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Post Memories: German artist paints a 68-year-old friendship

PUBLISHED: 13:06 11 May 2017

Witten artist Pat Harrison (real name Rainer Hillebrand) painting in Germany.

Witten artist Pat Harrison (real name Rainer Hillebrand) painting in Germany.

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A German painter will pay tribute to a “wonderful” post-war friendship through a powerful exhibition.

Kingsley Hall, Dagenham, where the friendship between the two areas arose. By Pat Harrison.Kingsley Hall, Dagenham, where the friendship between the two areas arose. By Pat Harrison.

Rainer Hillebrand, whose display opens at Valence House Museum on Saturday, was just 16 when he came from Witten in West Germany on a youth exchange to Dagenham.

Now 70, the retired electrical engineer seeks to depict a deep friendship through 14 artworks depicting landmarks across both Witten and Dagenham.

“I tell a story of what happened between people of Dagenham and Witten,” explained Rainer. “My aim is to portray how amends were made after the war, when the Brits started making friends with the Germans. It’s a tribute to the people of Dagenham.”

The friendship arose not long after the end of the Second World War, when youth worker Arthur Durrant invited six German prisoners of war from the Harold Wood Camp for a Christmas lunch in Kingsley Hall, Dagenham.

When Dagenham met Witten (or Rainer met Patricia).. a wedding born of a youth exchange, 1973.When Dagenham met Witten (or Rainer met Patricia).. a wedding born of a youth exchange, 1973.

This meal proved the start of a beautiful friendship leading to nearly 30 years of youth exchanges. The two areas won the official twin town status in 1979, and a twinning club in both countries still celebrate the union with regular trips.

Rainer, who grew up learning about Nazi atrocities, says he was struck by the “atmosphere of friendship” between his countrymen and Dagenham residents on his first trip in 1963.

“It’s a tribute to the people of Dagenham that they started making friends with the Germans,” said Rainer, adding: “We think what they have achieved by welcoming prisoners of war into their homes and it’s a wonderful thing.”

Rainer was to develop an even deeper connection to the area when he met a local girl, Pat Harrison, on another youth exchange trip in 1965 in Witten. They stayed in touch as pen pals and he eventually moved to London for studies – and more romantic reasons.

After marrying at Holy Family Church in Oxlow Lane, the couple moved back to the Witten area, where they had a daughter, Annett, now 36 and an English to German translator.

Rainer, who paints under his wife’s maiden name Pat Harrison, took just nine months to finish the display, which includes depictions of Barking Abbey ruins and Dagenham Civic Centre, as well as Witten Town Hall and the river Ruhr ferry to Hardenstein Castle.

“Painting is ideal to put the message across, it can tell a story by itself without people having to read too much,” explained Rainer, who bases his style on the layering techniques applied by painters including Claude Monet and John Constable to create his own brand of realism.

Away from the canvas, he will also foster the international friendship when he makes the familiar journey to Dagenham in a few days to see the friends he first met more than 50 years ago.

“I think friendship is something that one overlooks among all the troubles in the world,” he mused. “What I’ve learnt is you can always make friends from your enemies.”

The exhibition in Valence House Museum, Becontree Avenue is free and runs until July 29.

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