2. Education

After spending much of 1928 and 1929 working at Rolf Gardiner‘s Gore Farm in Dorset, Wilf had become quite a fixture at the estate, leading a team of men to plant trees and enjoying the social gatherings that Gardiner liked to host. The Gardiner family were well-connected in English and German societies. Rolf’s father was Sir Alan Gardiner, an eminent egyptologist, and his uncle (who had given the estate to Rolf) was the well-known musician and composer Henry Balfour Gardiner. One of Rolf’s friends was the culture minister in the German Government, Carl Heinrich Becker. He was an important figure in reforming higher education in the Weimar Republic and he made several visits to Gore Farm. It is evident from letters exchanged between Rolf Gardiner and Becker that Wilf had become quite friendly with the German minister. In a letter dated 2nd November 1928, Becker wrote to Gardiner:

Grüsse der kleine Wilf. Ich werde noch ein Paar Abzüge der Photos Machen lassen. Auch er soll einen erhalten’.  
“Greet little Wilf for me. I will get some copies of the photos made, and he should get one too”1

Then on the 2nd November 1929 Gardiner writes to Becker. They are in the process of arranging for Wilf to go and study at the School of Architecture & Design in Weimar:

Balfour is being obstructive about Wilf’s going to the Hochschule für Baukunst (School of Architecture) at Weimar. He thinks it wrong that Wilf should receive his training outside England ! This means that I shall have to rely on small contributions from Wilf’s friends in order to secure the £120 per annum necessary  for his fees and upkeep at Weimar.2

In a fascinating 1963 essay titled ‘Wilf’, which is held at the Cambridge University Library, Rolf Gardiner wrote:

I took Wilf off to Germany and apprenticed him to the department of interior decoration at the Weimar Bauhaus, then in charge of the princely architect Otto Bartning. Wilf soon learned a rough sort of German and was full of wry tales about the students and their parties and drinking bouts. 3

This School of Architecture & Design in Weimar was not the famous Bauhaus which had moved to Dessau in 1925 but the new school was an offshoot of the main Bauhaus.  It had continued in the same building and was often referred to as the other Bauhaus.   It was run by Otto Bartning, who had worked with Walter Gropius in establishing the original Bauhaus in Weimar. Former Bauhaus students and tutors such as Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Otto Lindig and Erich Dieckmann stayed on as teachers at this successor institution, the Staatliche Bauhochschule.  It was with Wagenfeld that Wilf stayed when he first arrived in Weimar. 4

In a 1999 interview with Barbara Slaughter for the World Socialist Website  Wilf  explained that he spent some time at the art school in Dessau – the famous Bauhaus .

The students all gathered round me. I was the first Englishman. They were tremendously pleased about this because they felt it meant they were getting international recognition — that the school was becoming known to the world. They didn’t know how I had been brought there by Stats Minister Becker.  I can’t remember whether I stayed at Dessau for three or four weeks.  The students showed me all round the building, the theatre, the workshops and the students living quarters.
What happened in Weimar after Gropius went to Dessau is not very well known….the school at Weimar was housed in the same building that had previously been used when Gropius originally set up the Bauhaus.  All the teaching posts there were held by students who had been trained by Gropius.  It was very much part of the Bauhaus.  I have a grandson who went to Birmingham School of Art.  He went over to Germany and saw the Bauhaus.  Then he sent a letter asking them about me.  They replied that they didn’t know anything about me, but he hadn’t mentioned that I had worked in Weimar.  People today don’t know anything about putting students into Weimar.

Wilf often spoke of his time in Dessau, where he met and worked with many well known artists and designers such as Paul Klee and Walter Gropius.

While in Germany Wilf’s craftsmanship and design skills no doubt developed, but the most important thing (at least from Wilf’s point of view) was the political idealism that he found in the artistic circles in which he mixed. One person that Wilf remembered as being a particular influence in this respect was the Hungarian artist Laszlo Maholy-Nagy:

He sought me out because he’d retired when I got there, I saw him first of all in Weimar, in the pubs actually…I was from England and to take the Bauhaus and Marxism back to England, that was my job you see, that’s what he saw me as, do you see?…Whenever we met he indoctrinated me a bit more. He was a socialist and he wanted to create a new world and he knew how wrong things could go because he’d been through the Hungarian revolution (1919)….He knew what we should be working for…a society in which all men are equal and right from birth are treated as equal and given the same opportunities to develop as human beings…this is what Maholy-Nagy said to me.5

Wilf certainly carried out Maholy-Nagy’s wishes and on his return to England he made it his mission to share the Marxist ideology that he had learned in Germany. Indeed Marxism / Trotskyism became the major focus of Wilf’s life and he continued right up to his final years to  be an outspoken advocate of revolutionary socialism.  He was a member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party for many years. Wilf gave a series of lectures on his theories of socialist design at British universities, when he was 91-years-old.

In 1930 a change of political leadership in the local government of Thuringia meant a change of direction for the school of Architecture & Design in Weimar. In April 1930 a new director, Paul Schultze-Naumburg, was appointed to run the school by the incoming National Socialist administration. He instigated a radical restructuring of the school, sweeping away the international modernist approach, favoured by the Bauhaus and the Staatliche Bauhochschule. He replaced all the staff and introduced a whole new ethos based on a more historical style which fitted with the ideology of the Nazis. Wilf recalled meeting Shultze-Naumburg:

Someone came and said he wants to speak to you, the Englander. I was wearing green football trousers and sandals, and a shirt. And I went in, I ran up the stairs, opened the door and there were two Nazis standing either side of the door, they evidently knew that the Englishman was coming because they stood there and didn’t ask who I was…..he told me, in German, that they had got rid of all the fremde, (foreigners), but they were very sympathetic to English kultur (culture)…and if I remained in the town, in the district, I would be reinstated in three months time…so I went home, I wasn’t waiting three months to be reinstated and make furniture with bacchus’s on and all that wood carving stuff…..he was actually very complimentary, he said he was flattered that I had come to Germany to learn German design..6

So Wilf left Weimar in April 1930 after being there for less than a year.  He also attended for a time the school of fine art that was established in London by Amedee Ozanfant in 1937: The Ozanfant Academy of Fine Arts. The school was only open for two years but it was quite influential, particularly on colour theories in modern architecture.  Sari Dienes was the assistant director of the Ozanfant Academy of Fine Arts.  Interestingly, there is a letter from Michael Tippett to David Ayerst written in 1937 in which Tippett describes Wilf inviting him to dinner at the home of Paul and Sari Dienes:

Wilf being all this took my letter to heart and acted in a usual way – he asked me to come with him to visit Sari and Paul Dienes – met me just outside the house and explained that they were people of no taboos then read Sari’s hand after supper and said ‘by a certain line you are just as homosexual as Mike – Sari asked me, ‘how much are you Mike’ – ‘quite considerably’….Paul gave us a resume of the banquet and put unbiological – sexual love on the Platonic pedestal – but then he is half Greek – however he was entirely sincere and was of such calibre that it did have the effect Wilf intended or hoped – you see David, I am the only one who has grown with and watched Wilf’s development – the boy who now lives his own life in London, discreetly and fairly happily turning his hand to this and that as it comes, so far on from the boy who tramped to Manchester to see you …’ 7


  1. Carl Heinrich Becker letter to Rolf Gardiner. Cambridge University Library 02.Nov.1928. MS Gardiner/ J/4. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
  2. Rolf Gardiner letter to Carl Heinrich Becker. Cambridge University Library. 02.Sept.1929. MS Gardiner/ J/4. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
  3. ‘Wilf’, an essay by Rolf Gardiner. Cambridge University Library. 1963. p3. MS Gardiner/ A/3/7. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
  4. Wilf Franks interview. 1996.
  5. Wilf Franks interview. 1996.
  6. Wilf Franks interview. 1996.
  7. Thomas Schuttenhelm. Selected Letters of Michael Tippett. Faber & Faber. 2005. p229.

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