The artist Albert Reuss was one of many Jewish refugees who fled Nazi occupied Europe and the terrible violence of the Holocaust to the safety of the United Kingdom. However it was a chance meeting with a Cornish Quaker that not only brought about that escape but also meant that Albert and his wife were to spend most of the remainder of their lives in Cornwall.
Albert Reuss was born in Vienna, Austria in October 1889. His father, Ignaz, was a Hungarian Jew and worked as a butcher and meat trader in the city. Albert was a shy, delicate child who it seems didn’t do very well academically. After leaving school he worked for his father for a while and then as a salesman, neither profession suited his temperament however. All he really wanted to do was paint and in his early twenties he decided to pursue this dream full time.
He spent hours in Vienna’s museums studying and copying the old masters and soon his own paintings started to attract some positive attention. Reuss began to gain commissions for portraits but this work had to be put on hold after the outbreak of the First World War. Fortunately however his weak health kept him from the frontline during his military service and around 1915 Albert also met the love of his life, his future wife Rosa Feinstein. The couple married in December 1916.
For the next fifty-five years Rosa was a constant source of support and encouragement for Albert whose shy and artistic nature made him feel out of step with the world. During the 1920s he continued to develope his reputation as a portrait artist and even had his first one-man show in 1926 at the Wurthle gallery in Vienna. He also secured a position as a Art Lecturer at ‘Fachlehranstalt fur das Kleidungs-gewwerbe‘ a sort of teaching institute for the fashion industry.
Throughout the 1930s life steadily looked brighter and brighter for Reuss, he continued to improve and impress with his paintings and moved into sculpture, producing portrait busts of the Viennese councillor Johann Grassinger (see below) and of the actress Maria Eis.
He even came England in 1935, staying with a family in Bedfordshire for two months and it was during that visit that Albert developed his great love and admiration for all things British.
Rosa and Albert were comfortable, they filled their home with books and paintings, gathered artistic friends around them and created a settled, Middle class life for themselves.
But this improvement in Reuss’ circumstances and confidence unfortunately coincided with the rise of something else – Hitler and the Nazi party.
By 1938 it was clear that the old Vienna of the couple’s youth had gone and in its place was a city full of fear, violence and insecurity.
“Vienna, once one of the happiest and gayest capitals, now is one of the saddest.”Albert Reuss, Daily News, 21 October 1938
Escape to Cornwall
When Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938 Albert and Rosa realised that they had to leave. The persecution of the Jewish population began almost immediately, there could be no doubt which way the wind was blowing. All their possessions, including the bulk of Albert’s work, were packed into crates and put into storage. They were leaving everything behind them, not only their friends and family but also Albert’s reputation as an artist, to start a new life in England.
And the man organising their escape was the Cornishman, John Sturge Stephens.
Born in 1891 at Ashfield House, near Ponsharden John Sturge Stephens was part of one of the most prominent Quaker families in Cornwall. The Stephens’ were rope makers, prosperous members of the Falmouth community and, as their faith directed, pacifists during both world wars.
John grew up strongly opposed to warfare of any kind but travelled to France in 1915 as a member of the Friends Ambulance Unit. This organisation run by Quakers assisted in the transportation and the basic medical care of injured soldiers.
Despite this important work John faced a tribunal in 1916 in which he was told he had “no right whatever to live in England” because he was “living here merely by the blood of our Army”. The tribunal decided that John should be made to join a non-combatant corps and he is often credited as the first conscientious objector in Cornwall to be forced to work as a farm labourer.
Between the wars John travelled extensively throughout Europe, visiting a large number of countries, including Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Poland, promoting peace and reconciliation alongside the Society of Friends.
In 1929 he collaborated with Virginia Woolf to publish a book called Danger Zones of Europe: A Study of National Minorities which sought to highlight the threat of fascism and effects of the ill-treatment of minorities.
After spending three weeks in Germany in 1935 studying the rise of Nazism John wrote a pamphlet about his experiences and the poor treatment of the Jewish population that he had witnessed. He subsequently gave talks and wrote letters to the media about his concerns.
But the most remarkable thing is that John decided that his words of warning were not enough and that he must actually do something. During 1938 he made several trips to Nazi-occupied Austria and assisted the Jewish people he met there to flee the country. John tried at first to liaise with the German officer in charge of the annexation, known as the Anschluss, Josef Bürckel, in an attempt to get his work sanctioned but this diplomacy failed. He continued regardless.
Exactly how many people John Sturge Stephens assisted to escape the Holocaust is not clear, but many of those refugees ended up in his native Cornwall, living in houses that John and the local Quakers provided for them. One couple we know for certain that he helped was Albert and Rosa Reuss.
He mentions them in a letter in 1938:
“I made friends with a charming painter and his wife who were in great despair, and he said I had restored their faith in God. He insisted on making me choose one of his paintings as a present to take back to England. So I took a beautiful landscape in Carinthia in oil. The good man wants to come to England, and I have promised to do all I can to help him find hospitality here till he can set about his painting and earn something.”susan Soyinka, Albert Reuss in Mousehole: The Artist as Refugee, 2017
The Reuss’ arrived in Cornwall that August, penniless but not friendless. Stephens found them a cottage to live in in St Mawes on the Roseland and in October 1938 Albert held his first one-man show in England in the little fishing village.
His picture appeared in the London Daily News under the headline ‘Refugee Painter Exhibits in St Mawes’.
Albert is quoted as saying:
“We had to leave everything behind in Vienna, when we arrived in England I had one shilling. I am hoping that I shall be able to get my paintings back one day. There are about 50 but the one I want most is my last picture depicting six jazz-band players. I intended to send it to the International Exhibition in America in 1940.”daily News (london), 21 October 1938
Another exhibition followed in St Ives and then a third in Truro in August 1939, at the Truro Gas Company lecture hall.
Sadly however the initial promise of a fresh start in Cornwall proved to be short lived when in September 1939 two policemen arrived at the Reuss’ door, they had been sent to arrest Albert as an illegal alien.
It was a massive blow for the sensitive artist. He was taken away and held in a detention centre in Shropshire for three months.
“This was dreadfully hurtful for such a devout anglophile and he refused to speak to any of his fellow internees. Fortunately the nature of his arrival in England and his distinction as an artist was made known. He was released and offered British citizenship and a full work permit.”Albert Reuss – An introduction, Newlyn Orion, 1980
After his imprisonment Albert and Rosa did not return to Cornwall for several years, instead he found work as a teacher in Cheltenham. It seems that the couple, now in their 50s, really struggled to adjust to their life in exile.
Albert’s work from the time he arrived in England until his death took on a melancholy feel. The tones became muted, the figures flat, two dimensional, and the settings, the scenes themselves, feel empty, bare, desert like. The subjects are isolated.
The two images above are both capture a very similar subject, they are both of women reading but the one on the left is from 1930 and the one on the right from 1943. To my eye they could have been painted by two different artists. It feels as if the trauma of his flight from Austria and his exile in England has stripped his brush of any movement, joy or liveliness.
Return to Cornwall
In 1948 the Reuss’ moved to Mousehole and opened a studio there with the help and financial support of his friend, admirer and fellow painter, Ruth Adams. She had known the couple for 10 years, having met them during their first stay in St Mawes, and was determined to see them settled back in Cornwall.
Ruth had already helped another artist, Freda Salvendy, also a Austrian Jew, to start a new life so when the opportunity arose she generously built the Reuss’ a home to meet all their needs not far from her own on Raginnis Hill in Mousehole. Albert was able to open his own gallery, ARRA, its name derived from their initials – Albert, Rosa and Ruth.
But sadly another fresh start was to end in tragedy. Ruth died in unusual circumstances just four weeks after the couple arrived.
She went missing on 4th April 1948 and an extensive search for her was quickly undertaken. The only clues to what might have happened were her blue velvet coat and hat which were discovered on the cliff top near Penzer Point and her black spaniel which was found by fishermen the next day, injured and at the bottom of the cliff. It is assumed that when the dog fell Ruth had tried to climb down to rescue it, perhaps falling into the water in the attempt.
Although her death was ruled an accident the fact that Ruth had left ARRA to the Reuss’ in her will and that her body was never found inevitably caused some unpleasant gossip in the tight-knit rural community.
Despite the scandal Albert and Rosa stayed in Mousehole and he continued to paint for the rest of his life. He exhibited locally as well as hosting exhibitions at ARRA and he also held a regular one man show in London but it seems that Albert never quite fitted into the art scene in Cornwall.
His increasing deafness, a lifelong awkwardness (that some interpreted as rudeness) and his individual artistic style is said to have left him feeling isolated and adrift from the rest of artistic community.
This was reflected in his paintings, which often depicted single figures inhabiting empty rooms or landscapes that were barren and bleak.
Finding Albert Reuss
In the autumn of 2022 I travelled to Austria in search of Albert Reuss, discovering his story had touched me and by coincidence we had booked a cheap flight to Vienna a few weeks earlier. What I discovered however was that Reuss has been almost entirely forgotten in the country of his birth.
Searching through the online catalogues of the numerous museums across the country there appeared to be little sign of him. Both the Belvedere Gallery and the Albertina in Vienna are said to hold examples of his work but as far as I could tell none are on display. Even the Museum Art of the Lost Generation in Saltzburg, an institution specifically created to highlight the work of the artists who escaped the Nazi occupation of Austria, only hold two pieces of his work – a pencil sketch and an oil painting, neither of which is on display.
The only visible work (that I could find) of his in Austria was a small sculpture in a quiet area of Vienna.
And finding it took a fair bit of effort and planning.
A tram took us to a out of the way residential corner of the city where amongst austere rows of cement apartment blocks a passing pedestrian would be forgiven for missing the large bronze head high up on a wall.
The sculpture depicts an Austrian politician, Johann Grassinger who died in 1932. I believe that he was responsible for much of the social housing that was built in Vienna at the time, hence the strange location of the monument.
“His principle sadness, until the shattering death of his beloved Rosa, was the lack of national recognition by the critics . . . The last paintings had a quality of sadness and loneliness. Many local friends received these as gifts in return for the companionship and support for which he craved.”albert Reuss – An Introduction, Newlyn Orion, 1980
Albert Reuss’ last exhibition was at the Orion Gallery in Penzance in 1974, a few months before his death. Since then there have been a few showings of his work, the last at Truro Cathedral in 2020 to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day but I can’t help feeling that his biggest fears – being forgotten or lack of recognition – are coming true.
Although several galleries hold his paintings, perhaps the largest collection belongs to Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall. (See more of his work HERE). The gallery were very helpful while I was writing this and agreed to let me use some of their images for this post. They did also agree that it is a great shame that they don’t have the space to have his paintings on permanent display.
After Rosa and Albert’s death the couple’s ashes were scattered in the sea off Cornwall, then in September 2022 a ‘Remembering Stone’ was erected for them in the graveyard in Paul, the inscription reads:
Remembering Austrian Jewish Artist ALBERT REUSS and his devoted wife ROSA née FEINSTEIN who fled from Vienna to England in 1938 to escape the Nazi Holocaust. They moved to Mousehole in 1948. Because of Rosa's love and support Albert continued to paint until the end. Rosa died 1970 aged 78 Albert died 1975 aged 86 פותח לנו שערי רחמים Open to us the Gates of Mercy Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation A full and in-depth biography of Albert's life has been written by Susan Soyinka - Albert Reuss in Mousehole - The Artist as Refugee. So if you want to know more I would recommend picking up a copy.