roten Todes, 1924, which were published by the Wiener Werkstätte. Kinderfreuden in particular was very successful.

After leaving college Margarete began to establish herself as an illustrator and artist, working in oils, water colours and wood cuts. At 20 years of age she became an editor of the magazine Wiener Mode, and illustrated newspapers and magazines such as Die Muskete and Der Sonntag. She exhibited her work at the Galerie Schamer in Frankfurt, Galerie Würthle in Vienna, and with the Hagenbund in Vienna. After WW1 women were still not able to exhibit as members of art societies, but at the first women’s exhibition held at the Museum für Kunst und Industrie in 1927, Margarete exhibited several works. In 1928 Margarete was commissioned to design costumes for Anton Bragaglia’s La Morte di Dottor Faust at the Teatro degli Indepententi Sperimentale in Rome; according to one account she also directed a number of plays there.

In 1922 Margarete had married Josef Berger, architect and pupil of modernist architect Adolf Loos, in 1922, and they lived together in the Rosenhügel artists’ colony in Vienna in the 1920s. The list of friends who joined them on their honeymoon gives some indication of the social circles in which they moved: the fashion designers Hilde Lampl and Fritzi Hohenberg (Josef’s sisters); Hilde’s husband Fritz Lampl, founder of the Blimini Glass company in Vienna; architect Otto Bauer; playwright Carl Zuckmayer; poet Albert Ehrenstein; and the architect Otto Breuer. 

Frustrated at the lack of opportunities for artists in Austria, and following the establishment of the Austrofascist regime, in May 1934 the couple left Austria for Haifa in British Mandate Palestine, where Josef had a commission to build a hotel. Over the following year Josef worked on this and looked for further architectural projects, while Margarete painted the landscape and people of Palestine and travelled alone to Syria and Lebanon, recording her impressions in sketches, painting and writing. In Haifa she designed costumes for the dancer Yardena Cohen, later recognised as in the vanguard of modern dance in pre-State Israel. An exhibition of Margarete’s work was held at the New Gallery in Jerusalem, and her work continued to be exhibited back in Europe, for example, at an exhibition of Austrian art at the Východoslovenské Museum in Košice in eastern Czechoslovakia in 1935.

In Haifa the couple were close to a group of German-speaking immigrants who felt distant from Zionism and viewed themselves primarily as temporary refugees from Europe; the group ncluded the German writer Arnold Zweig and his wife. Margarete and Josef had in fact given up Judaism in 1926 and 1919 respectively, and Margarete later converted to Catholicism. With political unrest between Jews and Arabs on the rise, in late 1935 Margarete and Josef decided to leave Palestine and move to the UK. Margarete left first, travelling by sea from Haifa to London in December 1935, and Josef joined her in London in 1936. They lived close to the Austrian Centre in a flat in Sussex Gardens near Paddington, and their son Florian (later Raymond) was born there in 1937.

After the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Margarete and Josef made great efforts to help friends and relatives still in Vienna. Together with their friends, the artist couple Stephen Bone and Mary Adshead, they found financial guarantors for other refugees.  Margarete’s mother Pauline and the couple’s friends, Hilde and Fritz Lampl, managed to escape Austria and reach the UK before war broke out. Margarete’s sister Nelly, who had married the architect Paul Koch, moved to Paris and survived the war years there.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Margarete was evacuated with Florian to Wooton Fitzpaine and Bridport in Dorset. After her return to London she and her husband were again separated when Josef Berger was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man in July 1940. Margarete and Florian lived through the early days of the Blitz in London but moved to Oxford on 21 September after their flat was bombed. She was supported by a number of prominent individuals who made repeated appeals for Josef’s release, including Sir Muirhead Bone and his son Stephen Bone, Eric Newton, Professor Sir Charles Reilly, and Lord Lytton of RIBA. He was finally released in late December 1940.

Josef then began working for the London County Council under Professor Abercrombie. The family moved to 20 Warwick Avenue in London in 1941 and stayed there until 1955. Throughout the war the couple supported other refugees from Hitler’s regime, some of whom would stay at the house in Warwick Avenue. Margarete kept in active contact with other emigrant artists such as Siegfried Charoux and the artist couple Bettina Ehrlich Bauer and Georg Ehrlich, and she was also well connected in British society. Margarete participated in numerous group exhibitions,  including the ‘Contemporary European Women Painters’ exhibition in 1946, and her work was displayed at the Arcade Gallery, the Wertheim Gallery und Heals Art Gallery. She also designed clothes (possibly as commissions) for the actor Elisabeth Bergner and other acquaintances, and she wrote articles and drew illustrations for UK-based newspapers Die Zeitung, the News Chronicle and Night and Day.

In the post-war years Margarete resumed her travels and painting, particularly around southern Europe. Her diaries, letters and paintings reveal that between 1947 and 1954 she travelled to Corsica, Austria, Sardinia, and mainland Italy. In 1954 she travelled for some weeks in July and August with the Viennese choreographer and actor Gisa Geert, who was at that time working in theatres in Italy. Geert appears to have told Margarete she could secure her design work with revue troupes in Rome, although it is unclear to what extent this plan was realised. In Rome Margarete also was in contact with Anton Bragaglia again and possibly found work through him.

Her archive reveals that in addition to painting Margarete also wrote short stories, poems, short plays for  the theatre, an autobiography of her childhood and youth up to the age of 20, and her reflections on various aspects of her travels and work experiences. One of these, her most successful publication, was Journey into a Fog (1955), containing 16 of her own illustrations, notably her paintings of teddy boys. This was based on her diaries and drawings based on her experiences of teaching in local youth clubs. Journey into a Fog was published by Victor Gollancz. 25,000 copies were sold and a paperback edition was published in 1956. This gave her some financial independence and the family bought a house at 38 South Hill Park, London NW3. Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag died of cancer on 5 April 1958.

The Papers

This archive contains the personal papers of the Austrian-British artist and designer Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag. Just over half the collection consists of her artwork, which includes designs and sketches for costumes for theatre or dance performances or as fashion wear; handmade picture books and illustrated poetry books; sketches and pastel drawings of theatre scenes sketched either during performances or from memory; and portraits and illustrations for her own and other writers’ stories. Notable theatre costumes include designs for the Schauspielhaus in Vienna in 1928; the Teatro degli Indipendenti in Rome in 1928 and 1930; the pioneer of modern Israeli dance, Yardena Cohen in 1935; Italian revue theatre in 1954; Austrian choreographer Gisa Geert in 1954; and the Austrian exile puppeteer Bruno Tublin. There are also a number of fashion designs for the actor Elisabeth Bergner. In addition to the artwork, there are over two boxes of typescripts and manuscripts of Berger-Hamerschlag’s writing, most of which remained unpublished. This includes her children's stories such as ‘The Bungalow at Boxhill’ and ‘The Lost Tune’, stories incorporating elements of Berger-Hamerschlag's autobiography, and a large number of poems reflecting on her experiences in Palestine in the 1930s and her life in the UK after 1936. There is also a set of paintings depicting key moments in her childhood and an autobiographical text covering the period 1902-1918. As well as her artwork and literary writing, there are 14 folders of correspondence, the majority of which is that exchanged by Berger-Hamerschlag and her husband, Josef Berger, during the numerous periods when they were separated, including his internment as an enemy alien in 1940. There are also some letters to and from other members of the Berger family and various friends and officials, particularly concerning Berger’s release from internment. The archive also contains a small number of official documents and fragments of MBH’s diaristic writing.

Archival Arrangement

The records in this archive have been ordered into the following series:

MBH/1   Personal Papers
MBH/2   Correspondence
MBH/3   Autobiography (both text and image)
MBH/4   Literary writing
MBH/5   Handmade Picture and Poetry Books and Cards
MBH/6   Illustrations for Children's Stories
MBH/7   Fashion and Theatre Costumes
MBH/8   Theatre Sketches
MBH/9   Other Artwork
MBH/10 Youth Club Work
MBH/11 Records of Exhibitions and Publications
MBH/12 Miscellaneous

As far as possible the principle of original order was followed to create these series and where it was necessary to make more coherent groupings of material, chronological order was also taken into account.

box-list is available. 

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