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Memoir of Ernst Gombrich – guest post by Richard Gombrich

The life and character – but not the achievements – of my father, Ernst Gombrich.

My father, Ernst Gombrich, was born in Vienna on 30 March 1909. His father, Karl Gombrich, was a lawyer; his mother, Leonie, née Hock, was a famous piano teacher. In socio-economic terms, it was a typical middle-class family of moderate means. My father had two elder sisters, no brother.

My father was born into the Austro-Hungarian empire, and remembered how as a boy he saw the funeral procession of the Emperor Franz Josef in 1916. At the end of the First World War, in 1919-20, he was one of the many children in Vienna who suffered from severe malnutrition. Save the Children, a charity that is still active, took him and his sister Lisbeth, two years his senior, to Sweden in 1920. There for nine months they were fostered by families of carpenters in a village in the middle of the country. Since they arrived not knowing a word of Swedish, and the families with whom they stayed knew no German, this was a testing experience. Thus my father knew hunger as a boy, and also lived among simple people with little education. Both these experiences certainly helped to make him broad-minded and humane.

In those days citizens were not classified by “race”. My father recollected: “During my childhood and youth, before the Nazi movement really got under way, no one ever inquired whether a friend was Jewish or not. There were many mixed marriages … Antisemitism was despised as vulgar.”  (Eribon, pp.27-8) Both my father’s parents came from families which were nominally Jewish but did not practise Judaism, and after marriage both of them converted to Protestant Christianity. Thus my father’s family was Protestant, though not observant.

However, when the Nazis took power this was not held to be relevant and the family were classified as Jewish. Like other people considered to be Jewish, my father’s family were persecuted and had to escape; those who were not quick enough to leave lost their lives. My father had anticipated this turn of events. He first visited England in January 1936. He there acquired a junior post at the Warburg Institute, which had just moved to England from Hamburg, also because of the Nazis. He initially had a two-year fellowship, very poorly paid, to edit the papers of the Institute’s founder, Aby Warburg, who had died in Hamburg. That task (which he privately admitted to finding a bit tedious) finally resulted in his large book Aby Warburg. An Intellectual Biography, which was published in 1970.

My father returned home to marry my mother, whom he had got to know in Vienna – she studied the piano with his mother – in 1936, and immediately brought her to London, where they settled. I was born in London in 1937. My parents took British nationality after the war. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, they were very pro-British. My father was offered several positions in America, and when he was offered a chair at Harvard he was tempted, but my mother was keen to stay in England, even though he would have earned much more in the States. He told her that what he liked most about the States was that one got orange juice for breakfast, so she promised him to give him orange juice for breakfast for the rest of his life. She did, and it was the last thing he asked for, and drank, before he died.

Though my father’s identity as a Viennese was never in doubt, he was not proud of it. Indeed, he always said that it was stupid to be proud of one’s status at birth, or indeed of one’s looks, since these were not things one had achieved for oneself. In his case, there was a little more to it. For some years after the war he refused even to visit Vienna, saying that most of his and his family’s circle had either fled or been murdered. For this reason he had a low opinion of Austrians in general and Viennese in particular, though he did not publicise such opinions. He was also mildly but invariably irritated when he was publicly identified as a Jewish refugee. He was not a refugee because he had organized his move to Britain before events made it imperative; and he was Jewish only if one accepted Nazi classification of people by “race”, a classification which he regarded as in any case odious and stupid. Consistently with these views, he strongly disapproved of Zionism. He would say in private that surely the Jews of all people should realise what a curse nationalism was.

Though my parents continued to speak German to each other, as they had when they first met, they decided always to speak English to me. As England was at war with Germany while I was learning to speak, this was prudent; but I think they would have done so in any case. My parents were assimilationists: they believed that if one had adopted a new country as one’s home one should adapt and try to fit in. For them, I was “of course” English. They also took great pains to learn English as well as possible. In this my father was so successful that he was often praised for his English writing style, and I am sure that this gave him satisfaction. Even so, he liked sometimes to appeal to me as a native speaker, and in particular would get me to advise him on details of punctuation.

After the war started, my father offered to work for the BBC listening to enemy broadcasts. He was an ideal person for this work, not only because of his knowledge of German language and culture, but also because he had hyper-acute hearing (which he retained almost to the end of his life). He started as a simple monitor but was then promoted to be a monitoring supervisor. For 6 years he worked entirely on night shift, this being when the most important broadcasts tended to be made. The listening station was out in the country, and my father always bicycled to and from work, usually in the dark. It was a fairly hard life, but I don’t think that he ever complained; he felt he was lucky not merely to be alive and more or less safe, but also to be able to contribute to war work. At the end of the war he was invited to stay on and continue with similar work (possibly intelligence work?) for the British government, but it was only a sense of obligation that made him even consider it, and he soon decided to return to being a historian. He always insisted, and wrote in his passport, that he was a historian – not just an art historian.

I must go back to his time in Vienna. When my father chose to study art history at university, he fully realized that this would never get him a job in Austria. However, by a quirk of fate a friend who was a publisher offered him the job of writing a world history for children provided that he could complete it within one month. He took up the challenge; and the result was the World History for Young Readers. Even before the war it was translated into a couple of Eastern European languages. Then for many years it sank from sight. But when my father became famous, some enterprising publishers noted this early publication, and translations into other languages began to appear. For many years, my father resisted having it translated into English; he said that for an English edition the book would have to be revised, because it had been written from a central European perspective; he also came to feel that perhaps the book was altogether becoming dated. In the end, however, he was persuaded that most of the book could still be published as it stood, so he made just a few revisions, and my daughter Leonie had the book completed and published soon after his death. The experience of writing for children was valuable practice in expressing himself simply and directly, and helped to form the author of the spectacularly successful book, The Story of Art.

After the end of the war, my parents lost no time in moving back to London, and my father resumed his work at the Warburg Institute, now part of the University of London – though it was still to be several years before he stopped being rehired every year and was given tenure. In other respects I think he was happy there, and certainly most of his colleagues there became close friends of the family.

His pay was still extremely low, in fact even less than it had been before the war. I don’t know the exact figure, but it is amusing to reflect that for a while he was earning in a year less than a university lecturer in Britain now earns in a week. I am not aware that this bothered him or my mother at all, though she had to keep house very economically, and I do remember that we normally had only very cheap cuts of meat, with quite a lot of fat and gristle. However, my parents had very inexpensive tastes: they neither smoked nor drank alcohol, my father was entirely uninterested in any kind of fancy food (I think he liked bread best!), and they never wished to own a TV set or a car. (My father never learned to drive, and would have been hopeless at it.) I never felt the lack of anything, but most of my time I went either to a state school which cost nothing, or to a grander school where I had won a scholarship. We used the National Health Service and were grateful for it. For quite a few years, starting during the war, we could only afford one two-week holiday a year, but we regarded this as normal. My first trip abroad was a visit to Switzerland in 1948.

In Vienna he had been slightly acquainted with Karl Popper. Popper and his wife Henni spent the war in New Zealand, where he wrote “The Open Society and its Enemies”. It was to be published in England, but communications in those days were slow. My father helped Popper by editing the book on microfilm. When in 1946 Popper took up a post at the London School of Economics, they began to see a lot of each other, and became close friends.

What transformed the family fortunes and made my father’s name was The Story of Art. He has published an account of how that book was written in his “conversations” with Didier Eribon (pp.62-6), so I shall not say much about it here. That he completed it was largely due to the persistence of a genial man called Bela Horowiz, who founded the Phaidon Press. He wrote a bit of it in German before the war, but then during the war had no time for it and lost heart. Horowiz showed an English translation of the few chapters he had written to his youngest daughter, Hannah, then aged 16, and she said he should publish it, so he paid my father an advance of £50 and kept badgering him for the book, refusing to take back the £50 when my father pleaded that he could not do it. My father had a hard time over it, because when he got back to the Warburg Institute its Director, a German called Fritz Saxl, told him to stop messing around with this kids’ stuff and get on with serious research. When Saxl died suddenly, my father was sorry, but it was also rather fortunate for him. My father was always grateful to Horowiz and indeed to Hannah, though it must be said that Horowiz was a good businessman. He offered to buy the rights from my father for £50, but luckily Karl Popper persuaded him to choose to take royalties instead. Certainly Horowiz made more money out of the book than my father did. But then, my father cared little about that. What he appreciated was that Horowiz was prepared to invest in producing the book to a high standard; he used to say “Ich koch mit Butter.” (“I cook with butter” – unheard of in those days of postwar austerity.) My father also had much respect for Horowiz’s book designer, Dr Ludwig Goldscheider, with whom he found it a pleasure to work.

As my father has recorded, The Story of Art was an instant success, and rapidly led to his being made Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, a visiting appointment to give lectures there for three years. From then on he rose fast and steadily, and became Director of the Warburg Institute in 1959. He relinquished that post only on retirement, but also held many other appointments. However, unlike most academic celebrities these days, he never avoided the grind of teaching (which in fact he enjoyed) or administration (which he emphatically did not). When he retired (in 1976), he pointed out that not once had he either taken sabbatical leave or applied for a research grant; he always gave the Warburg full measure and was totally loyal to its interests.

It is not my brief to discuss his work or his professional life. From about 1950 on, his achievements and activities are mostly a matter of public record. As he records, the publication of the The Story of Art – now translated into 40 languages – changed his life. “Before that I was just a poor foreign scholar, who had no contacts in the great world and knew virtually nobody here.” (Eribon, p.64) Since then, he said, “People know me as the author of The Story of Art who have never heard of me as a scholar. On the other hand, many of my colleagues have never read the book. They may have read my papers on Poussin or Leonardo, but not that. It is a curious double life.” (Eribon, p.65) Though he published many more books, to say nothing of articles, it was only The Story of Art, and to a much lesser extent the posthumous English version of The History of the World for Young Readers, which ever made any money; but he was able to live the latter part of his life in quite comfortable circumstances, even though he never much changed his life style.

I now turn to discussing his character and interests outside his professional life.

My father was extremely attached to his immediate family. So far as I know, he was quite close to his father, but his mother, with her extraordinary musical talent and her radiant, outgoing personality, dominated the family scene and must have been the greatest influence on his early life. He once remarked to me that he very much liked the company of old ladies; I could see myself that that was true, and surely his mother must have had much to do with it. Throughout his life he had a small number of very close male friends, with whom he was in frequent contact even when they lived abroad, but I think it is fair to say that the great majority of people he liked and felt at ease with were women, often older than he was. Basically, he was a rather shy person and liked gentle people. But maybe the main reason why he tended to like women more than men, and old women in particular, was that he detested anyone who was interested in power or in pushing other people around. I shall say more of this below.

While he loved and admired his elder sister, Dea, a violinist, she was very temperamental, and he was frightened and embarrassed by her outbursts of anger. He did not know how to cope with them. In this wariness towards Dea he was an ally of his other sister, Lisbeth, and felt much closer to her – which may have been accentuated by the fact that Lisbeth never married. Moreover, he and Lisbeth had shared the experience of Sweden: Dea also had a short period there, but separately.

Lisbeth was modest to a fault. She was highly talented for languages, and outstandingly intelligent, which my father greatly valued. Moreover, she adored him. She translated some of his work into and out of German, and he felt no one else could do it as well. Lisbeth was also rather unlucky in life, and I think my father felt a bit guilty about her having drawn the short straw. She was the one, the middle child, who found herself living with her aged parents as their carer. Moreover, while she was not unmusical, in the Gombrich family she passed as such, and hence somehow as the least talented family member – though objectively this was absurd.

It is barely possible to exaggerate the importance of music in my father’s life. He said himself that he probably responded more spontaneously to music than to the visual arts. (Eribon, p.35) His mother was not merely an extraordinarily gifted pianist, of that rare musicality which gives delight the moment she touched the keyboard. She was a pupil, and later the assistant, of Leschetitzky, who was a pupil of Czerny, who was a pupil of Beethoven, who was a pupil of Mozart. Moreover, he married a pupil of his mother’s (that is, my mother), who would probably have had a career as a concert pianist had the World War not intervened. My mother’s grand piano was in our living room and she practised on most days, sometimes for hours, almost until the end of her life.

The story of how my father met my mother deserves to be recounted. She began to take piano lessons with his mother. Leonie was kindness personified, and soon asked her young pupil, who had come to Vienna by herself and knew no one there, how she was getting on and whether she had seen the famous sights. On hearing how matters stood, she called in her son to tell him that he should show this young lady round the city. As was then customary, on entering the room he clicked his heels in a military manner and bowed to the lady. He did not recognize her; but she was surprised to find that his face was familiar. Only a couple of evenings earlier, she had been to St. Stephen’s Cathedral and had sat in the seats upstairs reserved for those who came for the music, not to worship; music students would bring the score of the music to follow if they wished. Then she noted that the young man seated next to her was peering into her score as she was reading it. That was my father. To the end of his life, he would sometimes forget the name and appearance of someone he had earlier met, but never forgot what book that person was working on.

My grandmother’s closest friends were almost all musicians. I believe that the closest of them all was the great violinist Adolf Busch. It was she, I believe, who introduced to Adolf Busch the no less great pianist Rudi Serkin, who became Busch’s son-in-law and constant companion on the concert platform.  Toscanini the family knew far less well, but it was one of their greatest sources of pride that he had been their guest to dinner in their flat.

As I grew up, I came to realize that music was my parents’ religion – and probably that of my father’s parents too. (Of course, they would never have expressed it like this themselves, but that is because for them music ranked so far above religion!) Busch, Serkin, Toscanini, Casals – these were their saints, their recordings kept separately from the rest, venerated and constantly replayed. I should add that the list was not completely closed: later Alfred Brendel joined it. I remember my father saying that he felt that a day had not been wasted if he had spent some of it listening to music. And for him, “music” meant the Western classical tradition; he often said that the Western discovery of the harmonic system was one of mankind’s supreme achievements. In practice, however, his range was even narrower. His sister Dea was a fine violinist who took lessons from Adolf Busch and played under Toscanini. She had friends in the Viennese musical avant-garde, and gave the world première of Alban Berg’s violin concerto. While my mother’s taste ranged more widely, in the latter part of his life my father only wanted to listen to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. He did admire Bach, but it seems that in those days music composed before Haydn was not so fashionable in Vienna – as is perhaps still true today.

I don’t think there are many people around in today’s world who practise, or even understand, what my parents meant by “listening to music”. Music could be light-hearted, even humorous, but listening to it was a matter of the utmost seriousness. Going to a concert was a major event, with such rituals as the queue at the end to get into the artists’ room and congratulate the artist – who indeed was then embraced with tears of joy if, as so often, he was a friend and virtually an idol. On most days my parents would listen to a substantial piece of music on the radio or gramophone, and once it had started nothing was allowed to interfere; the phone was taken off the hook, and anyone coming into the room was supposed to sit down and listen in silence, or leave. The use of music to provide background noise was considered to be not just tasteless but virtually sacrilegious, an act of barbaric disrespect to the composer and the players. Thus for example my parents would refuse to eat in restaurants which played background music. If someone claimed to care for music but was found while music was being played to divide his attention between the music and something else, he was dismissed as a vandal.

It may seem surprising that my father hardly played music himself. He had learnt the cello, and his instrument lay in its case under our grand piano. But he was no good at it. Firstly, he was not at all dextrous: he had no manual skills, unless one counts producing soap bubbles between his palms to amuse children. And secondly, the musical standards of his family and their circle were far too high for a normal amateur musician. Had he taken playing the cello seriously, he would have had to practise  for at least an hour a day, which was out of the question. In London Dea used to come and play chamber music with my mother, and sometimes she would prevail on my father to join them to play trios (violin, cello and piano), but he did not enjoy this; I think he found it slightly humiliating – and I sympathised.

I feel that something can be learnt about my father’s attitude to music from his view on what profession I should follow. He always said that there were only two professions he advised me against. First and foremost, he did not want me to become a professional music critic. He regarded music criticism by people who were not themselves musicians as bogus, worthless waffle. However, the other profession that he warned me against was becoming a professional musician. His reason for this was quite the opposite: he said that it was such a dreadfully hard and stressful life, which totally consumed one’s energies and left room for nothing else. Of course, had I been a musical genius he would not have tried to stand in my way; but luckily that problem never arose.

My father was a gentle, sensitive and compassionate man, but he did not make much display of his feelings – except on the rare occasion when he lost his temper – and I do not know how easy people who were not intimate with him found it to judge his character. He had a fine sense of humour and made quite a few jokes, but his humour was mainly wit, and I do not recall his ever being what one could call outright jolly. He did not laugh much or loudly.

What I think it was easy to notice was that he had a passionate attachment to certain humane values. He abhorred cruelty and violence and had trouble even seeing them depicted in a film. Moreover, though he did not express it in abstract terms, he believed passionately in human equality. By this I mean that all he cared about in people was their personal qualities; their social standing meant nothing to him whatever. What he cared about most was their intelligence. When he met the Queen, I recall, he talked about her afterwards in exactly the same terms as he would talk about any other person. While he had no trace of social snobbery, I think he could have been accused of some intellectual snobbery; but he would have seen this as having a respect for things which are really better than other things, as Mozart’s music is better than the music of, say, the Rolling Stones.

My father hated people to be really poor. He used to say that when he was young, you could smell the poor, and surely a society in which that was no longer true was a better place. He did not think very well of the rich either. He did not utter revolutionary sentiments, but I believe he thought it silly to have lots of money and lots of possessions. Some people who visited his home were surprised that an “expert” on art did not have any valuable pictures on his walls. His view was that if a work of art was worthy to be admired by many, it should be available for all to see, preferably exhibited in a public museum; he would be happy to go and see it there from time to time and did not need to live with it every day. I think his attitude to wealth and possessions did not much differ from that of an ideal Buddhist or Christian monk.

Indeed, his attitude to money was rather extraordinary. He thought it the most boring topic in the world, and was amazed at how many people found it an interesting topic of conversation. He absolutely refused to spend – waste – time on it. He never bought a share or made any other investment than putting whatever money he received into his bank account. He scorned devising ways to pay less tax, saying that after all society depended on people’s taxes to pay for the things we all needed, such as health and security. One anecdote summarises his position well. He was making a new contract with a publisher. My daughter visited him soon afterwards and asked him what terms he had negotiated. She was appalled by his reply, for evidently he had not negotiated at all but accepted the outrageous initial offer. When she expostulated, he said, “But he loves money so much!”

One could certainly describe him as generous, if someone in distress appealed to him, but I doubt whether he was very outgoing. My own experience was that we never discussed money, because it was understood that he would give me whatever I needed, and would also trust me not to ask for what I did not need. I have no doubt that he treated my mother in the same way.

Besides money and wealth, there were other things in which he had no interest at all. He was totally uninterested, for example, in sport. He would very occasionally play games with children, but sport I think he regarded as utterly ridiculous. Because I played some sports as a schoolboy, and my mother supported me in this, he did not express his opinion, but I think he was quite unable to empathise with the feelings of those who enjoy watching or playing sports. Basically, he was not interested in competition. He liked to repeat the (perhaps apocryphal) story that when the Shah of Persian visited Queen Victoria and was taken to see a horse race, he said that he could not see the point of it, as he knew already that one of the horses would come in first.

His opinion of religion was that it had given the world some wonderful manifestations of creativity in art, architecture and music; but for the rest he sided with Voltaire in regarding it as useless or even pernicious. His only wish for his funeral was that no clergyman of any stripe should be involved.

He also gave little attention to politics, though that was in a different spirit. I have already mentioned his hatred of cruelty, and how he shied away from anyone who wanted power over others. That meant that he had a generally low opinion of politicians, though he did agree that some were not as bad as others.

His distaste for politics had two levels. Basically, he utterly abhorred both communists and fascists, to the extent that he could barely talk about them, and if anyone tried even remotely to defend anything about them he would fly into a rage. If the atrocities that they perpetrated were so much as mentioned by a visitor to our household, he became acutely uncomfortable. Thus, for example, the murder of some of our relatives by the Nazis was never directly mentioned. He refused to set foot in any country ruled by a dictatorship.

At the more harmless level of British political life, he felt he should remain informed, but still preferred to steer clear. It was evident, at least in his later years, that he did not relish voting for anyone. His general compassion for the poor meant that he never, I am sure, voted Conservative; he rarely mentioned how he voted, but my mother always voted Liberal and I think he usually did so too.

He felt that one of the chief blessings of British society was that few people were interested in or swayed by political or religious ideologies. Such things only got in the way of the quiet life which one could devote to the things that really mattered. These were not only art and music. He loved nature and went for walks in the country, or in London parks, as long as he could. He was very interested in science, and positive about it, feeling that it had done the human race far more good than harm, and that it displayed much of human thought and talent at their best. He was perhaps rather less actively concerned with literature, and certainly did not read modern fiction, but he was very well read in the European classics and enjoyed recalling them. He loved Italy.

He was conservative in his personal habits, wearing three-piece suits and nightshirts long after they had gone out of fashion, but he was a free thinker in every sense. He described his position as Director as “professional interruptee”. To ensure that he had at least one time in the day when he could think undisturbed, he would every day take a long bath after breakfast, before putting on the clothes which my mother laid out for him; he could not be bothered with such decisions as what to wear.  By general temperament I would say he was inclined to pessimism but not to cynicism. Medical science had mitigated pain and had increased life expectancy, but it had not made humanity as a whole more intelligent, and traditional values were being too hastily abandoned as we cast off some of our traditional ignorance, so that one could not draw up a general balance sheet to decide whether the world was getting better or worse. At least we could still listen to Haydn and Mozart.


Eribon, D. 1993. A Lifelong Interest: Conversations on Art and Science. Thames and Hudson: London.

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