Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lost Artists: Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall

Neglected artists are much harder to rediscover even than neglected authors. A rather unusual case is that of Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall (1862-1942), who was a successful society portrait painter for about twenty years, from the early Eighteen Nineties to the outbreak of the First World War, but went on (according to one source) to paint vast mystical abstracts.

Amongst his pictures is a pastel portrait of Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916) in 1899, now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London. The artist exhibited widely, in London, Dublin, Paris and especially Berlin.

Horsfall had a British father and a German mother: the genealogy of the Mendelssohn family mentions Alexandrine Mendelssohn (1833-1900) married to a John Horsfall. He was born in Germany and grew up there, and seems to have spent more time there than anywhere else. A 1924 German art encyclopaedia (Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Kunstler) lists him as "living in Germany since his youth".

Nevertheless, he was interned by Germany during the Great War in the Ruehlben prison camp, where records show that he sketched fellow prisoners, and contributed to the publications that the inmates contrived to produce. In the Scotsman newspaper of April 12th 1916, he is noted as having contributed to the Prisoners' Pie annual, printed in Ruhleben. He also contributed drawings to the Ruhleben Camp Magazine. Following the war, his work was included in a 1919 exhibition of work created at the camp, and he sold some to the Crown Princess of Sweden.

In 1923, the author and journalist Herbert Vivian published his memoirs under the pseudonym of ‘X’ (Myself Not Least, Being the Personal Memoirs of ‘X’, Henry Holt, USA: the first British edition was from Thornton Butterworth in 1925). Vivian was himself a colourful character, involved in the romantic Jacobite circles of the Eighteen Nineties, who, owing to his services to certain royal families of South Eastern Europe, had been made a Knight of the Royal Servian Order of Tokovo, and an Officer of The Royal Montenegrin Order of Danilo. Under another pseudonym, he was the author of a Shielian world-conspiracy thriller, The Master Sinner (1901).

In his memoirs, he devotes a few paragraphs to Horsfall, describing him as a “Bohemian acquaintance”, and giving an account of him immediately after his recollections of Aleister Crowley. The artist came back from the camp, he says, “under the influence of [occult] spirits”.

Horsfall, says ‘X’, believed he was under the protection of an ancient Egyptian priest, and “took to doing extraordinary whorls on huge canvasses, closing his eyes and applying his colour by wild confusion of circles, for instance, was a map of the New Jerusalem.” Horsfall, in short, had changed from a painter of precise studio portraits to a strange visionary. Vivian may have been right in attributing the artist’s transformation to the prison camp, but if so this must have developed mostly afterwards. For in the camp he made pencil sketch portraits that are perfectly conventional.

But after this, Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall vanishes from view. None of the work described by Vivian seems to have surfaced in any major gallery or auction. We are left with this tantalising evocation of an artist utterly changed, with work that sounds dramatically different to his earlier portraits, but seemingly undiscoverable.

Mark Valentine

Picture: Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum
by Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall; pastel, octagonal, 1899;
given by Sir Lees Knowles, 1916. Source: National Portrait Gallery.


  1. "Vivian may have been right in attributing the artist’s transformation to the prison camp, but if so this must have developed mostly afterwards. For in the camp he made pencil sketch portraits that are perfectly conventional. "

    That doesn't mean he didn't do both together. When he lived in the Lake District the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters built an avant garde "Merzbarn" and at the same time painted conventional portraits for his neighbours.
    Charles Sims is another instance of a painter whose style was transformed during- and perhaps because of- the First World War. I can't think of mature writers or composers whose work altered so drastically. Even those who were affected, like Kipling or Vaughan Williams- continued to work in the same way they did before.

  2. Interesting points Roger, thank you. Mark

  3. Fascinating stuff, thank you - the 1923 Vivian memoir is a fine find. I recently bought one of the Ruhleben pencil sketches, and as you say, it's 'perfectly conventional' (and annoyingly the sitter did nothing terribly exciting thereafter). Horsfall is said to have done around 400 portraits while in the camp - getting on for 10% of the inmates - and most of these were sent to relatives in Britain and the Empire. In a vain attempt to secure his release he even painted some of the German officers in charge. He was finally released early in 1918, and after his repatriation to the UK settled here for good. His German wife, Helene, seems to have joined him in England for a while in the late 1920s, but then returned to Germany where she died during the following war.

    I don't doubt Vivian's description for a moment - certainly no post-WWI portraits seem to have surfaced - but a quite extensive biog of him in the Yorkshire Post of 3rd March 1943 paints a picture of someone pleasantly eccentric rather than completely barking. His Chelsea studio (it was in Edith Grove) was famous for its "rare curios and choice works of art, but still more for its hospitality", and he liked to hold court there, aided by two 'highly intellectual' nieces who lived nearby, and worked for the London Poly. He should, it was suggested, really have written an autobiography...but "he preferred to smoke and talk, clad in a woollen dressing-gown, which was one of the family mills a century before."

    Horsfall had moved into Edith Grove by 1922, and remained there throughout the 20s & 30s - in fact until, by a sad irony, it was demolished by a German bomb in the next war. Interestingly, such was the anti-German feeling (or his anti-German feeling) after WWI that until around 1925 he called himself 'Charles MILES Horsfall' instead of 'Mendelssohn', according to his electoral roll listing.The Felix Mendelssohn connection, incidentally, was pretty close - his mother's father was the composer's first cousin.

    After the loss of his studio he seems to have moved into an hotel in South Kensington, where he died in 1942. His death certificate records him as still an "artist (portrait painter)" - but of course that information did not come from him, but from his nieces...they may well have wished that was how he had remained.

  4. Thank you, Osmund, for that wealth of additional information on the artist - most interesting. Mark

  5. Ruhleben Camp: Early this year I gifted A.G. Wilson Papers to the National Library of Ireland for conservation and preservation; the records contain a collection of handwritten letters, two were written on Hotel Alberti Bremen letterhead fine paper, one postcard postmarked Titsee 26.7.1914, plus a selection of Ruhleben Camp postmarked postcards, and photographs, including a photograph sketch of A.G.Wilson, signed C.M. Horsfall Ruhleben Nov 1st 1916 left hand side, & signed A.G. Wilson 28/11/16 right hand side, plus Ruhleben Irish Players book published in 1916 by J.S. Preuss, printers by appointment to the Royal Court Berlin. A.G. Wilson Papers: Please note I own copyright of the records. Narelle Marie McDonald (South Australia)

  6. Thank you, that's interesting to hear, and shows further evidence of the artist's work at the camp. Mark

  7. Hi Mark, sadly many historic relics sit in draws and cupboards unidentified in private homes, and valuable records are often are lost, sold or disposed of when people become overwhelmed during the moving process. With respect for future generations and education one can only urge those who hold records with rare historic value to consider gifting them to the National Library in the country of origin.

    On long service leave in July 1914, A.G. Wilson, an Irish Policeman assigned in Christiana South Africa, returned to Dublin to meet his sisters Florence and Edith and together they departed for a summer vacation in Europe. On 26 July 1914 Wilson posted his last postcard as a free man from the Blackforest, Germany, shortly after he was interrogated and incarcerated in the Ruhleben Camp. Reading through Wilson’s letters and postcards one can understand how detainees fought a battle with the devil to derail the paranoia that surrounded their situation.

    As months turned into years with no sign of release, and they were forced to survive substandard food and accommodation a heavy veil of isolation and hopelessness shattered their confidence. Sickness was rife and there was no means of heating during freezing weather ~ Christmas Eve 1915 temperatures dropped to minus 2 degrees. The closure of the Rubleben Camp Post Office in 1916 must have caused them greater mental torment as they were completely cut off from the outside world.

    Horsfall’s reaction after his release from Ruhleben is understandable, and a sobering thought for us to ponder ~ today his diagnosis would indeed be classified as ‘post traumatic stress’. Best wishes, Narelle

  8. Hi Narelle I was wondering if you were related to A.G. Wilson? I acquired on eBay today (from USA) the card he sent to The Abbey Theatre Dublin thanking them for sending the costumes for "Playboy of The Western World".

  9. Good evening Peter,

    How wonderful to have discovered another of Alec Wilson's post cards and in good condition I trust. 'Playboy of The Western World' page 12 of the Ruhleben Irish Players Book published by J.S. Preuss, Printer by Appointment to The Royal Court Berlin.

    Peter, I'm keen to know the name of the seller if possible as I wonder if perhaps they are descended from either Pierce Butler or Charles Bain, businessmen of New Orleans in 1914?

    I gather you may be aware that Florence and Edith Wilson were instrumental in providing fabric, paint and materials for many of the plays produced by the Ruhleben Irish Players.
    Am I correct Peter in believing you are familiar with Alec Wilson's documents?

    Inspector George Russell, to whom Alec addressed most of his letters and postcards, via numerous European destinations, was a British Policeman to whom Alec Wilson was assigned at Christiana Police Station, Transvaal. South Africa. Russell's wife Caroline Frances Russell nee Geeringh, who was a school teacher in the South African education department maintained Wilson’s file until she died leaving her entire estate to her sister Servia Joan Clarke of Pretoria, South Africa.

    In turn Servia entrusted the file to her daughter Joan, with the request that she give it to someone in Australia who would appreciate it. It is thanks to the Geeringh ladies that the original documents were preserved and remain in such superb condition today.

    It was a surreal day when Joan came to my home and quickly tossed a manila folder across the table saying, “Here I’m giving this to you.”

    Astonished I held the contents in my hands and calmly asked if she understood the rare historical and educational significance of the documents she had handed to me. Simply she replied, “Yes, and I’m not bloody taking them back.”

    I agreed to retain copyright of the documents and Joan signed her Gift of Deed to me on 14th August 2013; it was her birthday.

    On 19th December 2013 as I drove from Robe to Adelaide for an appointment with Susan Ward, Curator at the South Australian Libraries Board to have her witness my Gift of Deed for conservation and preservation of the documents to the National Library of Ireland, I could almost sense Alec Wilson and his charming sisters dancing on the bonnet of my car. I imagined Alec joyfully free with anticipation, after a century of being lost he was at last returning to his family and homeland amid the soft green hills of Ireland.

  10. I have paintings by him of my family

  11. This is very interesting. My great grandfather was John Mendelssohn Horsfall but not the one you mentioned.

  12. This is fascinating. I am related to him via the Horsfall side of the family and recently came across a drawing of his of a member of the Garnett family.

    1. My Father-in-Law was a prisoner in Rhuleben and I have 3 beautiful paintings by Horsfall.

  13. Thank you these comments, I am glad to know this post is of interest, and to learn of these connections with the artist. Mark