4D Text

In July 1940 Trevor Thomas (lower centre left) was appointed Curator (later Director) of the Leicester Museums and Art Gallery, at the age of 33. With constant air raids over British cities, museums throughout the country were instructed to move precious objects to safety and, if required, give up space to the military. ‘Do nothing for the duration’ was the official line, leaving Leicester Museum with little to exhibit and less to do. In London the young Director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark, had other ideas. Insisting it was crucial that the public were entertained, and morale maintained, he set up an ambitious programme of exhibitions, educational and social events. The Jewish pianist Myra Hess contacted Clark with a novel idea and a gallery space was hastily converted into a concert venue. From October 1939, there were daily performances every week of the year, even during the Blitz.

Trevor Thomas was inspired by Clark’s programming and started to fill the Museum with an inspiring series of events. He organised a wide range of educational and artistic activities and talks, suitable for all ages, especially in the summer, to encourage families to stay in the city and reduce travel. He curated exhibitions of local artists and arts and crafts groups. Working with CEMA, the predecessor of the Arts Council, they hosted touring exhibitions. With the acquisition of a grand piano he started lunchtime concerts, which became a popular feature and continue to this day.

Given the restricted circumstances under which the museum was working, Trevor Thomas had had no early opportunity to exhibit the kind of European art which had so inspired him in New York. However, in 1943, with the support of the Polish Air Force of Great Britain, he organised an exhibition of contemporary Polish art. This was followed by the 1944 ‘Exhibition of Mid-European Art’ (upper left), the first exhibition in Britain of German Impressionism and Expressionism since the Burlington Exhibition of 1938. Certainly, it was an ambitious venture during a war against Germany. In preparation, Thomas had been in contact in 1943 with various German refugee agencies and this had brought him in touch with Thekla Hess and her son Hans in Leicester. Thomas quickly realised that both Hans, who remained classified an enemy alien and was ‘working cleaning out cowsheds’, and his mother had an exceptional knowledge of German Expressionism and an even more exceptional collection of actual German Expressionist paintings.

The authorities tightly constrained Trevor Thomas over this exhibition. He had to work on it in his own time, and it had to be sponsored by a British anti-Nazi cultural organisation, in this case the Leicester Branch of the Free German League of Culture. The exhibition included 62 important works, mainly by German Expressionist artists. They included: ‘The Mask, or Head with Red-Black Hair’, watercolour, c.1910, by Emil Nolde and purchased from Tekla Hess (bottom right); ‘Red Woman,
or Rote Frau’, oil, 1912, by Franz Marc and purchased from Stefan Pauson, brother of Tekla Hess (centre right); ‘Behind the Church, or The Square’, oil, 1916, by Lyonel Feininger, purchased from Tekla Hess (bottom left) and ‘View from My Window, or The Bridge at Erfurt, watercolour’, 1919, by Max Pechstein (top right). This last work was a gift from Tekla Hess, marking the occasion of the exhibition and in recognition of the friendship shown to her and Hans by Trevor Thomas. Thomas had also been trying to find a way to help Hans Hess personally, and before the exhibition opened, he arranged for Hans to be released from interment in order to be employed by the museum
as his assistant. Hess began work in Leicester in summer 1944 and remained there until 1948. The purchase of ‘Red Woman’ for £350 by the Museum Committee was a remarkable coup for Leicester, and indeed for Trevor Thomas, though it was achieved only after a long, well documented and sometimes hilarious debate. His key role in acquiring four works from the exhibition as it concluded helped found Leicester’s distinguished collection of 20th century German Art.