The Arthur Beer Estate

Wed 14 July 2021

In November 2020 the Warburg Institute Archive received five large boxes containing the papers of the astronomer Arthur Beer (1900-1980), former Senior Assistant Observer at Cambridge Observatories, who was closely connected with the Warburg Institute throughout his life. 

As a Bohemian Jew, Arthur Beer had been forced out of his position in Germany in 1933; with his move to Britain in 1934 facilitated by Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing. Beer entered the Warburg circle in 1930 when Saxl hired him to help with finalising Warburg’s educationally ambitious ‘Star Belief and Star Knowledge’ exhibition for the new Hamburg Planetarium. Opening in April 1930, the exhibition comprised murals, models and showcases with astronomical instruments, a small library and wall panels explaining the history of astrology and antronomy. The idea was to demonstrate the transition from speculation to calculation and from belief to science with Beer being responsible for the section “Modern Times” [Fig. 1]. Until his death Beer continued to render astronomical knowledge intelligible.

Fig. 1. ‘Star Belief and Star Knowledge’, Hamburg Planetarium, 1930.

Beer was held in high esteem by Albert Einstein who tried to help him earn a living after losing his post in 1933. Unsuccessful in either Belgium or Holland, Beer asked Fritz Saxl for help with getting a permission to enter the UK [Fig. 2]. Crucial was this letter in which Saxl confirmed a collaboration with Beer on the interpretation of Agostino Chigi’s birth horoscope, depicted by Baldassare Peruzzi in the Villa Farnesina in 1511; the study was published in the same year. Yet even more vital was Saxl and Bing’s approaching the Academic Assistance Council on Beer’s behalf. The Academic Assistance Council (AAC) – later reestablished as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL) – providing the grant which allowed Beer to settle in Britain.

Fig. 2. WIA, GC, A. Beer to F. Saxl, 15 February 1944.

Between 1966 and 1968 Beer was instrumental in a reconstruction of Warburg’s Planetarium exhibition, in many ways a complement to his unfinished Bilderatlas Mnemosyne [Fig. 3]. The exhibits of this well-studied project have meanwhile disappeared into storage; yet a few pieces, which had been part of Warburg’s Bilderatlas, are currently displayed on the reconstructed panels of the last version of 1929.

Fig. 3. Warburg Exhibition’ Hamburg Planetarium, 1968.

We have now opend the five boxes and are cataloguing Beer’s papers. The estate, consisting of both personal and scholarly materials, will be a valuable addition to our collection of some 800 letters, exchanged between Beer and members of the Institute from 1930 until his death.

CW