Hutchinson, or ‘P camp’ opened, officially, on 13th July 1940. Situated behind barbed wire, in a square of forty-five requisitioned boarding houses that overlooked the Irish Sea, it was one of eleven internment camps situated on the Isle of Man, housing German, Austrian and Italian passport holders who had been arrested in a country gripped by spy fever. Rumours abounded that a secret network of Nazi sympathisers had assisted German parachutists in the occupation of the Netherlands. British newspapers caused paranoid agitation via anti-refugee editorial, suggesting that immigrants could pose a similar threat to the UK. In early May 1940 police arrested thousands of these so-called ‘enemy aliens’, many of whom had lived peacefully in Britain for decades. In these chaotic and sometimes cruel round-ups, thousands of Jews who had fled Nazi Germany were imprisoned by the country in which they had staked their trust.
Despite their aesthetic similarities, each of camps on the Isle of Man had its own particular character, which often reflected the temperament of its inmates. Hutchinson, with a peculiarly dense population of writers and poets, painters and sculptors (notable artists interned at Hutchinson included Kurt Schwitters, Hellmuth Weissenborn, Paul Hamann and Eric Kahn) became known, simply, as “the Artists’ Camp.” Despite the injustice of the situation, the internees quickly organised. The camp became a hub of creative endeavour, with a daily program of lectures, live music performances, poetry readings, and English lessons. As the British government expanded the categories under which internees could apply for release, a trickle became a stream until, by the beginning of 1942, most of the ‘innocents’ had walked free. Thereafter the camp’s intake changed as Hutchinson filled with Prisoners of War and the rich cultural life that had defined the camp’s early months drained away. The last remaining 228 inmates left the camp in March 1945, and Hutchinson’s houses returned, finally, to their landladies.
One morning Kurt Schwitters arrived in Hutchinson and Richard Friedenthal, the editor of the Knaurs, the Knaur Lexikon, he recognised him, and because I was in charge of the artists, he called me over and he said, ‘That is the notorious Kurt Schwitters’ and I knew of him, because of the degenerate art exhibition, there was…his abstracts, collages, were deliberately hung like this and they were in the section ‘Total Verrückt’. And there’s a photo of Hitler standing in front of them, grinning inanely at this particular picture. That picture has disappeared, as a matter of fact, that doesn’t exist. But Schwitters had then, you know he wasn’t Jewish or anything, he wasn’t political or anything, and he had always gone to Norway over summer for some months, so he went to Norway and stayed, after the degenerate art exhibition, together with his son. And his wife stayed on in Germany, in Hanover, and came occasionally, his mother too, to visit him and then his permit had expired, resident, in Holland, in Norway, and he after quite some extraordinary experiences on his travels, he travelled with two white mice always in his pocket, and the Norwegian partisans caught him and said that he was a Nazi spreading bacterial warfare (laughs) – these two white mice. And then he declaimed one of his poems, he said it’s so mad, it can’t have been him. But he was detained in northern Norway in a school, the school had a workshop. There were various others, Ernst Blensdorf, who was a sculptor, who came also to Hutchinson, and they thought one of them was a German Nazi spy – he didn’t talk and so – and suddenly, Schwitters was in the workshop and this man was there too and he killed himself, committed suicide with a chainsaw. Now that is really a very nasty way to kill yourself. In two halves or God knows what, and this French poet, who was here, he says Schwitters’ whole aspect of life was changed by this experience. I’m not sure this is true, but in any case it’s not a very nice experience, with a chainsaw. Anyway, they arrived then, he arrived then in Hutchinson and I showed him around and then he talked about the many interesting faces and about the landscape and I said, ‘Look, he’s a Dadaist, you know, what’s going on?’ and then very soon he said – he was a very good business man as a matter of fact – he found very eminent people, Rudolf Olden for instance, and painted their portraits free of charge and did an exhibition, and of course all the minor mortals wanted to be painted by him as well. So, contrary to all other artists, who said, if they did your portrait, ‘Look try to give me something else’ or something like it, he had a range of charges – five pounds, head and shoulders and hands; four pounds, head and shoulders, arms but no hands and three pounds, head and shoulders only. My portrait is head and shoulders only, but three pounds at the time was an awful lot of money and five pounds was really like a couple of hundred pounds nowadays. I didn’t pay for mine, because I had an office in the camp administrative building and I let him have it occasionally over lunch, so that he could do some portraits there and one day I came back from lunch and on my desk, amongst all my papers, stood a naked man and he was – completely blue legs and a very red face where he was standing next to the electric fire and in the corner Schwitters was sitting painting him in red and in blue. And I said, ‘Look, Schwitters, that I really can’t have, you know. I don’t like people standing naked in the middle of all my papers’. So he said, ‘I’ll paint your portrait’. This way I got my portrait.