Paul Oppé Archive: Robert Freyhan

  • 27 September 2021

Reflections on the Paul Oppé Archive

Robert Freyhan – Refugee Art Historian and the Hunt for a Medieval Manuscript

The Paul Oppé archive catalogue was recently completed and published online. Most of the collection focuses on Oppé’s work as an art historian and collector, but there is also a substantial amount of material relating to his personal life, and the life of his family. In this series of posts, Anthony Day, who catalogued the collection, shares some of the human stories he uncovered in the archive.

In the 1930s, there is evidence that Paul Oppé assisted scholars and friends who were fleeing to Britain from Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. He used his influence in art history circles to help find people paid work in order to attain citizenship, and in some instances he simply raised funds to help people settle in Britain with their families.

To explore this narrative further, I’d like to consider the case of Professor Robert Freyhan (1901–1982) – a German art historian at the Prussian Research Institute for Art History in Marburg, who specialised in medieval painting and manuscripts from Northern Europe. In Oppé’s professional correspondence, there is a slim, and somewhat fragmentary file of letters from which we can reconstruct a brief historical framework relating to Freyhan’s departure from Germany and his subsequent time in Britain.

In 1933, Freyhan’s position in Marburg was under threat as he had become known as an outspoken critic of the National Socialists, whose party members were pressuring the Institute to remove him. He eventually agreed to resign so as not to bring negative attention to his colleagues. By June of the same year he arrived in London, never to return to Germany. While I have not found many specific details of this episode, it was enough to earn him a place in Hitler’s ‘Black Book’, which contained the names of people considered to be a significant threat to the Nazi party.

In London, he began lecturing at the Courtauld Institute of Art and worked alongside W.G. Constable, who helped him secure funding from the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (now known as the Council for At-Risk Academics). It may have been during this time, if not earlier, that he became acquainted with Oppé.

Syllabus for Freyhan’s course at the Courtauld, ‘German Sculpture of the 13th and 14th Century’, dated 17 Nov 1933, Frank Simpson Archive, Ref: FHS/1/4 (currently in the process of being catalogued)

Syllabus for Freyhan’s course at the Courtauld, ‘German Sculpture of the 13th and 14th Century’, dated 17 Nov 1933, Frank Simpson Archive, Ref: FHS/1/4 (currently in the process of being catalogued),

The correspondence from Freyhan in the archive amounts to only two letters, both undated, although they were most likely written between his arrival in Britain in 1933 and the outbreak of war in 1939. Both letters show how he was attempting to leave Britain, although he never states his reasons. In one letter, he suggests that his attempts to go to Russia had been unsuccessful due to his political tendencies. In the other letter, he seems more hopeful, telling Oppé that the ‘American professor goes back this week to recommend my appointment’. The college and exact post in America are not mentioned, only that he would be teaching his ‘own subject’ as well as the history of literature and music. He notes that he is pleased to be ‘once again accepted by a country and put to the definite service of a community … instead of only just tolerated[,] preserving certain intellectual pretentions’.

In this second letter, he also mentions his gratitude for Oppé’s help, and makes reference to the ‘Oscutt Psalter publication’ among other news of recent projects. This brief note helps us make sense of the next four letters in the file, sent to Oppé from Charles William Dyson Perrins (1864-1958). The Oscutt Psalter, then owned by Dyson Perrins, was a medieval illuminated manuscript of interest to Freyhan. According to the British Library catalogue, Dyson Perrins acquired the manuscript from St Mary's College, Oscott, Handsworth, Staffordshire in 1908. Upon his death in 1958, the British Library purchased the manuscript with help from the National Art Collections Fund.

Since they had communicated previously, Oppé felt able to approach Dyson Perrins on Freyhan’s behalf. His proposal appeared to be that Dyson Perrins would pay Freyhan £50 to produce an article on the manuscript for publication in the journal of the Walpole Society. Dyson Perrins replied some time later upon his return from an extended hunting trip, but refused the offer. As he noted, he had no interest in selling the psalter and could see no advantage in paying someone to write about it, which he regards as the ‘usual motive for publicity of the kind’. He did, however, allow Freyhan to at least ‘share [his] appreciation of its beauties & interest’.

Although we can only read Dyson Perrins’s replies to his letters, it is clear that Oppé had been persuasive in opening up this research opportunity for Freyhan, even though it was ultimately unsuccessful. Also included in the Freyhan file is a single page of notes on ‘English apocalypse illustration’, a subject at the heart of Freyhan’s research, which shows that Oppé took an intellectual as well as a practical interest in the matter.

Handwritten letter.

Notes on English apocalypse illustration, undated, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/3/4,

The final letter in the file offers a glimpse at a broader perspective on Oppé’s assistance to Freyhan. It is a brief note, dated 29 November 1936, saying: ‘Max doesn’t seem to be interested in your protégé, but I enclose a contribution towards his welfare’.

It was sent from the Old House in Betchworth, Surrey. Although the signature is not entirely clear, it was most likely from one of the Schiller brothers – Ferdinand Nassau Schiller (1866–1938) and Ferdinand Phillip Maximilian Schiller (Max) – who lived there around this time. What this additional letter tells us is that Oppé was contacting other people to seek help for Freyhan, and also that to some extent he was describing him as his protégé.

Rather than complete the story, this final letter potentially expands it and makes us wonder about the extent of Oppé’s work on behalf of Freyhan. We are told nothing of his motivations in this enterprise but are left to ponder how Freyhan’s access to private collections and sources of funding might have fared, had it not been for Oppé’s assistance.

(See here for a similar case study, showing Oppé’s assistance of German scholar, Oskar Fischel)

If you are interested to learn more about the Paul Oppé Archive, the catalogue is available online. If you have any queries or would like to make an appointment to view the material in person, please contact us.