Still a Blast: the brassy humour of Hoffnung

By Anne Sebba, T2, The Times, 01 March 2011

Walking into the Hampstead home of Annetta Hoffnung I am immediately met by a large inanimate object sitting proudly on the carpet at the entrance to the drawing room. If anything could capture the genius of Gerard Hoffnung, artist, raconteur and musician, it would be this shiny brass tuba, which seems to embody the spirit of its former owner who not only taught himself how to play it but drew many humorous pictures of it. Yet in 1959, at the height of his fame as a cartoonist and bursting with creativity as an impresario, Hoffnung died. He was 34. His widow Annetta, a spritely 86, has been telling the world about him ever since.

“In fact there are five of Gerard’s tubas around,” Annetta recalls, “including one that dispenses beer but is also a perfect instrument made especially by Yamaha and based on a Hoffnung drawing. But this one,” she says, pointing to her silent companion on the floor, “was his first and the day it arrived he didn’t know which to be more excited about, our new baby or the new tuba!

“After Gerard died I realised I would have to earn some money as we had two small children. I was interested in cooking and thought perhaps I could supply a restaurant like Wheelers, which we loved, with about ten of my special apple cakes every day.”

But her ambitions as a caterer never got off the ground. Almost immediately twenty five of Gerard’s friends decided there must be a book, a memorial volume about him, comprising a chapter by each of them. O Rare Hoffnung was published in 1960 and included contributions from Donald Swann, Ian Messiter, Gerald Priestland and Sam Wanamaker among others. After that his friends decided there must be a memorial concert in an attempt to recreate the brilliantly original comedy music festivals at the Royal Festival Hall in London which had featured such works as ‘Concerto for Hosepipe and Strings’ with Dennis Brain playing on a coil of rubber hosepipe and Malcolm Arnold conducting his ‘Grand, Grand Overture for three vacuum cleaners, a floor polisher rifles and orchestra. Such activities had post war audiences rocking with laughter.

“I was still in shock but I was borne along on a wave of goodwill from all his friends who decided that Gerard’s idea to promote humour in music must not be allowed to die with him.”

But after the second concert in 1961, which included some newly composed music, everyone realised that without Gerard himself, the events were not the same. Just as Annetta assumed she must think of a new career for herself there came a request from the Edinburgh Festival to put on a Hoffnung concert accompanied by drawings. After that publishers wanted to bring out books of his as yet unpublished drawings: Birds Bees and Storks, Hoffnung’s Little Ones, Hoffnung’s Encore and Hoffnung’s Constant Readers all appeared in the 1960’s with Annetta helping to select pictures and write captions.

“It just happened, I never intended it,” says Annetta of her role as keeper of the flame. Yet ever since the day of Gerard’s tragically early death from a brain haemorrhage, she was determined to preserve all his drawings, now numbering at least a thousand, compile books of his works and answer questions from many parts of the world about the man she shared her life with for just seven short years. She gives talks about Hoffnung’s humour and is currently throwing her energies into a major London exhibition this summer **, a Celebration of Eccentric Englishness, devoted to W. Heath Robinson, an artist Gerard greatly admired who died in 1944, and Hoffnung. According to gallery owner Chris Beetles, this will be a major retrospective for both artists. “There’s a surreal inventiveness about their humour that is very similar.”

Yet although Gerard Hoffnung embodies Englishness, he was actually a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, born in Berlin in 1925, an adored only child of well- to-do parents. After a few years at a school for non-Aryan – i.e. Jewish – children, his family escaped in 1938 and, after a spell in Italy, Gerard and his adoring mother, Hilde, came to England while his father emigrated to Israel and from then on saw little of his son. At a time when leaving Germany with any possessions was highly dangerous, Hilde preserved about 300 of his childhood drawings, evidently delighted by her precocious son’s talents. A gifted pianist, she sang to him constantly and he knew many operas by heart thanks to her. One of his favourite was Ravel’s l’Enfant et les Sortileges, the story of a boy who dreams that all the animals he once teased come back to life. In 1950, just for pleasure, he illustrated this. Annetta, proudly showing me some of the works, tells how he took the paintings to Paris to show Colette, librettist of the opera. She was then a very old lady and was so delighted with the paintings that she wrote special captions. In 1964, with a translation by Christopher Fry, paintings and text were published. Perhaps the fantasy world into which he loved to escape is the only clue as to how he dealt with the horrors he must have witnessed growing up in Nazi Germany. “I wish I had asked him that,” she says “but who could have guessed there’d be so little time?”

At 14, Gerard went to Highgate School (his school reports there range from poor to very poor) then to Hornsey Art College but was expelled after a year according to Gerard because he presented the principal with an unflattering cartoon. His German birth made him ineligible for military service so he found work cleaning milk bottles in a dairy until the end of the war in 1945 when, aged 20, he was hired as a school art teacher. He first met Annetta in 1950 at a dinner hosted by Punch cartoonist Roland Emmett – at which he was the only other guest. Two years later they were married by which time his drawings were published in a variety of magazines and newspapers and Hoffnung, now speaking perfect English, found himself a frequent guest on radio shows including the popular One Minute Please. But it was his addresses, or “comic oratory performances,” which made him a national celebrity. Anyone for whom the name Hoffnung is resonant today will probably say “The Bricklayer’s Lament” in the next breath. The story is neither his own invention nor new, but his masterly retelling of it at the Oxford Union can still be watched on You Tube where dozens of today’s fans have left comments describing it as “brilliant,” “had me in tears,” “a gem,” or “marvellous lesson in naive physics.”

Literary widows from the second Mrs Hardy to the second Mrs Eliot have often been criticised for controlling the image of the genius to whom they were married yet although Annetta admits she feels very protective, this former WREN who spent the war years kitting out men for combat duty is far removed from the image of one who conceals or manipulates the past. “I like to be in the background. I’ve never done anything to promote him for any purpose.” In the 1980’s she wrote a biography of Gerard, simply called Hoffnung. “The writing wasn’t easy. I thought I’d never be able to do it. But I wanted to create a picture of Gerald as someone who had a tremendous ability to make people laugh.” As she tells me some of the practical jokes he carried out more than half a century ago, her voice still breaks into laughter.

But Gerard Hofnung had a serious side and was also a man of deep convictions on issues including race relations, homosexuality and nuclear disarmament. In 1955 he became a Quaker, joined the Friends’ prison visiting scheme and in September 1959, a week before he died, was playing his beloved tuba in a Festival Hall concert in aid of CND.

Annetta has not remained trapped in the past. As Gerard never lived in this house, she has avoided turning it into a shrine and although Hoffnung drawings are everywhere, that is partly because she is preparing for the latest exhibition. She has travelled constantly, taking his drawings to Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Cyprus, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, India and Brazil. And she has enjoyed close friendships of her own. “But nothing makes me more delighted than to talk about Gerard, or work with his drawings,” she insists. “He was an extraordinary person, a marvellous person and a dear, dear human being.”

Above all she had her children, who of course barely knew their father, to bring up – Benedict, a professional timpanist and Emily, a sculptor – and now grandchildren. “Bereavement is a terrible thing but I am so lucky,” she tells me. When I press her about the difficulties she must have faced as a single parent losing such an enormous presence in her life she struggles to find anything bad to tell me. “Can I think about that?”

She reflects: “I was always aware that the great loss was not just personal there was the great loss of his talent and there were people grieving all around. When he died the phone calls from his prisoners were among the most heart wrenching They were really shocked to lose him. Whenever he visited Pentonville there was always laughter in the cells. Who’d supply that now?”

What of the future? Annetta is determined that the collection should stay together and would like it to go to a museum in Britain where it can be seen and enjoyed. “England gave Gerard a home and it belongs to this country. He had such a rare ability to make people laugh and his drawings still have that power.”

** Chris Beetles Gallery Exhibition 8-10 Ryder Place London SW1 Y6QB : A Celebration of Eccentric Englishness May 23- June 22 2011
Anne Sebba’s biography That Woman A life of Wallis Simpson is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in August 2011