4C Text

After Alfred Hess’s death, the Hess family art collection started to be broken up and dispersed. Aspects of this story emerged during the lengthy 2004 restitution case over the Ludwig Kirchner painting of ‘Berlin Street Scene’. After his father’s death, Hans (top left, from the Hess archive) had spent time sorting out the family’s financial situation, before returning to Berlin. At the beginning of 1933 his Berlin apartment was ransacked by Nazi thugs and he was sacked from the publishing house Ullstein Verlag for being Jewish. He then fled to Paris, where he was penniless, and finally to London in 1935. There he worked for Jewish refugee organisations and helped found the Free German League of Culture. Meanwhile, Thekla Hess had returned to her native Bavaria to be with her mother and in 1933 she sent the most important parts of the collection, as loans, to safety in Swiss museums. Other works were sold to raise funds, while she considered alternative solutions.

In 1937, around 675 works from the Erfurt Museum were seized by the Nazi government as ‘degenerate art’, including the loans and donations of the Hess family. The German authorities also considered that the loan collections in Switzerland were ‘Jewish property assets left abroad in breach of foreign exchange regulation’ and demanded their immediate return. Thekla was forced to request the return of the collection to Germany, where much of it was sold under duress, or later disappeared. Thekla, all the while pursued by the German authorities, was tireless in her efforts to save at least part of the collection, travelling all over Europe in discussion with museums and dealers. She managed to send some pieces to London during 1938 and 1939. The last were smuggled out of Germany in pieces of family furniture shortly before the outbreak of war. With her son and her mother now safely in Britain, Thekla decided she also had to leave Germany and in1939 she joined them in London.

Hans continued to be involved in writing anti-Nazi material. He volunteered for war service and was briefly an air raid warden in Hampstead. After that he was classified as an ‘enemy alien’ and sent to internment camps, first on the Isle of Man and then in Canada. He returned from there in early 1942, having volunteered yet again to help with the war effort. He was put to land work (centre right) near
Loughborough, a task to which he was remarkably unsuited. His mother Thekla moved from London to Leicester to be near her son.

The New Walk Museum in Leicester (bottom left) opened in 1849 as one of the first public council-run museums in Britain. The building was previously a school. The progressive thinking behind the initiative was to create a place where people of all classes and backgrounds could come for recreation and education, aspiring to heal the various political and religious divisions of the town. The original museum contained a vast selection of curiosities. Thomas Cook thought it could become ‘an instructive lounge for the lovers of science’ and his son donated a group of specimens from his travels. Leicester´s Literary and Philosophical Society donated its collection of 10,000 objects to the project. A new lecture hall opened as an art gallery but provoked controversy with debates as to what should be displayed. There were complaints that much of the artwork had little or no educational or artistic value! In November 1926, the museum acquired one of its most popular exhibits, an adult male giraffe from Kenya, nicknamed George, which stood at the top of the stairs (bottom right). He was beloved, with his knees bare from years of stroking by visiting children. Despite his popularity George was eventually moved to Wollaton Hall Museum in Nottingham. Hans and Thekla Hess (top right, in a later photograph from the Hess Archive) first encountered the New Walk Museum when Thekla moved to Leicester.