Olga Lehmann: Catching the Spirit of London Life in the Blitz

Olga Lehmann

Co-inciding with the 75th anniversary of the blitz, there will be a special exhibition at this year’s 20|21 International Art Fair (14-17 May at the Royal College of Art) of works on paper by Olga Lehmann.

A chance encounter with a portfolio at an auction some 23 years ago by Agi Katz of the Boundary Gallery led her to discover the genius of Olga Lehmann (1912-2001). She fell in love with the watercolours of this unknown (to her) artist, most of which were dated 1940 – during the Blitz. The sheer quality of the work bowled her over that she tracked Olga down and a friendship began and more work was acquired over the years.

The collection has remained unseen all this time but, with the 75th anniversary of the blitz Agi, has decided to bring them to the fair. During the bombing of London, Olga experienced the destruction first hand when her studio flat in Hampstead was destroyed by a bomb and much of her early work was lost.

St Paul's During the Blitz

The works in the exhibition vividly show both the terrible damage which London suffered – there are several scenes of people sheltering in the underground. However, she was determined, at the same time, to share the celebratory atmosphere of community that marked the spirit of resistance during this period.

Born in Chile in 1912, the eldest of three children to a French father and a Scottish mother, at the age of 16 Olga won a scholarship to the Slade under Henry Tonks and Randolph Schwabe. Lehmann specialized in theatre design under Vladimir Polunin and portraiture under Gwynne-Jones. She won prizes for Life Painting, Composition and Theatrical Design.

During the 1930s she gained a reputation for murals and portraiture, exhibiting her work in 1933 at the Royal Portrait Society and, in 1935, with the London Group. She was also represented at the Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition “Mural and Decorative Painting” in 1935 and at the Tate Gallery’s Mural Painting in Great Britain” in 1939.

Olga Lehmann

During the Second World War, she received a commission to paint more than one hundred murals capturing the essence of British life, by depicting scenes of sporting events, fairgrounds and the like to enliven the dour interiors of the Bristol Aircraft Company’s underground canteen for workers in Corsham which later became the Burlington Complex.

She also worked as an illustrator, designing record covers for Argo Records and for the Radio Times between 1941 and 1961.

St Paul's During the Blitz

Lehmann also entered the world of films at London’s Gainsborough Studios and later Hollywood where she painted the portraits of Charlton Heston, Stephanie Beecham, Marlene Dietrich to mention but a few.

She was also a fully-fledged costume designer for films and in television where she was in great demand for her flamboyant style of costumes and was nominated for four TV Emmy awards.

She exhibited widely including mixed shows at the Wright-Hepburn Gallery in New York, in The National Theatre London, Heals’ Mansard Gallery and her solo exhibitions include St Catherine’s College Cambridge, Heffer Gallery, Cambridge in 1953 and Canning House London 1952.

Her work is represented in many collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Imperial War Museum, The British Film Institute, the War Artists’ Commission and the Slade School of Art. She died in 2001.

The exhibition will feature some 20 works and they will be for sale with prices between £500-£1,000.