The Monuments Men

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Ewan Maurice Godfrey van Zwanenberg Phillips ( 1914-1994 )

Ewan Maurice Godfrey van Zwanenberg Phillips was a British art historian and art dealer. He was educated at both Goldsmiths College of Art and at the newly established Courtauld Institute of Art, where he completed his thesis on early expressionist painting under Anthony Blunt. He grew up in a lively, artistic milieu. His father ran a gallery on Duke Street in London specializing in contemporary artists including Jacob Epstein and Leon Underwood. His mother had been a model for Epstein and R.O. Dunlop and was well known for her generous hospitality. Artists exiled from Nazi Germany often found refuge in the Phillips’ home.

Along with his first wife, Betsy Blake, Phillips was active during the 1930s anti-fascist activities, though he was never a member of the political party. They were founding members of both the Artists’ Refugee Committee and the Artists’ International Association and travelled extensively in France and Spain on very little money, camping and learning as they went. In 1938, Phillips worked on the London exhibition German Art of the 20th Century to counter Hitler’s Degenerate Art exhibition in Germany.

In 1939, Phillips assisted in the evacuation of The National Gallery, where paintings were being packed for shipment to depositories in Wales. He then served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army, mainly in Kenya and Mauritius. After the war, he joined the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives unit under his former tutor Christopher Norris and became Officer in Charge in Hamburg and Schleswig Holstein with the rank of Captain. As a Monuments Man, he interviewed Eva Braun’s parents and arranged for thousands of church bells intended to be melted down for the war effort to be returned to their places of origin all over Europe. After his family joined him in Hamburg, he and Betsy held open houses for many young German artists and musicians who were short of both food and somewhere to meet and work in the aftermath of war.

In 1948, he became the first Director of the newly formed Institute for Contemporary Arts, of which Herbert Read and Roland Penrose were prime movers. Initially, this was a small operation camping out on a couple of trestle tables in Herbert Read’s attic. However, in 1953, to his great disappointment, the job came to an end.

Subsequently, he became an art dealer specializing in Post-Impressionist and Modernist paintings working on his own and then with the Kaplan Gallery. He later opened his own gallery on London’s Maddox Street with his second wife Kathleen. Over several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s they hosted a series of stimulating exhibitions of paintings, posters and modern jewelry, providing several young artists with their first shows. Phillips’ art dealing continued well into his later life. He and Kathleen eventually left London and retired in Suffolk. He died on May 8, 1994.