Walter Nessler

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Walter Horst Nessler, artist: born Leipzig, Germany 19 January 1912: married 1937 Prudence Ashbee (one son, marriage dissolved 1946), 1953 Erica Ulman: died London 18 December 2001.

Walter Nessler was a gifted, versatile and courageous painter who moved from Germany to Britain in the 1930s to avoid Nazi repression. Although he made a successful career here, if he could have worked unhindered in his own country he would probably have ranked among Germany's most important post-war artists.

Born in Leipzig in 1912, Nessler moved aged six to Dresden with his mother and aunt. After studying at the Technical Art College, he worked as a commercial artist and window dresser, studying painting at the Castelli Italian Art School, 1933-35.

Nessler was developing at a dangerous time, as the Nazis were denouncing what they termed "Degenerate Art". He was one of a free-thinking group that met in a Dresden café where Gestapo spies were planted. Realising that Nessler and his friends might express subversive sentiments, the proprietor discreetly made a back room available where they could talk unheard.

Although not a Jew, Nessler opposed Hitler's National Socialism. While working as a window-dresser for a store, as a joke he placed on top of a Christmas tree not the usual decoration but the Star of David, prompting his instant dismissal.

In Dresden, Walter met Prudence Ashbee, a dancer studying at the progressive Wigman School, for whose theatre Nessler painted stage sets. She was one of four daughters of the British Arts and Crafts architect and designer C.R. Ashbee, who had established a community of craftsmen at Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire.

Nessler and Prudence Ashbee left for Britain, with C.R. Ashbee acting as Nessler's sponsor. Shortly before leaving Germany, Nessler had produced Das Hitler ABC ("The Hitler ABC"), each letter of which lampooned – often savagely – Hitler's characteristics. Prudence Ashbee travelled separately, smuggling it out in her baggage. In 1937 Nessler and Ashbee were married.

When the Second World War came, with many exiled artists Nessler was interned at Huyton, Liverpool, where he drew notable fellow internees such as the dancer Kurt Jooss and the German print publisher and dealer Erich Cassier. Once it was realised that he was no subversive, Nessler was able to join the Pioneer Corps, serving in France after the 1944 D-Day invasion.

With Canadian troops, the Corps was felling trees in the Ardennes when in December 1944 the German army launched its counter-offensive. If part of the attacking force had taken a right instead of a left turning at one road fork, Nessler's company would have been overrun. He would have been in a perilous position having, unlike many exiles, retained his German name and, not being classed a refugee, having no protection under the Geneva Convention.

During army service, Nessler continued to sketch places and people. His fellow exile and lifelong friend the designer Harry Rossney remembers Nessler's encouraging him, other comrades and local French people in his painting classes. In England after the war Rossney and Nessler, who was by now divorced, worked together "on anything we could lay our hands on", said Rossney. "Once he had established himself, Walter's career took off in a big way. He was a very fast worker in any medium he chose." A large quantity of work Nessler had left in Dresden with his mother was destroyed during Allied bombing, so he was making a fresh start.

Realising the importance of Paris to the art world, Nessler drew on the hospitality of his former wife's sister and her Italian artist husband, who had a flat in the French capital. There he mixed easily with other artists, meeting Cocteau, Sartre, Picasso, Giacometti and Matisse. The School of Paris and Cubism made a strong impression on his pictures, with bright colours dispelling post-war gloom.

Nessler went on to study sculpture with Elisabeth Frink at St Martin's School of Art in London, later teaching there and elsewhere. Use of an oil-sand technique at the end of the 1950s and the discovery of polyester resin in the 1960s added further dimensions to his work.

Nessler showed in many mixed exhibitions, including those of the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of British Artists as well as with private galleries in London, the provinces and abroad. In Rome in the early 1970s he won gold and silver medals. He was featured in key exile-artists exhibitions, such as London Artists from Germany, at the German Embassy in 1978. More than two dozen solo exhibitions latterly included five at the John Denham Gallery, between 1984 and 1997.

A retrospective organised by John Denham in 1990 coincided with new recognition for Nessler in Germany. Bund-Verlag produced an edition of Ernst Toiler's Das Schwalbenbuch ("The Swallowbook"), using Nessler's 1937 illustrations; he was made an honorary fellow of the Dresden Academy; Galerie Berlin gave him a solo show, which travelled to Dusseldorf and Dresden; and the scholar Ralf Hartweg produced a catalogue raisonné of Nessler's major works.

Nessler's pictures are held by several public galleries in Britain and abroad. His big painting Premonition, painted several years before the war and presaging the London Blitz, hangs in the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon.

David Buckman