February 26, 2010

Jack Bilbo, Bilbo Bay sculpture garden


unknown photographer

This larger than life sculpture is one of the three enormous creative constructions that some sixty years ago were prominent in a sculpture garden in the community of Weybridge in the United Kingdom. These sculptures have been made by the owner of the garden, self-taught artist Jack Bilbo (1907-1967), who lived in Weybridge from 1945 till 1949.

The three sculptures were named Life, Devotion and Sanctuary and one of them had a hidden door, through which Bilbo could slip in and secretely overhear comments of eventual visitors.

unknown photographer

Jack Bilbo sold the house in 1949 to leave for France. The new owners did not hesitate to remove the sculptures they evidently did not like (as reported, dynamite had to be used to bring the statues down...).

Life and works

The story of Bilbo's life is truly fascinating. He was born in Germany as Hugo Baruch, the son of a well-to-do Berlin family, that run a company in theater costumes. Young Hugo went to the United States, where he was employed as a body guard by Al Capone, or, so he said. He probably made this all up himself, just as the book he wrote about this job.


Anyhow, around 1930 he was back in Berlin. He was co-founder of a group that opposed Hitler's policies, the Kampfbunde gegen den Faschismus. Because of this, and by being Jewish, in 1933 he had to flee Germany, going via France to Spain. In Barcelona he run a pub, the SOS bar, that was frequented by many artists. Because of his active involvement in the Republican case, in 1936 he had to flee again. He went to London.

There he wanted to start a career as a visual artist, making paintings and sculptures. I understand that suddenly in 1939 he decided to start painting. He had to pawn some of his belongings to raise the money to buy some canvasses, brushes and paint. I could not find any reports about an academic artistic training. His visual artwork was definitely outside the mainstream.

When England became involved in WWII,  Bilbo as a german by birth, was interned for some months, like other artists and intellectuals who had fled Germany. Bilbo will have met them and probably has participated in activities organized in the camp, like expositions and meetings.

Jack Bilbo's main occupation during the war was running an art gallery in London, the Modern Art Gallery, located in King Charles Street. He himself made paintings too, in a modernist style.



As this poster shows, Bilbo's Modern Art Gallery did not represent small fry (By the way: the works Schwitters exhibited at the gallery in december 1944 have been exhibited once more in an exposition in Tate Britain Schwitters in Britain  jan-may 2013).

During the war some german artists and intellectuals who had fled Germany, lived in England, such as Kurt Schwitters. Bilbo's gallery probably was a meeting point for a number of them, because he also organized evenings with lectures and discussions about modern art.

In 1946 the gallery moved to Weybridge, a small community on the Thames River, not far from the city of London. The idea was to transform the house into a museum of modern art. The enormous sculptures he made probably had to be the start of an open air exhibition of modern sculpture.

Here is a link to a video from British Pathé, which shows Bilbo at work in the garden (click on the image):

After the war Bilbo a number of times has applied to be naturalised as a british national, but his requests were declined.

So, in 1949 he left England. He bought a ship (the dutch boeier "Brave Hendrik") and he sailed along the french canals to the south of France. There he stayed in Sanary sur Mer and Cannes, earning his living by (once more) running a café.

In 1957 Bilbo returned to Berlin, once more running a pub, this one named Kapt'n Bilbo's Hafenspelunke.

As has been noted in a comment on this post (Klaus Ferentschik, june 2013), Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern in the spring of 1961 had his very first exposition in Germany in this pub. It would be quite interesting to learn more about what happened in the Hafenspelunke in terms of artistic manifestations.

Jack Bilbo died in Berlin in 1967.

He was a very special person, who can be characterized by the title he gave to the autobiography he published in 1948, a title that runs: An Autobiography. The First Forty Years of the Complete and Intimate Life Story of an Artist, Author, Sculptor, Art Dealer, Philosopher, Psychologist, Traveller, and a Modernist Fighter for Humanity (London, 1948)

I wish I could have met him. Take a look at Alberto's comment.

Documentation   
* link to website England and Co with some 40 specimen of Jack Bilbo's drawings
* link to a British Pathé clip with Bilbo doing artwork (around 1944?)

first published feb 2010, revised oct 2012, june 2013, nov 2014

Jack Bilbo
Sculpture Garden
Weybridge, Surrey, UK
the site has existed only for some years after WWII, untill around 1949

5 comments:

  1. In this world of high specialization, with no room for the adventure of old humanism, like in the old times of the renaissance, it is like breathing fresh air to know about Mr. Bilbo. Who could blame anything about a man who hadn´t time wasted, a man who was born with one name and died with a completely different one. Most of the people, are a by product of the circumstances that surround their lives since their very cradle, how many of us would dare to leave a comfortable "medianity" just to go after what the soul, not the brain, demands for. And how many times it would be possible that behind a false disguise of wisdom and maturity, there could be a pathethic shadow of fear and hesitation?? Those giant sculptures were a monument for the man who didn´t believe in destination and tried to sculpt the stubborn marble of fate, even perhaps knowing that such an attitude would be useless, which make this attitude even more remarkable. Who cares on dynamite?? It only blowed out stone, but not legacy. Henk, believe me, i would love to meet that man as well. Regards and have a nice weekend.

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  2. Thanks a lot Alberto, I made a reference in my post to your comment, you are so right in this observation. Wish I could write it down myself in such a way. Have a good weekend too.

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  3. Klaus FerentschikJuly 7, 2013 at 1:26 PM

    In spring 1961 the outsider artist Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern had his first solo exhibition in Käpt'n Bilbos Hafenspelunke. This was Sonnenstern's first exhibition in Germany.

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  4. @ Klaus Ferentschik. Thanks a lot for this information, which I have added to the text of the post above.

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  5. My painter friend Walter Heckmann from Freiburg/Bg visited Schröder-Sonnenstern several times in Berlin and told funny stories about him. Later on he was quite successful with several expositions in Berlin. He was always surrounded by young ladies who hoped to get a canvas for their 'services' to make a little fortune. Bilbos book I read 50 years ago and I was fascinated. I passed even once in Berlin past his 'Hafenspelunke' but it was closed. Don't remember when. Maybe he was already dead. Anyhow - I was sorry.

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