David Glasser in Whitechapel, 2016. Photo Jamie McGregor Smith

A Jewish chronicle of 20th-century Britain

Having fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe, London’s immigrant Jews went on to produce some of Britain’s greatest paintings. The museum and gallery Ben Uri brings them to the attention of the wider world with a centenary exhibition held at Christie’s

When Mark Gertler sent his friend DH Lawrence a photograph of Merry-Go-Round (see below), this is what Lawrence wrote back to him: ‘Your terrible and dreadful picture has just come… it is the best modern picture I have seen… I realise what a violent maelstrom of destruction your inner soul must be… it would take a Jew to paint this picture… I tell you, it takes three thousand years to get where this picture is — and we Christians haven’t got two thousand years behind us yet.’

Lawrence, of course, was never averse to hyperbole, and he perhaps overstates the Jewish monopoly on angst, but his response, in contrast to the negative and dismissive comments of critics at the time, still rings true today. The horrified fixed expressions of the people trapped on what is supposed to be a joyride remains, 100 years on, a terrible and dreadful summation of the tragedy and madness of war.

Gertler was born in London’s East End to Austrian-Jewish refugees living in a Spitalfields slum lodging house. In common with most of the 120,000 Jews who had arrived at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, they were very poor. A loan from the Jewish Education Aid Society enabled Gertler and a handful of other ‘Whitechapel Boys’ (and one girl) to study at the Slade School, where they were part of a remarkable generation described by the eminent drawing professor Henry Tonks as the school’s last ‘crisis of brilliance’. 

Merry-Go-Round was painted in 1916, four years after Gertler had left the Slade. It is a large picture, and though always desperately in need of money, he worked on it for many months, despite knowing that nobody would buy it at the time. As it turned out, it was nearly 70 years before anybody did.

Alfred Wolmark, Sabbath Afternoon, circa 1910–11 © The Artist’s Family. Photo Ben Uri Collection
Alfred Wolmark, Sabbath Afternoon, circa 1910–11 © The Artist’s Family. Photo: Ben Uri Collection

For those who grew up in the seething East End streets with literary longings or artistic talent, there was the Passmore Edwards Library and the Whitechapel Art Gallery. That was it, apart from a few educational charities, so the formation of the ‘Jewish National Decorative Art Association (London), Ben Uri’, at a meeting at Gradel’s restaurant near Aldgate East Tube station in July 1915, was a brave and important initiative. The aim of the association, named after the biblical artist who made the Ark of the Covenant, was to encourage, teach and support creativity in the community. The prime mover was Lazar Berson, a decorative artist who had arrived in London from Russia via Paris in 1914.

The minutes of early committee meetings, written in Yiddish, give an account over the months of constant fundraising projects, usually measured in shillings rather than pounds. But on 30 September 1916, they take a dramatic turn and become a chorus of recrimination. 

Berson had written a letter saying that, for undisclosed reasons, he had been obliged to leave Britain. He was expelled from the association, and although, a century on, he deserves his place in the community pantheon, the minutes then stated: ‘However great the loss may be, it will provide new opportunities to widen our activities and embark on establishing a wonderful collection of Jewish art.’

Three years later, with the help of Moshe Oved, a jeweller and sculptor as well as a benefactor, Ben Uri made its first acquisitions: nine works by the 19th-century artist Simeon Solomon, an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites from a distinguished Jewish family. He had been arrested and disgraced for homosexuality and had died in 1905, alcoholic and penniless, in a Covent Garden workhouse. With Oved as his champion, his reputation began to be restored. 

Mark Gertler, Merry-Go-Round, 1916. © Tate, London 2015
Mark Gertler, Merry-Go-Round, 1916. © Tate, London 2015

The following year, the assocation bought four pieces from David Bomberg, one of the Slade School’s ‘crisis of brilliance’ generation. Among them is his painting Ghetto Theatre (1920), one of the collection’s greatest works. The Yiddish Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel, generally thought of as vibrant, becomes, in Bomberg’s hands, a gloomy place. 

Ghetto Theatre is a magnificent picture of what looks like a terrible night out. It reflected the artist’s temperament and dire recent experiences: he had lost his brother in the war and failed to get himself invalided out, despite shooting himself in the foot. The Canadian War Memorials Fund had subsequently rejected a major war painting. Ben Uri, one of his few supporters, owns 14 of Bomberg’s works. During his lifetime he received sparse recognition and little money. He has since been acknowledged as one of the great British painters of the 20th century.

Clara Winsten (née Birnberg) was Bomberg’s contemporary at the Slade, as was the poet-painter Isaac Rosenberg, killed in France in 1918, and Jacob Kramer. Alfred Wolmark, slightly older, has been called the Father of the Whitechapel Boys: his picture of an Orthodox husband and wife, Sabbath Afternoon (c.1910-11), shown above, was painted just before his art moved in a less traditional direction. A particular treasure of the collection is Kramer’s study for one of the most important Anglo-Jewish paintings, the cubist-influenced Day of Atonement (1919). Gertler’s Rabbi and Rabbitzin (1914) is another example of a work by an artist still imbued with his ghetto background but embarked on a journey elsewhere.

Ben Uri’s centenary is being celebrated at Christie’s this month with an exhibition of 100 pictures from its 1,300-strong collection. It is a cliché of centenaries to say they offer an opportunity to look forward as well as back, but in this case it means something. The Jewish narrative of the first half of the 20th century was one of persecution, emigration and worse. The long-established community in Britain is now largely emancipated and assimilated, but London is a city of immigrants more than ever before. 

What was born as the Jewish National Decorative Art Association now bears the legend ‘Ben Uri – Art Identity Migration’. According to its executive chairman, David Glasser, the audience for exhibitions has gone from 99 per cent Jewish to only 20 per cent. His ambition is to establish the gallery in a location large enough to do justice to its unrivalled collection — now supplemented by works from a multitude of ethnic origins — and for it to function as centre and stimulant for art of many cultures.

David Bomberg, Ghetto Theatre, 1920 © The Estate of David Bomberg, all Rights Reserved, DACS 2016. Photo Ben Uri Collection
David Bomberg, Ghetto Theatre, 1920 © The Estate of David Bomberg, all Rights Reserved, DACS 2016. Photo: Ben Uri Collection

Ben Uri has been the great champion of Jewish art and supporter of Jewish artists. It has told and continues to tell the Jewish story. In the past few years, it has made important acquisitions, including a powerful crucifixion scene by Chagall, made in 1945, packed with images of Jewish suffering, and some savage George Grosz portrayals of Nazi brutality. The pogroms and poverty that had brought mass immigration to Britain at the turn of the century had now been exceeded in horror. Jewish artists, many of them already well known in what had been their home countries, came here from Europe in flight from Hitler. In 2014, Ben Uri acquired Refugees, a harrowing 1941 painting by Polish-born Josef Herman, who had arrived in Scotland the previous year. It shows a couple with a small child and a baby and very little else, forced to flee to who knows where — a Jewish painting with obvious global relevance, especially now.

In December 1946 Ben Uri held a major exhibition at its gallery in London’s Portman Street (the sixth of the 12 homes it has had in its wandering existence). Subjects of Jewish Interest presented 150 items that included biblical themes, pictures of religious life and a series of 15 depictions of Jewish life in Palestine. There was scant direct reference to the Holocaust — just one piece by Feliks Topolski, who had visited Belsen immediately after its liberation, and a couple of works by the German artist Ludwig Meidner, who had fled to England in 1939 and been interned on the Isle of Man (which he enjoyed).

This, like so many other chapters in the Ben Uri story, tells us much about the Anglo-Jewish attitudes of the time, as does the celebration of the move into a new gallery space above the West End Great Synagogue in Dean Street, Soho, 18 years later. This was treated as a signal event. Many of the financial and artistic figureheads of the community were there, and messages of congratulation were received from Laurence Olivier and Henry Moore, among many others. It was 1964, in many ways the start of the modern era. Increasingly, Jewish artists were finding a readier entry into the market; and many of the collection’s lifelong supporters were growing old.

Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918), Self-Portrait in Steel Helmet, 1916. Photo Ben Uri Collection
Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918), Self-Portrait in Steel Helmet, 1916. Photo: Ben Uri Collection

In 1984, Ben Uri was in financial difficulties. What to do? When Mark Gertler died in 1939, his masterpiece, Merry-Go-Round, remained not only unsold but hardly seen. His family gave it to the Leicester Galleries, which had been his dealer in London. In 1945, the Leicester Galleries donated it to Ben Uri. By now acknowledged as a great work, it was the collection’s most important painting. Ben Uri sold it to the Tate for £150,000. You might think it would be the last, rather than the first thing the organisation would want to sell, but it did keep the charity afloat; and over the past 30 years, Merry-Go-Round  has become very famous, seen and responded to by millions.

‘It was sold for entirely the wrong reasons with entirely the right result,’ says Glasser, a dynamic, charismatic Scotsman and serious art collector, who had done sufficiently well in business and marketing to retire in his late forties. In 2000, when he took the helm at Ben Uri, it had no gallery, no role outside the Jewish community and a much-diminished one within it. He arrived saying he would do a couple of days a week for a couple of years. He has been there for more than 15 years, giving it ‘123 per cent’ of his time as executive chairman on a pro-bono basis.

Glasser has built Ben Uri up into a complete museum institution, and he talks in visionary terms about its continued transformation. Its current gallery is two storeys in a small lock-up shop at the far end of St John’s Wood. It is a vibrant place with a varied programme, but, apart from special exhibitions like the one at Christie’s and the well-attended five-month show Out of Chaos at London’s Somerset House last year, the Ben Uri collection is a hidden treasure. Glasser is looking for 50,000 square feet in a prime location. He radiates belief. Ben Uri bid for the Design Museum building at Shad Thames, East London, but was unsuccessful. 

Glasser explains how such a vast commitment can, with sponsorship and space leased to commercial companies, be financially viable. When he speaks of a project participated in and led by communities from many corners of the world, his passion is plain to see. It is a great ambition — one nobody has really attempted, let alone achieved. What started in Gradel’s kosher restaurant in Aldgate East 100 years ago still has a long way to go.