The sculptor Fred Kormis

Fritz, or later as he called himself Fred Kormis, was born in Frankfurt Germany in 1897. Shortly before the outbreak of WW2, he came to London where he lived and worked for almost fifty years in West Hampstead and Kilburn.

Fritz was fourteen when he began an apprenticeship in a workshop specializing in decorative sculpture and mouldings. In 1914 he won a scholarship to the Frankfurt Art School but was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army when WWI broke out. He was wounded and captured by the Russians in 1915 and sent to a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp. This terrible experience provided the inspiration for much of his later work. Kormis escaped from the camp and returned to Frankfurt about 1920 where he earned his living as a portrait sculptor. He married Rachel in 1924. As a Jew, Kormis was no longer allowed to work once Hitler came to power in 1933, so he and Rachel went to the Netherlands and then to England in 1934. Here Fritz anglicised his name to Fred.

Kormis lived in 41 Broadhurst Gardens (1935-1937) and then at number 9, Sherriff Road Studios (1938-1940). His studio was destroyed in a raid during 1940, but we don’t know its location. Sherriff Road never experienced any serious bomb damage, but many of the houses in Broadhurst Gardens were demolished during a September raid. Fred may still have been renting space there as reports speak of his ‘larger works’ being lost. Having moved briefly to Hampstead Garden Suburb, he was at 3b Greville Place by 1944, where he stayed until his death in 1986.

3b Greville Place today

3b Greville Place today

Built about 1822, number 3 Greville Place was a large and extended property, home to artist Sir Frank Dicksee and prima ballerina Madame Lydia Kyasht, before being split into several flats and studios in the 1930s. John Hutton, artist and glass engraver (Number 3a) and Dolf Reiser, artist and fellow refugee from the Nazis (Number 3i) were neighbours of Kormis. Briefly (1964-1967) Kormis also rented number 3h.
Once settled in London , Kormis’ reputation continued to grow. About 1945 Willesden Council commissioned a sculpture for the new Church End redevelopment. In 2006 Reg Freeson donated the sculpture ‘Angel Wings’ by Kormis to Queen’s Park. It stands in the quiet garden, in the south east corner of the Park.

Angel Wings, in Queens Park

Angel Wings, in Queens Park

Kormis was especially well known for his bronze portrait medallions which were highly regarded. Subjects ranged from politicians to royalty and entertainers, and included Edward VIII, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin. Kormis exhibited a total of 41 pieces at the Royal Academy .

Winston Churchill, by Kormis, 1941

Winston Churchill, by Kormis, 1941

Waiting for a life dream to come true
Since escaping from Siberia , Kormis had been working on studies for a memorial to prisoners of war, and later, to include victims of the concentration camps. His unsuccessful design for the British Holocaust memorial was a beautiful figure with two arms stretching up from the earth; (he gave a model of the work to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem ). A bequest from a relative in Germany allowed Kormis to move his dream forward. Sculpting a series of figures, he looked to install them in a building bombed in WW2, but the search for a suitable site proved fruitless until his friend and leader of Brent Council, Reg Freeson, suggested the figures might find a home in the Borough. Kormis wanted the work to be erected in a depressed area, to act as an incentive to continued improvements. Various locations were put forward: Willesden High Road, Canterbury Road, Granville Road and Gladstone Park. Nothing was decided until February 1967, when Freeson (then an Alderman and MP), told the Council’s planning department, “This is a very generous gift, I think it is one of the finest pieces of work I have seen”. The Council decided to accept the memorial figures but no site was agreed.

The following month, the local paper interviewed an impatient Kormis at his Greville Place studio. Four of the figures were now complete, the sculptor explaining that each was intended to illustrate an aspect of his war experiences. “First there is the numb shock of realizing you are a prisoner in the hands of the enemy. Then there is the dawning awareness of your predicament and the primitive conditions. The next phase is the thought of escape and freedom. After that many succumb to despair and a sense of hopelessness. Others overcome their dejection and manage to escape.”

Kormis had two designs in mind for the fifth and central figure – a figure with outstretched arms, alive and hopeful for the future, or a seated woman, face in hands, sunk in deep grief. “I prefer this but I must admit it is a very sad study. It could be too depressing.” But before going any further he needed to know where the memorial would be placed, so he could adapt the design accordingly.

Gladstone Park Memorial, standing figure and three of the seated figures

Gladstone Park Memorial, standing figure and three of the seated figures

Gladstone Park, four seated figures

Gladstone Park, four seated figures

Memorial plaque

Memorial plaque

Brent decided a “shabby site” would be unworthy of the piece and chose to place the memorial in Gladstone Park, in a position chosen by Kormis. The five male, fibre glass figures were unveiled on May 11, 1969. Sadly their condition deteriorated over the years and the site became neglected. When the sculptures were graffitied with bright yellow paint, the simple ‘repair’ consisted of over painting them in matt black. Then in December 2003 the figures were seriously vandalized: all were decapitated and one sustained further severe damage.

Fortunately, as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund restoration of the park, there was funding available to properly restore the memorial. A search revealed four of the vandalized heads thrown into surrounding undergrowth. One was missing but archive material allowed it to be replicated. Under expert guidance the figures were split open, foam filler removed and their internal structure replaced with stainless steel. The black paint was cleaned off and their original bronze finish restored, the resulting increase in definition allowing their features to be clearly seen for the first time in many years. The memorial is located close to Dollis Hill Lane , just a short walk downhill from the car park. Today the bronze finish has deteriorated but the impression given by the group, in particular the seated figures is very powerful. The standing figure is perhaps a version of the one Kormis described in his interview.

Rachel Kormis died in December 1971 and Fred died on 17 April 1986, still living and working at Greville Place. The couple are buried in adjacent graves at Bushey Cemetery.

  • Michael Young

    Does anyone have information about the Kormis resin sculpture “The Marchers” at King’s College campus on The Strand? The college’s archives are limited on the subject.

    • Rosemary Lee

      the Marchers are apparently at Nuffield College Oxford.