One evening â€“ it must have been the early 1980s â€“ the phone rang at my flat in Walton-on-Thames. â€˜Can I speak to Mr Dryden?â€™ the person at the other end of the line enquired. Â At this point I was busy writing â€˜Ernstâ€™ Drydenâ€™s biography and realised I might be getting too close to my subject. The â€˜Mr Drydenâ€™ in question had been dead for over forty years.
But who was â€˜Mr Drydenâ€™? And why had he come into my life?
Back from university in the summer of 1976, my father informed me that my great aunt had died and requested I come round to the house to help sort out her possessions. It was June of that hot summer and, reaching my auntâ€™s late 1920s-style house, â€˜Pemburyâ€™, in the private estate of Burwood Park, the grass verge and flowers in the middle of her turning circle were still shining with morning dew. I was not the first to arrive, for outside the open front door a green 1930s travelling trunk had been placed by my auntâ€™s gardener.
Opening the lid and looking in, I inhaled the musty smell of sheaves of paper â€“ some slightly foxed – which had not seen the light of day for almost four decades, but was simultaneously dazzled by the vibrancy of colour, undimmed by exposure to light.
I was looking at a large part of the lifeâ€™s work of one of the twentieth centuryâ€™s finest applied artists. Although I did not know it then, this was the work of Ernst Dryden (1887-1938) and the trunk (which I still have) was the receptacle in which his works had been shipped across the Atlantic to my aunt from his studio in Westwood (Hollywood) after his death.
From my first sight of it on that June 1976 morning, I felt I was looking at a kind of treasure trove â€“ artefacts that had been sealed up for transport and safe-keeping and then placed in an attic pending further decisions.
My aunt had always talked about this wonderful man – Dryden – to my parents and other elders, but no one had listened; what a wonderful man he was, how he had warned family and friends to leave Vienna, and how no one had listened. The war and the events of that era were too close for them. For me, the discovery of Dryden was different â€“ it was the key to a door behind which lay many family questions that had hitherto remained unanswered.
The items I first saw that morning stick in my mind as freshly as that day forty-six years ago. Although I was 19, even I understood the glamour of names such as Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman, Tilly Losch, Louis Armstrong. I blinked at the searing gouache cobalt-blue of a Bugatti advertisement, the red of a Cinzano ad, the art deco front cover designs for the late 1920s German magazine, Die Dame (the German equivalent of Vogue) featuring haughty, unsmiling, vain women, which was the schtick of the day. One costume design was scrawled in pencil with the words â€˜Canâ€™t I have another colour â€“ I look like the devil in pink?â€™, others had swatches attached of gold & silver lamÃ©s, chiffons and velvet. There were menswear designs of extremely elegant gentlemen, sugar daddies, straight out of a 1930s film, and original pages cut from Die Dame as the artistâ€™s record of his own work.
Saving this hoard of over 4000 items from its intended fate at the hands of the Elmbridge Borough Council refuse department, I took everything back to university and put it under my bed. Occasionally I would bring them out to show people and one of those was Prof Jon Whiteley, then curator of the Christ Church Picture Gallery at Oxford. He suggested putting on an exhibition of the work which we did in the summer of 1977, right there on panels in the middle of a room of old masters. Going in occasionally, I was sometimes astonished to see more people peering at the Drydens than the Tintorettos and Raphaels. At the time, the subject was unusual; it was rare to see original gouache illustrations of applied commercial art on show.
That evening when the phone rang, my status was between jobs, out of work, and badly in debt – but I had at least been commissioned to write the story of Drydenâ€™s life.
The book came out in early 1989, with a foreword by Billy Wilder, called â€˜Divinely Elegant, The World of Ernst Drydenâ€™; and anyone who is interested in the full story may obtain copies from AbeBooks or other sources of out-of-print books. It is of a coffee table variety containing 150 illustrations in full colour, lovingly designed using a 1930s sans serif font for the text and one of Drydenâ€™s self-created fonts on the cover.
What I was able to do in the book, thanks to the discovery on my auntâ€™s doorstep, was to link Ernst Drydenâ€™s work to the work he had completed before and during the First World War under his original name â€˜Ernst Deutschâ€™. Art historians had referred to â€˜Deutschâ€™ as a great poster artist of the era, but no one knew what happened to him. By coming across his later work, I was able to track backwards and link him to his original story.
When the book was complete, the originals were sold at Bonhams to pay for my debts and I went back to work as a metal merchant, but not before entrusting over 300 high resolution transparencies and negatives into the safe keeping of Mary and Hilary Evans at The Mary Evans Picture Library.
That was thirty-three years ago now and I am happy to say the significance of the collection is still being appreciated; nor have I ever doubted for one moment that Drydenâ€™s legacy is best served by the curatorial expertise and care shown by those at Mary Evans.
One of the unique aspects of the collection is simply the fact that a large part of the work of an Austrian Jewish artist should be held in England. It had taken an English publisher (Pavilion Books/an imprint of Michael Joseph) to take up Drydenâ€™s story when the Germans and Austrians remained confused about the era in which Dryden worked; cautious about celebrating an artist who worked throughout the 1920s & early 1930s in case it somehow looked as if they were overlooking other aspects of the era.
Drydenâ€™s story (some of the items available from MEPL) include biographical photographs of his military service in WW1 in which he was a dashing airman for the KUK (Kaiserlich und KÃ¶nigliche ArmÃ©e) the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Army. Â Other items track his progress across Europe from Berlin, to Vienna (his work for menswear shop Knize and my auntâ€™s shop Hello on the Graben), to Paris from where he sent his front cover designs from the frontline of couture back to Ullstein Verlag in Berlin for publication in Die Dame.
The collection as held by The Mary Evans Picture Library tracks Dryden as the tectonic plates of the 1930s shifted, leading finally to his emigration to New York and thence Hollywood where he was to be costumier to Dietrich as well as other stars of the era. It contains examples from all Drydenâ€™s work while earlier material under his original name Ernst Deutsch may be found at the MAK Museum in Vienna as well.
The themes that come across most strongly highlight the way in which the role of the commercial artist was still more important than the photographer (all front covers were drawn/painted designs â€“ none were photographs); how fashion was such a strong form of escapism, similar to film, depicting the uninhibited, almost cruel, celebration of high-class and wealth. It was also the moment when a well-designed advertisement in full colour in a magazine was the height of marketing, and a period in which the mechanics of elegance can be seen through costume and womenswear design.
For all this Dryden was of his era, and his commercial art tells us much about the social history of the 1920s & 30s with glorious immediacy.
This was the importance of being â€˜Ernstâ€™.