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Teddy boys live on in affectionate tribute to inspirational art teacher

PUBLISHED: 15:04 24 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:25 07 September 2010

An Artist In Slumland was The Observer s headline for its review of Margareta Berger-Hamerschlag s best-selling Journey Into A Fog, about teaching art in Kilburn and Paddington youth clubs in the 1950s. Reverence for young life shines through pages whic

An Artist In Slumland was The Observer's headline for its review of Margareta Berger-Hamerschlag's best-selling Journey Into A Fog, about teaching art in Kilburn and Paddington youth clubs in the 1950s.

"Reverence for young life shines through pages which are frank, both in writing and illustrations, to the point of brutality," the reviewer wrote.

The book has fascinated many community workers, including Mel Wright, who works at the opposite end of the age range - with Kilburn Older Voices Exchange.

His illuminating and delightfully illustrated book on Berger-Hamerschlag was launched yesterday, to mark the 50th anniversary of her death.

Beyond The Jiving recounts how the cultured Austrian refugee artist, then living in Warwick Avenue, Maida Vale, was at first horrified by the Teddy boys and girls she encountered.

None read books, few had seen the countryside. They stole fruit she bought for still lifes and cigarettes from her bag. They threw bottles and lighted matches and menaced her with violence.

"I watched their dances after the classes closed," she wrote. "How lifeless and dreary they were in spite of the ear-splitting noise of the boogie woogie music and the jerking about of their young limbs!"

But Wright says their chaotic moods and despair began to interest and inspire her. "She saw the young members' rebelliousness as a driving force, a rich vein for self-expression." Berger-Hamerschlag was influenced by Viennese children's art pioneer Franz Cizek and shunned the idea of art as a psychological resolution for problems.

Instead, she wanted "to straighten their distorted picture of the world, make them feel, observe and express the new experience of uniqueness."

Her son Raymond Berger recalls that her involvement in youth work was so intense that to unwind she would "draw and draw her way through the night".

The result - wonderful images of teenagers jiving, fighting and flirting - can be seen in the exhibition which opens today at the Honor Oak Gallery in south London.

These proved hugely popular when her son organised an exhibition at the Tavistock Centre in Belsize Park in 2001-2.

The Berger-Hamerschlag story ends sadly. The book's success enabled her to buy a house in South Hill Park next to Hampstead Heath.

However, soon after she was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1958.

Her husband, architect Joseph Berger, was "so scared of emotion and protocol" that he organised no ceremony or wake but took her ashes to the seaside and scattered them into the sea, says her son.

Thanks to Mel Wright, her achievements have not gone unsung.

Beyond The Jiving is published by Deptford Forum, priced £7.50. The exhibition runs until October 18 at 52 Honor Oak Park, Forest Hill. Open Tuesday to Friday, 9.30am to 5pm. Tel: 020-8291 6094.

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