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Alfred Hess (bottom right, from the Hess Archive) was born into a prosperous Jewish family of shoe manufacturers in Erfurt, central Germany. Started in 1879, ‘M & L Hess Schuhfabrik’ used modern machinery and contemporary advertising techniques (centre right) to create a highly successful business. After school, Alfred was taken into the family business which grew to have four factories in Erfurt. In 1906 he married Thekla Pauson, who came from an equally prosperous Jewish family. Their son Hans was born in 1908. Like my father Harry Petzal, who was the same age, Hans Hess attended the Odenwaldschule.

Between 1910 and 1912 Alfred and Thekla built an impressive house in their town (bottom centre, from the Hess Archive) with a tennis court, for one of their shared passions (top left, from the Hess Archive). When war was declared, Alfred, a patriot like most German Jews, joined up. He served until 1918 and returned home physically unharmed, but both Alfred and his homeland were changed beyond recognition. Traumatised by the war and now highly receptive to new experience, Alfred and Thekla formed an important friendship with Edwin Redslob, the director of Erfurt Museum and a passionate supporter of contemporary art. Encouraged by Redslob’s careful advice, Alfred and Thekla amassed over 4,000 works of contemporary art between 1918 and 1931. Often, they bought directly from the artist’s studio and many artists became close friends (Christian Rohlfs and Hans Hess top right, from the Hess Archive). The Hess mansion came to contain Germany’s most significant private collection of Expressionism. Alfred continued to direct the family business, as well as taking on numerous civic and political duties and eventually becoming highly influential in the German art world.

The Hess house and its generous hospitality was legendary, as were their famous visitors’ books. These were filled with drawings, poems and inscriptions from famous artists, poets and writers including Klee, Feininger, Kandinsky and Erich Heckel, who drew the Hess house and garden (bottom left). Max Pechstein was one of Alfred and Hans’s favourite artists, a thrilling storyteller and the creator of a strong woodcut ‘Portrait of Alfred Hess’ (centre and in the Leicester collection) made in 1919. Alfred and Thekla were generous and calm hosts who together put guests at ease. The vibrant atmosphere of the house encouraged new friendships and artistic endeavours. The pictures on the walls were always being replaced and added to ‘a true cavalcade of avant garde art’. Many artists donated work to express their thanks for the hospitality. Later the ranks of artist visitors, would be joined by musicians, composers, art historians, publishers and museum directors. As both the collection and his sphere of influence grew, Alfred became instrumental in loans and donations to major museums and exhibitions.

But the dark tensions that beset all of Germany also came to Erfurt and the first anti-Semitic attack on the Hess house was in 1923. In 1926 the Jewish cemetery in Erfurt was vandalised and the local branch of the Nazis gathered for a convention in nearby Weimar. The Hess family clearly understood the looming crisis and began taking Danish lessons with the thought of emigrating to Denmark. The global depression had also dealt a major blow to the Hess business, forcing them to make difficult decisions in terms of staff and production, as well as reviewing their own financial position. Alfred’s unexpected death in 1931 after failed surgery at the age of 52 was an enormous blow. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Erfurt.

At 47, Thekla and her son Hans, now 23, had charge, in difficult times, of a vast collection of expensive and increasingly controversial art. The Hess shoe company had also lost its highly competent managing director. The company was eventually seized and ‘Aryanized’ by the Nazis who held onto the Hess name as, ironically, they did not want to lose the good reputation the Jewish firm had acquired for its products.