On Saving the Warburg

Charles Hope writes about the battle over the Warburg Institute

On 6 November, after ten days of legal argument in the High Court, judgment was handed down in the dispute over the University of London’s obligations towards the Warburg Institute. The institute developed out of the private library of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), a wealthy art historian in Hamburg, who was supported by his four brothers, all of them bankers. Warburg had unusually wide interests, collecting books not merely in his immediate discipline, but also in the history of religion, magic, science, literature and related topics. His intention was to create an institution that would support research and he hoped that it would in time be absorbed by the new University of Hamburg. But this did not happen, and although after Aby’s death his brothers continued to support the library (the term ‘institute’ was already used frequently), the world financial crisis meant that the Hamburg branch of the family had to be subsidised by the two brothers in the United States.

Shortly after the Nazis came to power in early 1933, the library, as a Jewish institution, had to close its doors. Its director at the time, Fritz Saxl, lost his professorship at the University of Hamburg, as did Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Cassirer, both of whom were closely associated with the institute. Various proposals for moving the library abroad failed because the destinations suggested – Jerusalem, Rome and Leiden – would only accept it as a gift, and this would have left the family with a punitive tax bill for the export of assets. A group of British academics and public figures led by Lord Lee of Fareham, a former cabinet minister who had given Chequers to the nation, recognised that the only way forward was to offer to take the library on loan. This arrangement, valid for three years, was negotiated with the authorities in Hamburg by Max Warburg, and the whole collection of books, photographs and furniture, together with most of the staff, arrived in London in December 1933. At first the institute was accommodated in Thames House, now the headquarters of MI5. Funds for upkeep and staff salaries were provided by Samuel Courtauld, who, with Lee and Sir Robert Witt, had recently founded the Courtauld Institute of Art.

By 1935 it was clear that there was no realistic chance of a return to Hamburg in the foreseeable future. At this point Felix Warburg in New York began to press for the removal of the institute to the United States, but was persuaded that this would breach the loan agreement, with disastrous consequences for the members of the family still in Germany. Max extended the loan agreement for another seven years, and at the last moment Courtauld promised to provide increased funding. Thames House was no longer available, but after pressure from Lee, the University of London offered space in the Imperial Institute at South Kensington, in rooms recently vacated by the University Library, which was moving into the newly constructed Senate House. Conditions were less than ideal, as Saxl reported to Lee in 1938:

The two principal rooms cannot be used during November. They are being used as store rooms for the Needlework Guild, and are adorned with such inscriptions as ‘Babies’ and ‘Children’. Last week Queen Mary was here, and young Mr Blunt, who is on our staff, was presented to her, as his aunt happens to be the chief official of the Needlework Guild.

By this time the idea of incorporating the institute into the University of London had been raised, and in July 1939, after the last of the Warburg brothers had left Germany, Max’s son Eric wrote to Lee that the family was prepared to offer the library to the university, provided that ‘such handing over is accompanied by an assurance that London University will see to it that it is maintained in the same form as hitherto’. The outbreak of war prevented further consideration of the proposal, and in 1940 supporters in the US, notably the National Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress, suggested that they look after the library for the duration of hostilities, and promised generous funding. The proposal was rejected by Lee and Witt, who feared that once the library went it would never return. After the librarian was killed by a bomb, the books were put into storage and a small group of staff retreated to a rented house near Slough where they continued to research and publish.

In 1942, not long before Courtauld’s funding was due to end, supporters of the institute, including Kenneth Clark and Lee, decided to approach Rab Butler, the secretary of state for education, who happened to be Courtauld’s son-in-law. His first idea was to attach the Warburg to the Victoria and Albert Museum, financed by a grant in aid, a proposal rejected by a senior civil servant at the Treasury, who pointed out that ‘if a grant in aid to the Warburg Institute were to be proposed to Parliament, it would be asked who or what is the institute. The answer seems to be Dr Saxl and such persons as he may select to help him. We cannot but think that this answer would be found very unsatisfactory. I am not particularly referring to the fact that Dr Saxl is not of British origin, though that does not make matters any easier.’

The next idea was to attach the institute to a university, with the Treasury increasing funding to the University Grants Committee (UGC) to cover the running costs, thus avoiding the need for an annual vote in Parliament. It was decided that since the institute ought to be close to the national museums, the only possible destination was the University of London. The university agreed, on two conditions: that the UGC would cover the costs of the institute by a real and permanent increase in the annual grant to the university, and that at some future date it would provide a new building.

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