Recently I’ve developed an interest in the work of two artists associated with Hitchin, the town where we’ve lived for the past twenty years. For those who don’t know it, Hitchin is a medium-sized market town in north Hertfordshire, close to the borders with Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Despite being only half an hour from London by train, the town has managed to retain much of its historic character, having escaped the worst of the town planning ravages of the Sixties, with the market square and medieval streets in the centre still mostly intact. Originally built around a Carmelite Priory and a magnificent parish church founded by King Offa, and in later centuries dominated by a cluster of wealthy Quaker families, there’s still much that’s quirky and distinctive about Hitchin. And it’s surrounded by some of the least spoilt countryside in southern England, including the fields where Henry VIII hunted, the woods where Bunyan preached, and the estate where the late Queen Mother spent her childhood.
A romantic image of 17th century Hitchin by F.L.Griggs (1902)
However, despite these undoubted qualities, it is still surprising to discover that our adopted home town was home to two artists whose work and biographies I would have found intriguing, even if they hadn’t lived here. Both men – F.L.Griggs (1876 – 1938) and Theodor Kern (1900 – 1969) – spent a significant part of their lives in Hitchin. One was born here, but then moved away; the other came here as a refugee and stayed for the rest of his life. One was an etcher and illustrator; the other a painter and sculptor. Besides their shared association with Hitchin, the other factor that they had in common, which adds to my fascination with them, was their Catholic faith. Like me, Griggs was born into a resolutely Nonconformist family, but converted to Catholicism as a young man, whereas Kern was a cradle Catholic. But both were devout, and for both men faith was a key component of their very different artistic outputs.
The site of the Griggs family shop in Hitchin High Street (author’s photo)
Frederick Landseer Griggs came from a family of Baptist shopkeepers. His father kept a bakery in Hitchin High Street (the site is now occupied by a mobile phone shop) and he attended a variety of local schools, but also had private drawing lessons from men like the watercolourist Samuel Lucas the younger, a member of a prominent – and artistic – Quaker family in the town. Much of Griggs’ work reflects his upbringing in Hitchin, as well as his long walks in the surrounding countryside, and features many familiar local landmarks, including a beautiful etching of our own village church in St Ippolyts, just to the south of the town.
F.L.Griggs, ‘St Ippolyts’, 1927
Fred Griggs was received into the Catholic Church in 1912, befriending Fr Adrian Fortescue, the parish priest in neighbouring Letchworth, who was also an antiquarian, scholar and adventurer with interests similar to Griggs’ own. Griggs later moved to Chipping Campden, in the Cotswolds, where he was associated with the Guild of Handicraft and came under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The main influence on his art was Samuel Palmer, and it can be argued that his visionary work stands in a tradition reaching back through Palmer to William Blake, and forward to Graham Sutherland and John Piper. There are also occasional affinities, to my untrained eye, with the work of the Anglo-Welsh – and Catholic – painter-poet David Jones, the principal subject of my long-forgotten PhD thesis.
Theodor Kern, ‘Self Portrait’ (1920s), Wardown Park Museum, Luton (via artuk.org)
Theodor Kern was born almost a quarter of a century after Griggs, in Salzburg, Austria. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he was a close associate of the Expressionist painter Anton Faistauer, with whom he collaborated on frescoes adorning the walls of a number of churches and theatres. I was fascinated to discover that, while in Vienna, Kern was also befriended by the German philosopher, theologian and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich von Hildebrand, whose writing has been an important influence on me in the last few years, and indeed Kern was invited to stay at the von Hildebrands’ family home in Florence (von Hildebrand was himself from an artistic family, his father being a noted sculptor).
Theodor Kern, ‘View of Florence’, Wardown Park Museum, Luton (via artuk.org)
After the Anschluss of 1938, Theodor Kern helped many friends to escape occupied Austria, which eventually made his own continued residence there untenable, and he fled to England, where he eventually settled in Bearton Green, Hitchin. (Why Kern chose Hitchin as his home is a mystery I’m keen to solve.) He remained here for the rest of his life, teaching at a college in Luton and working on paintings, frescoes and sculptures, many of which can be found in buildings both sacred and secular around Hertfordshire and eastern England. On his death in 1969, Kern seems to have bequeathed most of his works to his widow, who in turn left many of them to local galleries and museums.
Theodor Kern, ‘Laetare’ (Madonna and Child), woodcarving
I’ve known about Theodor Kern for some time, having developed an affection for his wood carvings in the church of Our Lady Immaculate and St Andrew in Hitchin, where he was a parishioner, but I’ve only recently become interested in his other work, and in his life story. To my shame, I hadn’t heard the name of F.L. Griggs until a touring exhibition of his work arrived in town from the Ashmolean Museum last year. However, I suppose Griggs is the better-known artist of the two, partly because he was a figure in the later stages of the Arts and Crafts movement, partly because his work was used to illustrate a number of popular books, including the Highways and Byways series published by Macmillan, but also perhaps because he devoted himself single-mindedly to one particular art form. By comparison, Kern’s reputation may suffer in part because so many of his commissions were local, and also because (again, to my untrained eye) he seems to have experimented with a number of different artistic schools, rather than being associated with just one. So if you look for Kern’s work online, you can find Pissarro-esque landscapes, Expressionist portraits, and even some experiments in Cubism, as well as more mystical sacred works that, once again, put me in mind of the paintings of David Jones.
Cover of Jerrold Northrop Moore’s illustrated biography of F.L.Griggs (A.C.C. Art Books, 2008)
Catalogue of the exhibition ‘Der Maler Theodor Kern – Künstler zwischen den Welten. Versuch einer Biographie’, Residenzgalerie Salzburg, 1975
Since discovering the work of these two artists, and their association with Hitchin, I’ve been keen to find out as much I can about them. In the case of Griggs, it helps that there is already a full-length biography by Jerrold Northrop Moore, the biographer of Elgar, published in handsome coffee-table format with a generous helping of illustrations. In Kern’s case, the situation is rather different. There was apparently a short biography of him written by a local amateur artist and poet, but I’ve yet to track it down. So far, the fullest account of Kern’s life and work that I’ve come across is the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition in his native Salzburg in 1975, a copy of which I managed to acquire from a secondhand bookseller in Austria. The only slight problem is that it’s written in German, a language I studied for just two years at school, more than forty years ago. Maybe the desire to translate this booklet will provide me with an incentive to improve my proficiency.
In the meantime, if anyone has any information about Theodor Kern’s life, or insights into his work, or indeed can add anything to my knowledge of F.L.Griggs’ work, or either artist’s association with Hitchin, then please do get in touch with me at email@example.com
Afterword: Theodor Kern and Dietrich von Hildebrand
This is what Ernst Ziegeleder has to say about the friendship between Kern and von Hildebrand in Der Maler Theodor Kern (forgive my poor translation from the German):
His circle of friends, in Salzburg chiefly determined by the Schuchter family, in Vienna had a dominant personality in Professor von Hildebrand, and this circle conspired to help Kern prosper in his newly acquired spiritual attitude and religious firmness. Among other things, Kern owed to Dietrich von Hildebrand an extremely happy stay of several weeks in 1835 in Panon Halma, a splendid Hungarian Benedictine monastery, magnificent and rich in treasures, where he was a guest, and in return he gave lessons in German conversation to the abbot. In his free time he could paint at will. Kern remained a loyal friend of this abbot until his death in South America. Moreover, Kern was also a guest in Hildebrand’s villa in Florence, where in 1936 he completed landscapes in oil. These are reminiscent, particularly in their further developed artistic penetration, of his early Salzburg period.
I’ve also found the following references to Kern in My Battle Against Hitler, von Hildebrand’s memoir of his anti-Nazi activism, translated by John Henry and John F. Crosby:
When I returned to Vienna [in 1935] I found out to my great joy that Kern had decided to settle there permanently. He had a deep sense for all that is great and beautiful in art as well as in the realm of truth. He was profoundly reverent and possessed a deeply value-responding * attitude. At the same time, he was full of humour and had all the charm of an Austrian. I soon came to feel nor just close to him but also free to be myself in his company. His presence would be an important factor in the significant period now beginning in my Vienna years. (p.200)
My friendship with Kern developed more and more and we saw one another frequently. Wherever I would give a lecture, he would accompany me for protection. (p. 205)
The final extract is taken from Hellmut Laun’s account of von Hildebrand’s dramatic escape from Austrian following the Anschluss:
[Theodor] Kern was on the line. His voice was sombre and changed as he asked me to come immediately with my car to the Hildebrands’ apartment in the Habsburggasse. I got no answer out of Kern when I tried to probe him about what was going on. I quickly realised that something had happened that he could not mention on the telephone. (p. 235)
Clearly, von Hildebrand was one of the friends that Kern helped to flee Nazi-occupied Austria. Kern himself would follow his friend into exile shortly afterwards.
* I puzzled over the meaning of ‘value-responding’, until I realised that it was a term coined by Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book The Nature of Love. Full text available here.