Kurt Schwitters’ unknown portrait sitter identified as wartime German spy | Books

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The previously unknown subject of a Kurt Schwitters painting has been identified as Ludwig Warschauer, the subject of one of MI5’s very first anti-spy operations, who was sent to Britain to spy for the Gestapo.

Simon Parkin made the discovery while researching his book The Island of Extraordinary Captives, a history of Hutchinson Camp, a second world war prison camp on the Isle of Man. Opened on 13 July 1940, the camp was home to around 1,200 Germans and Austrians who had fled to Britain to escape Nazism when war broke out. Its creation was part of the British government’s policy of mass internment of the so-called “enemy aliens” they had previously welcomed to the country – with prisoners including Schwitters, the celebrated German Dadaist, along with a host of other artists.

Schwitters, said Parkin, produced “dozens” of portraits while interned, “either as favours to his friends, or to sell them as mementoes to eminent internees – £3 for a head and shoulders; £4 for head, shoulders and arms; £5 for a half figure”.

Photograph of Ludwig Warschauer from the MI5 file about him.
Photograph of Ludwig Warschauer from the MI5 file about him. Photograph: Courtesy of the Warschauer family/Hodder

Many of the portraits are well-known, but while Parkin was writing the book, he was sent a document showing thumbnails of all known Schwitters portraits by Dr Isabel Schulz, curator of the Kurt Schwitters archive at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover. One of them bore a “striking resemblance” to a photograph he had seen of Warschauer in MI5’s security files.

Warschauer was a German national who fled to Britain shortly before war broke out. He claimed to be the inventor of the Tefifon, a recording device that functioned like a Dictaphone, and had powerful British allies, including the Conservative MP Herbert Williams, who was chairman of the company financing the Tefifon’s development, and the home secretary John Anderson, who came to his home to watch a demonstration. But MI5 agents suspected he had come to Britain as a Gestapo plant, and he became the subject of a long-running investigation. He went on to confess and was deported to Germany after the war ended.

Warschauer had helped Elisabeth Kohsen and her children flee Nazi Germany shortly before the outbreak of war, in exchange for her hand in marriage. Parkin managed to contact her daughter, Monica Schubert, to ask if she recognised the man in the portrait.

“She told me that not only did she recognise the man as Warschauer, but she also personally knew the painting itself: it had hung in the living room of the family home after the war,” said Parkin. “Her mother had only relinquished the portrait when, after the war Warschauer – whom she had by now divorced, because of his lies – requested the portrait be returned to him in Germany.”

The portrait had been offered for auction at Horster Auktionshaus in March 2007 by an “anonymous artist”, but was withdrawn after the seller learned that it was a painting by Kurt Schwitters. A year later, it was offered again, but not sold, and its whereabouts are currently unknown.

“To have the identity of a sitter in a Kurt Schwitters portrait was a tremendous high. When I passed all this information to Dr Schulz, she updated Schwitters’ catalogue raisonné,” said Parkin. “It only remains now to find out the current whereabouts of the portrait. I was already convinced the individual in the portrait was Warschauer before his stepdaughter confirmed the fact to me … The likeness is uncanny – even if the portrait gives the more flattering likeness.”

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