This early and rare self-portrait, exquisitely executed and with surprisingly critical self-appraisal, is by artist and poet Isaac Rosenberg. Rosenberg captured his own image several times throughout his short life, and his self-portraits hang in both the National Portrait Gallery and Tate, London. Known to us now primarily as a war poet, whose talent was brutally halted when he was killed in action near Arras on 1 April 1918, Rosenberg’s enrolment at the Slade School of Art in 1911 also places him at the centre of British art at that time.
Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890 into a working class Jewish family, who had emigrated from Lithuania three years previously. In 1897 they moved to the East End of London, where he attended school in Whitechapel and subsequently Stepney. At the age of 14 he left school to begin an apprenticeship at an engravers firm on Fleet Street, and during that period he attended evening classes at Birbeck College of Art in Chancery Lane. There he concentrated on the disciplines of the human face and form, a subject which he would continue to focus on in both his art and poetry.
By 1911 he had achieved his ambition to study at the Slade School of Art; at the forefront of British art, the Slade’s traditional yet forward-looking principles opened up many possibilities for Rosenberg, and he flourished alongside his contemporaries David Bomberg, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Christopher Nevinson and Stanley Spencer. A photograph taken in 1912 captures these young Slade students posing after a picnic, with Rosenberg kneeling to the left of the group, slightly apart from them. A description of Rosenberg by his friend Joseph Leftwich supports the image of this slightly solitary figure, as having a ‘strange awkward earnestness and single-mindedness’ (quoted in J. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches: The Life of Isaac Rosenberg, 1890-1918, London, 1975, p. 39).
Conversely, during his time at the Slade, Rosenberg began to move away from painting towards writing, and in 1912 he published a small pamphlet of poetry entitled Night and Day. In June 1914 he moved to Cape Town to stay with his sister and recuperate from chronic bronchitis, and in October 1915 signed up for army service. During the War he wrote some startling and powerful poems about his experiences, including Break of Day in the Trenches:
Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away -
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand -
A queer sardonic rat -
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies
(And God knows what antipathies).
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German -
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life;
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver - what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.