Elisabeth Zuckerman

Inspiring promoter of contemporary craft





Elisabeth Maria Kufler, gallerist: born Vienna 14 September 1918; married 1937 Karl Zuckerman (died 1960; two daughters); died Hoylake, Merseyside 5 October 2004.

Elisabeth Maria Kufler, gallerist: born Vienna 14 September 1918; married 1937 Karl Zuckerman (died 1960; two daughters); died Hoylake, Merseyside 5 October 2004.

Elisabeth Zuckerman played a central part in establishing the Bluecoat Display Centre, Liverpool, earning it a reputation for showing sound, well-made craft from leading contemporary makers. Tall and commanding, she was large in spirit and generous in outlook, inspiring craftspeople and collectors alike.

While there was nothing in her background that appeared to equip her for the role, she took to the position of director with relish, and welcomed the challenge. Adept at cajoling established craftsmen and women to provide their finest work, and patiently nurturing those as the start of the career, she set and maintained the highest standards of skill and innovation. Part of the diaspora following the rise to power of Hitler in Germany, Zuckerman adapted to her new life in Britain with enthusiasm, speaking English beautifully with a melodic if at times strong Austrian accent.

Elisabeth Kufler, as she was then, was born in Vienna shortly before the end of the First World War to wealthy and cultivated parents, both of whom were of Jewish descent but not religion. Her mother was a Roman Catholic, her father a Protestant convert who managed a company concerned with spinning and weaving. Although it failed during the great industrial depression of the 1930s, he was left comfortably off, enabling Elisabeth, for example, to have an English governess, which may well have sparked the love she was to later develop for her adopted country.

At the age of 19 she fell in love with Karl Zuckerman, a man 15 years her senior, and, with Hitler about to implement his anti-Jewish policy in Austria, she agreed to marry and saw the wisdom in leaving Austria. The wedding ceremony was held in Prague before they travelled to England via Switzerland, although their ultimate destination was Canada.

In England, as part of the regeneration of Merseyside, Karl, or Charles as he became known, was offered property in Speke by Liverpool Council at a peppercorn rent to set up a business. With a background in timber production, he established a prosperous factory making plywood panels for doors, a product that, with the outbreak of war, was immediately appropriated by the Government, when the panels were used for such things as aeroplane wings and inside submarines. A dutiful wife, Elisabeth helped her husband in the factory, learnt to type and took care of the paperwork, though this was interrupted by the birth of two girls, Katherine and Mary.

Charles's death after a six-year illness in 1960 brought a new phase in Elisabeth Zuckerman's life. Still a relatively young woman, and in search of fulfilling work, she took the job helping at the newly established Bluecoat Display Centre, which had been set up the previous year by Robert Gardner-Medwin, Professor of Architecture at Liverpool University.

The centre, operating from a large studio in Bluecoat Chambers, a handsome Queen Anne building in the city centre, had the aim of promoting and showing the work of leading designers of the time. The ethos to found a non-profit distributing organisation to sell, promote and exhibit the work of contemporary designers and makers continues today.

Within a few months of taking the job, Zuckerman found herself in charge when Gardner-Medwin decided he preferred teaching to running a gallery. Despite the lack of experience and the still unformed identity of the centre, Zuckerman, recognising her lack of training, sought advice from experts such as Peter Dingley in Stratford-upon-Avon, who ran one of the best private galleries outside London. He willingly gave of his experience and the two became lifelong friends.

At much the same time she met the distinguished collector of modern ceramics W.A. ("Bill") Ismay, and from him learnt about the various technical and aesthetic aspects of the craft. She developed a sharp eye for the finer points of well-made work, and a friendship was established that endured and strengthened as the years passed.

Recognising the need to obtain the best pieces of work, Zuckerman travelled the county in her battered Renault visiting craftsmen and women in their studios, selecting pieces to take back to Liverpool. Travelling enabled her to satisfy her other great passion, which was English medieval churches, preferably unspoilt by Victorian amendments. With a well-thumbed two-volume edition of John Betjeman's classic English Parish Churches permanently in the car, elaborate detours would be made to visit out of the way buildings. Like her friend Fritz Spiegl, who became more Liverpudlian than those born in the city, Zuckerman was a passionate devotee of English tradition and architecture.

Under her watchful and alert gaze, the centre flourished. Despite its being managed on a shoestring budget, exhibitions were mounted and new work sought out, establishing it as one of Britain's leading galleries specialising in craft. The work of major potters such as Michael Casson was regularly on show, alongside colourful work by the jeweller Jane Adam and Peter Layton's inventive glass. The large and carefully chosen stock ensured the centre maintained its reputation. Retirement came in 1986 and with characteristic generosity Elisabeth Zuckerman handed over a thriving and respected organisation to her successor Maureen Brampton, helping her with advice, support and encouragement.

Emmanuel Cooper

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