Elizabeth Shaw: unknown in Ireland but fondly remembered in Germany

Belfast-born artist’s story encompasses Churchill, communism and children’s books

Mention the name Elizabeth Shaw to anyone who grew up in East Germany and watch the smile rise on their lips.

For them, the name recalls happy childhood memories and beloved books: of the Ängstliche Hase, the timid rabbit, who goes from zero to hero by teaching a lesson to a sneaky fox.

Or, my favourite, of Robert who disappears thanks to a defective magic set, but soon learns that being invisible isn’t fun for long.

The Belfast-born artist, all but unknown in her homeland, produced a series of masterful children’s books that have stayed in print since her death in 1992. A Berlin school in her old neighbourhood carries her name.


But it is her reissued memoir Wie ich nach Berlin kam (How I came to Berlin) that has allowed Germans appreciate the breadth and quality of Shaw’s illustration work beyond her beloved children’s books.

Shaw was born in Belfast in 1920, and lived with her family above a branch of Ulster Bank on York St managed by her Sligo-born father. He was Church of Ireland, possibly related to George Bernard Shaw, while her mother's family had Scots Presbyterian roots.

Their home was filled with books and periodicals and even had its own archive – the “paper pantry” – where Shaw poured over yellowing back issues of Punch magazine and the Illustrated London News.

Shaw was a life-long outsider, starting in Belfast, where her father celebrated St Patrick’s Day rather than the 12th of July.

Belfast in the 1920s was wracked by poverty, disease and violence, but it was a world away for Shaw in her protected home life and at Belfast's liberal, left-wing Royal Academy.

When she was 12, Shaw’s father, convinced Ireland was “going to the dogs”, moved his family to Bedford, 80km from London. Shaw hated the place, pined for Ireland in sentimental poetry and dreamt of escape. When she finished school, kitted out in a tweed suit and a bad perm, she moved to London.

At Chelsea School of Art, she wrote later, “young women from well-off families used the time between leaving school and marrying to decorate themselves with dilettante efforts at painting”.

On the hunt for husbands, Shaw remembers the Chelsea art school ladies beleaguering a diminutive, agile and well-groomed man called Dirk Bogarde.

Shaw, meanwhile, attracted the attention of her teachers, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore – and of Patrick Carpenter, a cockney surrealist painter who brought his new girlfriend into his communist circle.

As the second World War loomed, Shaw read the Communist Manifesto and was convinced by the solutions to social problems proposed by Marx’s theories of class struggle.

When Carpenter was called up in 1939, Shaw stuck up a relationship with film-maker Alexander Mackendrick, who later went on to direct The Ladykillers. Eventually the 20-year-old Shaw was herself called up to the war effort and worked in the London telephone exchange.

One odd job: to visit a bunker in north London and paint important telephone numbers on the wall beside Winston Churchill’s bed.

In 1942, she met artist René Graetz at a party and they married two years later, after he promised jokingly to “save her from the gutter”. After several miscarriages, they had two children: Patrick and Anne.

For Anne Schneider, née Graetz, her father was the reason the couple moved to the ruins of postwar Berlin. Sitting in an attic room of her house north of the German capital, surrounded by her mother's sketches, Schneider says her father was always a more energetic socialist than her mother.

He embraced socialism during the second World War, she believes, because it offered him structure and grounding after a childhood spent “in transit”, as he often told her.

After an itinerant life during the war (including a period of internment in Canada), Graetz and Shaw returned to Berlin in 1946, joining the Kulturbund circle of exiled artists trying to build a better, anti-fascist Germany, amid the charred ruins, black market and bitter cold of the occupied capital.

In 1949, they moved from the western zone into the Soviet-controlled zone, which later became the (east) German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR in German).

Graetz took East German citizenship and established himself as a painter and sculptor. Shaw, meanwhile, found work as an illustrator for magazines and newspapers.

Schneider remembers a hands-off and easy-going mother, working hard at her career as an artist and raising the children with the help of nannies – not a typical set-up in the East German worker and peasant state.

With no maternal or paternal relatives in Germany, friends were their adoptive family in daily life and at regular parties. Friends recall Shaw as more watchful than chatty, listening closely to everything said but choosing her words carefully.

“We were all great admirers of Stalin and convinced that everything that came from Moscow could only be good, even if it was sometimes a little confusing,” Shaw conceded in her memoirs. “What we didn’t realise then, even later, was the danger around us – the terror of Stalinism which, by a miracle, we survived.”

Her self-professed distance from politics and world affairs sits uncomfortably with her early professional career. For three years from 1950, she worked as a caricaturist with Neues Deutschland, the newspaper of East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party.

Even considering the cold war chill, and the undoubted influence of her editors, Shaw’s caricatures pull no punches: skewering West Germany as a US puppet state.

After leaving Neues Deutschland she worked as a freelance artist for magazines and produced impressive portraits of friends in East Berlin, from artist John Heartfield to composer Hans Eisler. She illustrated a collection of Brecht's writings for children after the dramatist's death.

Her memoirs reveal little about how her views of East German socialism, despite being an eye-witness as the first cracks appeared. In June 1953, she watched Soviet tanks roll from the park beside her home in Pankow into central Berlin to put down a workers’ revolt. Despite martial law and ominous radio announcements, Shaw writes she was more preoccupied with two sick children at the time.

Similarly selective is her account of August 1961, when the Berlin Wall rose before her eyes, brick by brick. Shaw describes the wall as a “tragedy” for her fellow Berliners who “waved handkerchiefs at each other until they couldn’t see each other any more”.

In her memoir, though, she writes that this was “not the first such wall” in history and that “a wall through a modern metropolis was only possible in Berlin as its population had submitted to its fate”.

Her take on the wall becomes even more ambiguous in her final assessment: “I think one needs the feeling of having the possibility of travel even if one doesn’t take advantage of it.”

Is this the blithe remark of a British passport-holder, able to travel unhindered by the wall, or a veiled criticism of a regime that saw travel restrictions as an acceptable price for its survival? Shaw never reveals her hand.

Schneider thinks the caution is due both to her mother’s careful character and the fact that East Germany still existed when she wrote the memoir – published only months before the state ceased to exist.

“I don’t think she was someone who analysed things too much,” says Schneider. “But she took everything in that was happening. Perhaps her trips abroad were enough for her.” Whatever the blurriness in how Shaw expressed her political views, her artistic friends praised her art for its clear, direct style.

Though 20 years her junior, West Berlin-based painter Sarah Haffner clicked with Shaw after they met in 1965 and the two women crossed the Berlin Wall regularly to visit each other.

“When she moved to Berlin in 1946, she was very young and believed in the chance to build a new Germany,” suggests Haffner.

In the years she knew her, Shaw was a regular fixture at parties with East Germany’s intellectual elite, yet tried to keep her distance from “official” East Germany.

Assisting her was the artistic outlet that would eventually make her famous: children’s books. From 1963 on, she turned out 21 quick, amusing stories, often with a moral tale but without an obvious socialist cudgel.

They were instant bestsellers for being, in the words of one East German reviewer, “simple, brash and funny: just the way children like it”. Schneider says the books, at first the product of financial necessity, often drew on episodes from their home life. Their success gave her mother financial security and freedom from restrictions imposed on artists in other fields, including her husband.

A private person who hated readings of her works, Shaw took on only one project in her final years that she didn’t like: her memoirs. Wolfgang de Bruyn, who translated the work into German, remembers that during their year working together Shaw maintained an air of “guarded assertiveness”.

For de Bruyn, Shaw’s outsider status as a British citizen informed her work in East Germany. It was only after the death of her husband in 1974, that she began to polish up her German and really engage with the country around her.

As the years moved on Haffner, daughter of the author and journalist Sebastian Haffner, sensed her friend was cooling to East German's take on the socialist ideal.

“We never talked about politics, but even before 1989, I sensed she was becoming disillusioned with East Germany and didn’t like it very much anymore,” said Haffner.

Michael O’Brien, whose O’Brien Press published two of her children’s books, agrees.

“She had strong feelings to socialism and her husband was a dedicated communist but she told me when we met she was disappointed with East Germany,” he said. “But she was a real artist and her works have universal appeal.”

For Fergal Lenehan, an Irish academic at the University of Jena who has researched Shaw’s life, Shaw’s ambiguous relationship to her adoptive home, though not beyond criticism, is not all that different to that of many East Germans.

"As a member of the East German artistic elite she had quasi-celebrity status, often represented the GDR abroad and was held up as a foreign artist who had decided to live in the GDR," said Mr Lenehan, author of the recently published book "Intellectuals and Europe".

“Though she appears to have become somewhat disillusioned with the GDR, she remained openly uncritical, did her work and toed the line.”

Anne Schneider agrees her mother’s ambiguous relationship with East Germany, but remembers her enthusiasm when the Berlin Wall finally tumbled in 1989. “She travelled all over the city, taking pictures of murals and demonstrations,” she said.

Though Shaw’s British passport had allowed her travel regularly and widely in Europe throughout the cold war, German unification offered her a belated chance to show her now adult children her Irish homeland. But ill health intervened and, after a series of strokes, she died in 1992, aged 72.

When Schneider finally made it to Ireland, to a landscape she knew only from sketchbooks, it was to scatter her mother’s ashes.

At the end of her memoir, a lengthy attempt to explain why she came to Berlin, Shaw admits she has failed to answer the other pressing question of her life: why she stayed.

It’s clear that her socialist beliefs, and those of the men in her life, are what brought her to Berlin. Only later, though, did it become East Germany and an unlikely home, on the far side of the Iron Curtain, for a Belfast-born artist.

Her decision to stay and work there raises questions about artistic and personal conformity that, only 25 years after it vanished, are becoming part of a debate on why East Germany survived so long.

Shaw’s caution in expressing her political views has left countless blanks but, as with all emigrants, the simplest and obvious factors cannot be overestimated: she stayed in East Germany because this was where her life was.

It was a life of remarkable artistic achievement, producing beloved works that live on and deserve greater recognition in her homeland.

Concluding her self-confessed “incomplete” memoir, Shaw writes:

“I became a witness to the rise and fall of the GDR . . . I’m happy I came to Berlin.”