Harry Weinberger: Emigré painter whose work was partly inspired by his love of masks and icons

The artist Harry Weinberger was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin. His father, an industrialist, moved the family to Czechoslovakia in 1933 soon after Hitler's accession to power. From the window of his parent's house Harry had seen the Reichstag burn. In 1939, after the Kristallnacht pogrom of early November 1938 and the consequent setting up of the Kindertransport, Harry and his sister Ina caught the final train leaving Czechoslovakia for England. In his 80s Harry was delighted to make contact with Nicholas Winton, its organiser, to whom he felt he owed his life.

He joined the British army in 1944, after a short spell at boarding school in Buckinghamshire. Later in life he returned often to writing a journal about his military experiences. His war was that of the common soldier and his subversive streak brought to an end a brief period of promotion. He recalled how his commanding officer had once remarked to him that Weinberger did not sound a very English name. Harry shyly agreed, confessing to the officer that his name was in reality McWeinberger: the nickname Scotty lingered for some time.

His memories of the allied advance through Italy were vivid, although he was always alert to the comic in the most unlikely situations. Yet his Italian campaign was more that of Nicholas Jenkins than Yossarian. It often chimed in with that of another English war diarist, Christopher Seton Watson. In mid-1944 Weinberger saw for himself the pile of rubble which was once the great Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino and deplored that barbaric and unnecessary act.

In South Wales after demobilisation he entered college ostensibly to study engineering, but finding that there was a life-class run by the painter Ceri Richards, he changed direction. His period at Treforest and Pontypool was a happy one and he later produced evocative paintings of the urban landscape of South Wales. His method of painting would give an art historian difficulty. Small rapid sketches of a place, a roof-line, or a cloud formation would fill his notebooks. Some of these, 30 years or more later, would be transformed into finished paintings.

It was at the suggestion of Ceri Richards that he went to study at Chelsea College of Art. He always slightly regretted that he had not taken up an offer of a place at the Slade which came from William Coldstream. At Chelsea, he found his style was not attuned to the prevailing orthodoxies of tone and colour. "Too many lines, Mr Weinberger, too many lines." It was a critique which irked him all his life. He took private lessons from the émigré German artist Martin Bloch, whom he greatly admired. As his own career advanced, and Bloch's did not, he quietly helped his former teacher.

He spent a period at Reading School and his teaching had a lastingly transformative effect on many pupils. At Reading he got to know several members of the University and began his lifelong friendship with Frank Kermode, who unforgettably portrayed the university of that time, and the intellectual pyrotechnics of D. J. Gordon, in his marvellous Not Entitled : a memoir (1996).

In 1951 Weinberger had married Barbara Hermann, the daughter of the eminent architectural historian Wolfgang Herrmann. His relationship with his father-in-law, who had opposed the match, was never easy. Another contemporary lodger in the Herrmann household was Rudolf Wittkower. Barbara was also a fine scholar in her own right, producing the still influential Art Students Observed with Charles Madge (1973) and an oral history of English policing. (1996). She died in 1996. It was a loss from which Harry never entirely recovered, although his later years were brightened by a relationship with a former colleague at Coventry.

In the interview which Weinberger gave for the British Library Archival recording project he reflected that paintings he remembered from his Czech childhood resembled icons. Certainly his fascination with Byzantine painting, and particularly later Russian icons, was lifelong. He collected them when he could, often swapping two or three icons from his collection for some yet more desirable example. He travelled to Novgorod and Mt Sinai to see the icons, and he was decided in his views. For an utterly secular Jew he was intensely attached to his icon collection and they provided an important and mysterious theme in his paintings.

Encouraged by Barbara he took early retirement in 1983 from the Lanchester Polytechnic, (now Coventry University), where he had become head of Department. He settled in Leamington Spa and there again made many friends, among the new teachers at the university, including the distinguished mathematician Christopher Zeeman, who founded the department at Warwick. He did a fine portrait drawing of Zeeman, as he did later of Iris Murdoch. Other friends from this period included the social historian Tony Mason and the then lecturer in English, and later rare book-dealer, Rick Gekoski. Harry was a close friend of Iris Murdoch and they often visited galleries together. She wrote the introduction to one of his exhibition catalogues. He was proud that Murdoch spent a good deal of the money she received from the Booker Prize on his paintings, and was hurt when they were sold after her death.

Weinberger was a deeply serious and erudite painter. He revered Rembrandt and Matthias Grünewald: Van Gogh's correspondence was his constant companion. His own painting, despite his vehement protestations, owed something to German painters such as Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde and Kirchner. His range was astonishing, even if certain themes were recurrent. The large 19th century house in Church Hill, Leamington, was studded with Ibo masks, Indonesian puppets, Buddhas and Tibetan lions.

Collecting masks was a lifelong occupation. They recur constantly in his painting, as does Mr Punch, often with daemonic force. The masks in his paintings were more than a visual metaphor or a fetish. Masks conceal, and yet allow surreptitious scrutiny without betraying the observer's real expression. This appealed deeply to Weinberger's inquisitive mind. A window, or a framing motif within the picture, was another favourite device, enabling him to look out at the world while simultaneously insulating and distancing himself. The prison house was never wholly absent. But besides these vigorous, exotic or brooding compositions he could paint still lives where the influence of his beloved Matisse was joyously evident, and magically serene landscapes and marine views. Iris Murdoch described his "charged, numinous atmosphere, the awkward mystery of space and the spiritual significance of colour," aptly catching the incantatory mood which infuses these paintings.

Music formed an integral part of life, and for many years he and Barbara went regularly to Glyndebourne. Music informed his painting, and the last series of coloured drawings he completed was inspired by Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet. He was steeped in German literature: Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann were particular favourites. One of his most exquisite creations was a small volume of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies, in which he had painted marginal vignettes reflecting the movement of the verse and the emotions it stirred. Throughout his career, despite the siren calls of more celebrated galleries, he remained loyal to Duncan Campbell, where he exhibited regularly. He had important one-man exhibitions in Berlin (1973) and elsewhere in Germany. The Pump Room at Leamington Spa hosted a major retrospective of his work in 2003–2004.

His daughter Joanna and her two sons survive him.

Julian Gardner

Harry Weinberger, artist: born 7 April 1924; married 1951 Barbara Herrmann (died 1996; one daughter); died 10 September 2009.

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