Recollections

 

“Arthur [Ballard] was always pulling (our painting tutor) George Mayer-Marton’s leg about his claim to have swum for his country before he came to England. We sometimes went to Cornwallis Street baths, off Duke Street, with Arthur and other members of staff and one afternoon he persuaded George to come along. George borrowed a swimsuit and astounded everybody by doing a racing dive and after a number of very fast lengths he jumped out, dressed and walked out. He never had his leg pulled again. George Mayer-Marton was very well known not just as a painter, but also as an accomplished mosaic artist. I found him a very cultured and kind man who gave me a great deal of help and insight into life and personal relationships. He was one of a number of older mid European emigres who were at the college at this time, others included Dr Warburg who taught us Art Histroy and Ervin Wiesner the Librarian.”

Rod Murray, “Stuart Sutcliffe: Liverpool College of Art, Flats and Friends” from “Stuart Sutcliffe a retrospective” ed. MH Clough and C Fallows, publ. Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool 2009.

Gordon Millar, a student of Mayer-Marton’s at Liverpool College of Art, writes:

“Liverpool during the 1950’s continued to be moulded by its mercantile past. It often felt closer to New York and Shanghai than to other British cities. The atmosphere was independent and metropolitan and the city proudly possessed its own vibrant cultural life.

Likewise the Liverpool College of Art in those post-war years was no mere provincial backwater. Many staff and students had returned from serving in the armed forces and expectations were high. There was a strong and optimistic sense of serious purpose and vitality in the College and of being in touch with contemporary ideas. 

Among the staff there was one figure that stood out. George Mayer Marton brought to the College a direct link with pre-war Europe. His appearance, accent and manner spoke of a lost and to us largely unknown Mitteleuropa. Always meticulously dressed in a suit and wearing a hat and polished shoes, he would arrive in the college with his leather briefcase and don his professorial white coat. Everything about him communicated the idea that a well prepared mind like well prepared materials was a pre-requisite of creative activity. The studio was always carefully organised not to limit invention but to nurture it. Students regarded him as exotic and different and above all someone who set high standards and who believed students could attain them.

One feature that was rare in art schools in the 1950’s was George’s weekly seminar. Students would gather round in one corner of the studio usually in early afternoon, to discuss philosophy, art theory and history. He applied as he frequently reminded us, the ‘Socratic method’. He would challenge us with the rhetorical questions he fired at us. This was a stretching and exciting and above all novel experience. Looking at my notebook from those seminars, I notice we covered Kant’s moral imperative, Schopenhauer’s aesthetic theory, the scientific ideas of Einstein, concepts of the primitive in art, child art, abstraction, expressionism, the medieval guilds, and so on. For us the material was not only a discovery but even more so a profound experience as he convinced us that we had something useful to say. The flow of discussion was punctuated by regular pauses for reflection when George with his head half back, mouth a little open and peering wisely under his rimless spectacles would after a while comment in a kindly but dry way on our point of view. These seminars were a decade before the history and theory of art were incorporated into art school curricula in the 1960’s. We were most privileged to have experienced them and to have understood how the theoretical and historical background to art could inform our own work and ideas.

I still have the essays that he returned carefully marked. His comments were usually written in red biro. Consistent with his Hungarian past, he seemed to have a passion for ‘biros’, themselves an invention of a Hungarian. He was adept at drawing with a Biro, a tool to us at the time that unsurprisingly seemed ill adapted. The notes that George placed at the end of essays were always critically incisive but encouraging and crafted with great care and a respect for the effort put in. They have remained a model for me ever since in marking my own students’ essays. We felt that we were being taken seriously by a teacher with a passion to teach.

We sensed that we were being introduced to a different world and meeting someone who had actually been there during the rich, exciting years of European modernism.

An adjunct to his seminars was the end of year art history quiz that George conducted. A high pile of silver sixpenny pieces would be placed at the front of the lecture theatre as he rapidly asked questions. The first hand to shoot up received the next sixpenny piece. Equally memorable was the impromptu chamber music that he and the painter Nicholas Horsfield provided in the painting studio. Their performances produced an aura that seemed to hang about the studio afterwards as we returned to our work. 

George had not only been associated with the Hagenbund and cultural life in Vienna, but had been involved with the work of the Munich painter Max Doerner’s research into the materials and methods of the painter. From this stemmed his belief in sound methodology. This was a sobering and important antidote to the spontaneous bohemian belief in an outpouring of creativity and one that stood us in good stead. Linked to this was George’s interest in Byzantine mosaic and mural painting techniques. He introduced mural painting into the curriculum and had walls built in the painting studio that allowed students to experience fresco and mosaic techniques. At that time this was a rare innovation. It also involved immense fun as we went on expeditions to remote corners of the city to re-open long forgotten lime pits in order to recreate old techniques and recipes and apply them to new ideas.

As students we were always aware that George carried with him the weight of recent history as a Jew and a refugee. Equally apparent was his dignity and his great kindness and respect for young people. There was always the sense that he was on our side. I was lucky enough to be asked to assist him during summer vacations working on his various mosaic commissions in the North West. In that way I got to know him in a different way as a sound business man, as someone with a sharp wit and sense of humour and someone who essentially liked people and got on with them. It was clear that he was fondly regarded by all who worked with him or visited the building sites, the workmen, contractors, Church officials and so on. He was admired for his personal qualities and his professional approach to his craft and his willingness to explain his work to anyone and everyone. Those summer days mixing mortar to George’s special new recipes and quietly working with him on the scaffolding of the half completed church still make me think of those medieval illustrations of the building of the great cathedrals.

This analogy with past and the structured organisation of the guilds in no way diminishes his essential modernity. He was a man of his time. He sought to equate the language of modernism with the demands of the commission.

He was above all a kind and stoical man at once light hearted and yet seriously professional. As students one has setbacks and doubts. He was ever available to talk things over and encourage. Keen to critically evaluate our work he was always able to point the way ahead as a mentor and an ally.”

Gordon Millar Art Historian

December2008