Return to Mousehole for book on artist

CORNISH TALES: Susan Soyinka


SUSAN Soyinka’s previous two books dealt with Mousehole, the Cornish town which welcomed Jewish refugees, including her maternal Austrian family.

And now she has combined both for Albert Reuss in Mousehole: The Artist as Refugee (Sansom & Company, £25).

It tells of the Vienna-born Jewish artist who emigrated to England in 1938 following Hitler’s annexation of Austria.

Ten years later, Reuss and his wife, Rosa, moved to Mousehole.

Susan, who lives in nearby Penzance, told me: “Two years ago, I went to an exhibition of Cornish artists and, at the side of one of the paintings, was a description of a Viennese Jewish artist who lived in Mousehole.

“I discovered that he arrived in the UK in the same year as my mother, Lucy, and that he was born in the same year, 1889, as my grandfather, Fritz Smetana.

“In fact, there were just two weeks separating them.

“Once I started digging, the more I found what an extraordinary man Reuss was.”

Reuss, the son of a Budapest-born kosher butcher, had his first one-man shows in 1926 and 1931 at the Wurthle Gallery in Vienna.

His work was included in the Chicago Exhibition in 1932/3, too.

After his move to England, he held several exhibitions in municipal galleries in Cornwall, Cheltenham and Birmingham, followed by many more in the north of England.

Several provincial galleries hold his work, most notably the Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall, as well as the British Museum, the Albertina Museum and the Belvedere Gallery, both in Vienna, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

“The Newlyn was bequeathed 200 of his paintings, of which it still has 70 in its possession,” Susan said.

“Reuss was much more of a traditional painter, but his work became bleak and desolate.

“I was curious as to look into what it was which caused that change and whether it came down to him becoming a refugee, as the same thing happened to my mother.

“As a psychologist, too, I wondered whether he had been traumatised.”

Susan discovered that Reuss was quite a strange man, who had difficulty communicating with people.

“He got upset with what people said about him, but he was also a very charming and elegant man who drew people to him,” she continued. “There was something paradoxical about him.”

Reuss’ original family surname was Reisz, which was then Germanised to Reiss when Reuss’ parents moved to Austria.

He later changed it to Reuss.

Susan said: “He was the first of the children to be born in Vienna.

“Three of his siblings, born after him, died young and I wondered if that contributed to his trauma.”

Some members of the family died in the Holocaust, but others, such as Reuss’ brothers Julius and Samuel and sister Ernestine and their families, escaped.

Susan said that he did not maintain contact with his siblings, apart from his youngest brother, Max.

She interviewed Mary Bewig, Max’s daughter, who lives in America, during her research.

AT WORK: Albert Reuss in his studio in July, 1975

Reuss and his wife Rosa (nee Feinstein) were helped to leave Austria by a Cornishman called John Sturge Stephens.

He was a Quaker, the Christian movement which helped many Jews escape from Austria.

It was down to Stephens’ connections that Reuss and his wife initially lived in the small Cornish town of St Mawes.

They later moved to Cheltenham before returning to Cornwall and settling in Mousehole.

The 71-year-old explained that, from 1953, Reuss held regular one-man shows at the O’Hana Gallery, in London.

It was run by Jack O’Hana, a Jewish entrepreneur, who became a close friend of Reuss, and who helped set up the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Reuss died in 1975, five years after his wife.

“Rosa was totally devoted to her husband and became Reuss’ agent and manager,” Susan said.

Susan first visited Mousehole nearly 60 years ago. She maintained the link to write her debut book From East End to Lands End.

It told of around 100 Jews’ Free School children and five of their teachers, together with thousands of other London evacuees, who embarked on the lengthy and exhausting train journey from Paddington to Penzance.

They were bused to Mousehole, where the children were billeted with the villagers.

And Jews’ Free School, Mousehole, was established in the premises of Mousehole School.

Remarkably, most of the evacuees integrated into village life and were accepted by the villagers as their own.

Her second book, A Silence That Speaks, came about after she learned for the first time of other members of her mother’s extended family who had survived the Holocaust and were scattered around the world.

It was after marrying Nigerian Kayode Soyinka that Susan started to think more about her religion.

She explained: “We lived in Togo, Nigeria and Ghana and he was a strong Christian.

“I reached a point where I wanted to find out more about myself.

“Then a family friend revealed to me that I was Jewish and I started asking my mother questions, which led to me tracking down relatives in Australia and America.”

Discovering her religion encouraged Susan to become more involved with Judaism, too, and she later worked as an educator for Binoh, a Jewish special educational needs service, from 1997 until 2006.

The Newlyn will hold an exhibition of Reuss’ works from 23 September to October 7, while the book will be officially launched at the gallery on Friday, October 6, as part of the Newlyn Arts Festival.

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