Weather Notes: Weather imagery in the personal papers of Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag
Miller Trust Archivist, Dr Clare George, takes a look into our archives to explore how the Austrian British émigré artist Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag found inspiration for her art in the weather
For Austrian-British émigré artist Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag, the weather and its shaping and colouring of the physical and human landscape were a deep source of inspiration for her art and engagement with the world around her. This is evident not only from her paintings, which are held in collections worldwide, but also from the broader records of her work and life in her archive at Senate House Library. Berger-Hamerschlag’s correspondence, poetry and artwork are permeated with weather imagery and metaphors, , often used to conjure vivid descriptions of geographical sites that were significant in her life.
The ability to evoke the memory of past places was of particular importance for Berger-Hamerschlag as an émigré, a ‘free spirit who traversed the world, painting from country to country’, as her son later described her. In the 1920s and early 1930s her work as an illustrator and designer had taken her to southern, central and eastern Europe, and after the establishment of the Austrofascist regime in 1934, she and her husband Josef Berger emigrated to Palestine, where from where she explored and painted Turkey, Syria and Greece.
Records of various kinds have survived from these travels in her archive at SHL, including sketchbook diaries, illustrations, short stories and poetry. In a handmade picture book, ‘Gestanzln aus dem Heiligen Lande’ for instance, she depicted the fierce heat of the Palestinian sun which beat down on all who lived there.
In late 1935, Berger-Hamerschlag left Palestine for the UK with the hope of finding better work opportunities for herself and her husband. As she crossed the Mediterranean Sea aboard MS Bañaderos on her way to London, Berger-Hamerschlag recorded for her husband details of the maritime weather conditions (and their effects on her wellbeing), as well the climatic conditions of the landscapes she dreamily gazed at as she passed them:
Day 1: beautiful, very rough sea;
Day 2: in bed, terribly rough sea;
Day 3: ditto (in bed I was standing on my head, then on my feet ...) …
Day 4: ill, but on deck, sun;
Day 5: terrible, breaking waves over deck, S.O.S. calls to us from a small Italian steamer in the direction of the island of Galathea, but couldn’t change course as that could have put us in danger ourselves. … Past the African coast, beautiful mountainous profile;
Day 6: beautiful weather, me - fresher, pass by Algeria;
Day 7: ditto, me happy, Spanish coast with snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains above. … Already cooler so I need a long time to warm up my feet in bed;
Day 8: grey sea, sky exactly the same, rain, past Cape Vincent and Lisbon;
Day 9: nothing but water, but again blue and sunny;
Day 11: I’m up, rain, grey, we’re in the Channel, ½ hour from Dieppe
Despite political developments back in Austria, the Bergers’ early years in Britain represented a positive moment in their lives, when they at last felt more secure financially, their career prospects were improving and they were expecting their first child. Berger-Hamerschlag’s description of Britain as ‘the lovely island, green in fog and in sea’ was a declaration of her love for the country, the first line of a handmade book of illustrated poetry she created for her sister-in-law not long after arriving in the UK in 1937. The grey fog in which their new home was shrouded was for her part of the enchantment of the British Isles and its wet and fertile greenness.
Letters by Josef Berger to his wife written in one of the numerous periods of their enforced separation during the war show that he shared her fascination with the natural environment and the elements. A notable example is a letter he wrote in the very early days of the war describing a fantasy doing the rounds in London that the large barrage balloons in the sky were somehow helping to prolong the late summer sun and thus delay the outbreak of real warfare:
It must be most lovely out there. Even here is hardly interrupted sunshine. There is already a theory that the balloons draw electricity from the atmosphere thus preventing the formation of rain clouds. They look wonderful against the sunny sky and everything is quite peaceful. One has the feeling that everybody is so horrified of warfare that one doesn’t want to start it earnestly.
Letter from Josef Berger to Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag, September 1939 (MBH/2/11)
At the end of the war when the Bergers’ decided to stay in the UK where they were now comfortably settled rather than return to Austria. This did not mean, of course, that the emotional ties with the country of her youth had been broken. In the poetry Berger-Hamerschlag wrote at this time, before her death from cancer at the age of 55 in 1958, she reflected back on the journey she had taken in her life from her childhood in Vienna to her later life in London. In the poem, ‘Where is my home?’ she asked whether home was back in Vienna, ‘Where St Stephen grows mightily in grey clouds’, or in ‘the splendid South of golden rays’, or the East with its ‘roaring, howling sun who bites deep like a beast of prey’, or ‘a cool, little island, clad in the veils of grey fog, covered only with one shade of vivid damp green.’ The poem thus illustrates how, as so often in the work of this free-spirited migrant artist, weather imagery created the emotional connections she felt to the many different locations she had called home.
If you want to learn more about the objects on display in Weather Notes, book an exhibition ticket(Opens in new window) to see the other objects on display on the fourth floor of Senate House Library (library members go free of charge) or view them in our online gallery(Opens in new window). You can also book a place on our upcoming exhibition tour on 7 December, starting at 2:30PM. Further dates for tours will be announced throughout the run of the exhibition.