FROM ATONEMENT TO PUBLIC ADORNMENT – JACOB KRAMER AND WILLIAM ROTHENSTEIN 1911-1922 RACHEL DICKSON
DATE 2015. SOURCE Given at Cartwright Hall, Bradford. For further information see collection, exhibitions and research on Benuri.org.
From Atonement to Public Adornment – Jacob Kramer and William Rothenstein 1911– 1922 Rachel Dickson More than a decade after Bradford Councillor Jacob Moser presented William Rothenstein’s magnificent Jews Mourning in a Synagogue (1906) to the Tate,1 the Leeds Jewish community made a similarly philanthropic and civic gesture. In early 1920, The Day of Atonement, a large oil by local Jewish artist Jacob Kramer (1892–1962) – subsequently his most important and perhaps best-known painting – depicting the most solemn day in the Jewish religious calendar, was similarly gifted via subscription2 by the Leeds Jewish community to mark Kramer’s imminent departure for London. This was a particularly bold donation: not only was the work strikingly modernist in style, in contrast to Rothenstein’s earlier traditional realism, but local anti-Semitism was still prevalent; as recently as June 1917 a mob of several thousand had attacked the Leeds ghetto. Furthermore, the decision to acquire Kramer’s works had not been taken lightly, entailing fierce debate on the part of local councillors. Nevertheless, the narratives behind the donation of these two works to their respective important British collections illustrate the evolving position of Anglo-Jewish artists within the national canon and within a wider cultural history, each work representing a different degree of engagement with emerging modernism and with a shifting Jewish identity.
Rothenstein was a Bradford man, and Kramer, although born in Klincy (now in the Ukraine), grew up from the age of eight in Leeds – less than ten miles away – after his family fled the Russian Pale of Settlement (America had been the desired but unattainable destination). Although it is unclear how well the two artists knew each other prior to 1921, Kramer would certainly have been aware of the older man and his cultural influence, both locally and as an art advisor to the Jewish Education Aid Society (JEAS), the charity which funded Kramer’s single year of attendance at the prestigious and progressive Slade School of Art in London from 1913–14.
Leeds and Bradford both offered fertile artistic environments in the early years of the twentieth century. Both were industrial cities in which Victorian and Edwardian philanthropy had led to the foundation of their respective galleries: Leeds City Art Gallery opening in 1888 and benefiting from the arrival from London of Frank Rutter as its enlightened curator in 1912; Bradford’s Cartwright Hall opening in 1904. The latter hosted an active and varied
exhibition programme, including annual spring shows of contemporary art, with works often lent by local collectors, including Kramer’s patron, Michael Sadler, Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University between 1911–23, and Rothenstein’s older brother Charles Rutherston. Rothenstein himself was a regular exhibitor and Kramer showed some of his earliest works in Bradford in 1911, followed by his first solo show in 1915. The city was also home to Bradford Art Club, founded by Rothenstein in 1902, predating Leeds’ own version, in which both Sadler and Kramer were active participants, by one year.3 Kramer’s home life experiences were comparable to those of the East End Anglo-Jewish artists, the so-called ‘Whitechapel Boys’, with whom he would form key friendships at the Slade. Leylands, home of the Leeds ghetto – back-to-back houses in narrow cobbled streets – was described as ‘a slum area, the haunt of the underworld and a hotbed of drunkenness and immorality, which bred bands of hooligans who spread terror among all peacefully minded citizens, although it was the Jews who suffered most at their hands’.4 The poverty of the Kramer household was particularly highlighted by his JEAS case guardian: ‘a very poor case. Father etches photographs and earns in full work 30/- weekly average. Recently no work for 7 weeks and 7 in family’.5
Rothenstein, by contrast, was a wealthy, acculturated, anglicised Jew, educated, emancipated and assimilated, whose antecedents lay in western Europe. In searching out Orthodox subjectmatter in Whitechapel, he was a voyeur, an interested outsider, who shared little common ground or language with his sitters, despite his nominal Jewishness; indeed, he described himself as ‘ignorant alike of Hebrew and of ritual’.6 Kramer was the product of an Ostjuden, traditional, Yiddish-speaking environment, his earliest sketches depicting family members (the cheapest and most-readily available models) or ‘local’ Jewish scenes, both secular and religious. His sister Sarah, later the wife of painter William Roberts (1895–1980), who often sat to Kramer, recalled their youth, ‘when he trailed to the synagogue in Leylands’.
Yet despite this ghetto existence, Kramer secured a scholarship to Leeds School of Art under its enlightened Headmaster Haywood Rider, and crucially came to the attention of Michael Sadler, who was to become his most significant patron, advising his attendance at the Slade over the more establishment Royal Academy. From a position as a modest enthusiast of English watercolours, Sadler had become one of the most important northern collectors of British and European modernism. His collection, including French and German works
alongside purchases from younger British artists, was readily accessible in his Leeds home.7 Sadler lectured and invited speakers on modernism to the university and promoted and loaned works to avant-garde exhibitions in Leeds and London, creating a vital axis of modernism between the two cities. He also maintained a close contact with Rothenstein whom he had known at least since 1916 when he sat to a portrait for him. As Sam Shaw and Sarah MacDougall have written, Rothenstein’s sojourn in Whitechapel resulted in the important paintings of Jewish observance, of which Jews Mourning in a Synagogue was one of the masterpieces. The title does not refer to a specific religious festival, rather the scene depicts congregants standing to recite Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, amidst their seated fellows. Despite its subject, the painting was first shown at the New English Art Club (NEAC) in June 1906, a distinctly Gentile environment, where it was considered by The Jewish Chronicle – the voice of Anglo-Jewry – to be ‘far and away the most impressive and important work’9 as well as ‘the most finished and noteworthy of his Jewish pictures’. Just prior to the opening of the exhibition, Rothenstein himself described to the paper in a full-page article his ambitions for this body of work: […] it is not the picturesque qualities of tallisim and phylacteries that appeal to me. I have even left them out where I should have painted them. What appeals to me is the devotion of the Jew. It is that, that I have endeavoured to put on to canvas – the spirit of Israel that animates the worshippers, not the outward trappings of the ritual’.10 Rothenstein’s intentions, as articulated above, closely anticipate those of Kramer, clearly stated in the latter’s correspondence with critic and fellow Yorkshireman Herbert Read, more than ten years later, at the end of the First World War: It is my endeavour to create a purely spiritual form, as it is the only way that I can truthfully conform to my conception of expression […] we often get decoration without spirituality. The artist who is not deeply stirred by the spiritual significance of his subject, produces simply a copy and merely incorporates the external elements into his work.11 In formal terms, and in contrast to the Kramer with its modernist construction, the Rothenstein, occupying a square format, is at first glance a traditional representational work with a realistic setting (though that was itself staged, the theatricality emphasised by the draped curtain on the left). However, it is lifted beyond straight representation by a heightened visual rhythm, conveyed through the angulation of the heads covered by prayer shawls, rising and falling in dynamic zigzags across the picture surface. Rothenstein placed his figures diagonally while Kramer’s worshippers flow in a dense horizontal mass, the
rectilinear picture surface punctuated with alternating masses of dark and light, poised just off the vertical. The rough-hewn features owe some debt to African masks, increasingly fashionable at the time, and which had influenced sculptor Jacob Epstein, who was forming one of the earliest and most significant collections of non-western sculpture in England (Kramer himself was to gather a modest collection in Leeds). Kramer also dispensed entirely with background - a hallmark of much of his work – rarely little more than an unmodulated space.
The Day of Atonement is perhaps unique in British modernism, synthesising a rejection of naturalism with a desire to convey the spirituality of Jewish religious devotion. It moves beyond traditional images such as Rothenstein’s Jews Mourning in a Synagogue and transitional works. Wolmark’s Day of Atonement (1908, current whereabouts unknown) from the previous year, may also have been an inspiration. As an early work, it was probably less formally experimental, but unfortunately no image survives, only an account in the Jewish Chronicle describing it as: Wolmark’s principal work of the year, displaying his well-known skill at arranging a many-figured composition, […] not only Jewish in subject, but Jewish in sentiment. […] It is through some such portrayal as this that one may best realise what religion and faith mean to the mass of our people […].12 In retaining a strong sense of Jewish religious identification while simultaneously declaring an artistic affinity with emerging modernism, Kramer’s work drew on a range of contemporary influences, including Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, and David Bomberg’s own experimental modernism of the 1910s. As Lisa Tickner has written, ‘[modernism] offered a language for the articulation of Jewish subject matter in the terms of a transnational avantgarde.’13 Certainly, Kramer and Bomberg were close Slade friends who drew each other’s portraits, and as early as 1913 Bomberg was producing a series of processional works in which flattened, frieze-like images flowed horizontally across the picture surface. The use of processional imagery may have been a continuation of Slade experimentation, a pictorial device adaptable to both Old and New Testament subjects, which were often set as class competitions.
In the period between leaving the Slade and producing The Day of Atonement and its accompanying experimental studies, Kramer was preoccupied with achieving some sense of
spirituality in his art without entirely jettisoning his modernist credentials. This ambition was perhaps heightened by a postwar sense of disillusionment, which he shared with Bomberg. Kramer had failed as a war artist, and was only enlisted at the end of the conflict, spending its last weeks as a regimental librarian – a post facilitated by Herbert Read – and hardly one on which to base a brave new art. For Kramer, the great unresolved problem was how to reduce detailed representation to its simplest form, without losing the recognisable image and while embodying the greatest weight of spiritual expression. In The Day of Atonement this was at least partially resolved. Yet the oil was not his most extreme visual experiments: previously, in 1918 he had published a black and white design for a woodcut, also titled The Day of Atonement in the sole issue of the literary review New Paths, co-edited by Michael Sadleir, son of his Leeds patron, who slightly altered the spelling of his surname to distinguish himself from his father.14 Here the procession is reduced to six figures; those at the front tilt their mask-like features upwards in poses that anticipate the painting. The review described Kramer as: far more essentially Hebraic in his outlook than Gertler, whose Jewish extraction seems over emphasised. Kramer is a grim bitter realist […] Kramer obtains the effect of Primitivism through a ruthless elimination of all that is unessential’.15
In the wake of much avant-garde activity in London, it was not surprising that Kramer considered a move south, and in July 1919, after completing The Day of Atonement, the first tranche of letters passed between the Leeds Jewish Representative Council and the city gallery regarding a possible donation:16 In view of the fact that Mr Jacob Kramer is leaving Leeds for London, it is the intention of the Jewish community to present to the City Art gallery a representation of his work. For that purpose a public subscription has been opened. The collection will comprise works representative of all sides of Mr Kramer’s genius […]. The entire gift will be Jewish in spirit and fact. 17 Correspondence between council members regarding which works to accept was protracted and heated. Inevitably, as with any committee, prejudice and intransigence jostled with openmindedness and daring, each councillor keen to make his individual position clear: As regards the Hebraic procession […] It has some good points. The blankets whose stiff folds repeat […] and the general effect is quite good. But I cannot understand the departure from realism – the angular, sawn at faces – I am quite willing to accept a departure from a realistic view of nature, provided it be some sort of improvement
[…] I believe k is quite serious about his ‘symbolic’ way of painting but I cannot bring myself to sympathise with it.18 Eventually, in early 1920 it was agreed to accept the gift in full on behalf of the Leeds Jewish community, more than a decade after Moser, a German-born Jew from Bradford, had facilitated Tate’s acquisition of Rothenstein’s Jews Mourning in a Synagogue. Kramer’s The Day of Atonement is now one of the best-known works at Leeds, and a key image within British modernism. Jewish vision and philanthropy a century ago enabling continued enjoyment of these two important works within the public domain, each exploring the point of intersection between emerging modernism and the depiction of Jewish ritual in different ways, while revealing much about the then condition of Anglo-Jewry.
The Jewish Chronicle illustrated the Kramers and proudly described their presentation: To the Jews of Leeds there is only one artist whom they associate with modern art, and whom they regard as unusual, nay bizarre and revolutionary, one who has his own message and expresses his own outlook in form and colour. This artist is Mr Jacob Kramer […]. He has felt, subconsciously no doubt, the wave of optimism which has come over Jewry during the last twenty years, the growth of that independence of outlook and national consciousness which is uplifting Jewry from the degraded and gloomy aspects of ghetto life. Like all Jews he feels the gloom, though he gropes to the light.19 Nevertheless, despite his much heralded departure for London, Kramer was still firmly in Leeds later in the year, and in direct contact with Rothenstein as a result of the ill-fated scheme conceived by Michael Sadler to have a group of contemporary artists, including Kramer, the Nash brothers, Rothenstein’s younger brother Alfred Rutherston, Stanley Spencer and fellow locals, Edward Wadsworth and Percy Jowett, decorate the city's Victoria Hall. Sadler wrote enthusiastically to the local council declaring: ‘I have felt that the dignity and interest of that beautiful hall […] might be enhanced if some of the open spaces between the columns were filled by fine paintings’.20
Sadler may have been inspired by an earlier scheme in Liverpool where the Jewish artist J. H. Amshewitz created decorative works for the Town Hall lunettes following a competition. Unveiled in 1909, his controversial winning designs provoked much angry correspondence in Frank Rutter’s The Art News, with Rothenstein quick to defend both the judges’ decision and the importance of nurturing local talent – prescient sentiments in light of the Leeds debacle more than a decade later:
I have not seen the lunettes and am therefore quite unable to have an opinion as to their merits. I feel sure however, that both Mr Spielmann and Sir Martin Conway acted with scrupulous fairness and chose the designs according to their unbiased judgement. Nevertheless, I have every sympathy with the spirited public protest made for the first time by artists of that great provincial city against the methods of employing outside talents and the consequent neglect of their own fellow citizens. 21 A further catalyst may have been Augustus John, with whom Sadler was acquainted, who was in discussions regarding a potential commission (albeit finally unrealised) for the Great Hall at Sheffield University, with the proviso ‘that the Sheffield authorities allowed him to deal frankly with modern subjects’.22 Rothenstein was at this time Professor of Civic Art at Sheffield University, whilst Sadler nurtured a somewhat romanticised vision of the local industrial landscape as a suitable motif to decorate municipal buildings ‘for the enlightenment of the industrial north’.23 Sadler’s biographer, his son Michael Sadleir, certainly attributes some influence to Rothenstein, suggesting that: MES caught from William Rothenstein an enthusiasm for bringing contemporary painting into the lives of the people by commissioning artists of talent to decorate the walls of public buildings.24 Recruited by Sadler to the project, Rothenstein wrote from Gloucestershire to Kramer at the end of February 1920 outlining the ambitious conditions:
a first design to be made to be approved of by myself and backed by the directors of the National Gallery, the Wallace Collection, the Tate Gallery […] The design approved, it will be carried out on canvas, affixed to the wall and a sum of about £200 to be paid for the work. As I am to act as a kind of liaison officer between artists and authority I should like to know whether I may count on your co-operation.25 The typewritten circular which followed, confirmed the city council’s approval of the scheme in principle and that the designs, whether finally accepted or not, would remain the property of Sadler. Nevertheless, Kramer’s participation in the scheme seems to have been doomed from the outset. Despite being the most ‘local’ artist, he failed to attend the artists’ site visit to Victoria Hall in April when the specific spaces to be decorated were confirmed, and the subject of ‘some past or present industry of Leeds’ was agreed upon. Kramer then failed to attend a meeting at Albert Rutherston’s rooms in Lincoln’s Inn in London in June. Wadsworth wrote to him with practical details of the commission, confirming Kramer’s allocation of the large panels in conjunction with Stanley Spencer, but noting anxiously that
‘We were all very disappointed not to see you at the meeting […] and not even having any slight sketch or indication of the sort of thing you propose to do.’26
Eventually Kramer produced a striking design of miners and pit ponies in which the motifs repeated regularly in a rather modernist approach. This seems to have sat awkwardly with the other more realist submissions, giving Rothenstein the somewhat difficult task of suggesting to Kramer that his scheme be altered: I like your design in many ways very much indeed. It has excellent qualities but there is general agreement that it is less suited for a wall painting than for a formal decoration in mosaic, pottery or tapestry. It is suggested that you consider making your figures less of a repetitive pattern, if this is not too much trouble to yourself. The pit ponies also appear consciously toylike. 28 The subtext of Rothenstein’s comments may have been a plea for ‘easier’ work which the locals would understand and endorse; a note to Kramer the following month warned that ‘we have to do with men who know nothing and care little more’. 29
Unfortunately, despite Sadler's vision and enthusiasm and Rothenstein's best efforts at organising the disparate group, the scheme eventually foundered. In the wake of local conservatism and a lack of cohesion within the artists’ approaches, Sadler declined to present the designs to the council. The local press reported this decision alongside some of the designs, describing Kramer’s efforts rather waspishly as ‘too “weird” for the ordinary person’.30 Sadler wrote personally to him in disconsolate tone that he was ‘clear that the designs, taken as a group, are discordant with one another and would not be suitable for collective decoration. In these circumstances I regret to say I am not prepared to recommend them to the Leeds City council’. 31 Rothenstein himself admitted to Sadler some responsibility for the unhappy outcome: ‘In so far that in my own heart I scarcely believed the designs were likely to be carried out, I am largely to blame for the failure of the plan’.32 Perhaps surprisingly, Sadler’s correspondence reveals that there was much individual support for Kramer’s avant-garde design. Charles Aitken of the National Gallery enquired whether ‘[…] if it is not wanted for other purposes at present I should like to put it before my board with a view to it being lent here. Would that be possible?’33, whilst Campbell Dodgson at the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings commented that ‘Kramer is, in my
opinion, decidedly the best. I say so with all the more pleasure because I have not hitherto much liked such specimens of his art as I have seen.’ 34
Sadly, these endorsements came to nothing and the final disappointment was that all the preparatory designs were refused by the Tate and the British Museum. Although Sadler had hoped that a national collection would acquire them to be ‘readily available to artists and others interested in future schemes of public decoration’35, after a brief tour the works were returned and remained with him until his death. In 1949 they were gifted to Leeds Art Gallery at Temple Newsam where they still form part of the city’s collection as a fascinating adjunct to Kramer’s best-known work
See Sam Shaw’s essay in this volume. The donation included two other works. The most notable of these was an oil entitled Hear Our Voice, O Lord our God (Pogroms) 1919, in which Kramer’s mother was dramatically portrayed in peasant garb symbolising a universal figure of suffering and persecution. 3 See Tom Steele, Alfred Orage and The Leeds Art Club 1893-1923 (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1990). 4 Ernest Krausz, Leeds Jewry (Cambridge: The Jewish Historical Society of England, 1964), p. 21. 5 Letter from December 1909, MSS AJ/35, JEAS Archive, Special Collections, Hartley Library, University of Southampton. 6 William Rothenstein, Men and Memories 1900-1922 (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), p. 35. 7 Paul Nash wrote on 16 August 1914 to thank Sadler for hosting such a visit and also commented on the collection of Charles Rutherston, noting ‘The Dolls House is really a stunner’. Sadler Archive, Tate Archives, TGA 8221. 9 Jewish Chronicle, 22 June 1906, p. 31. 10 Jewish Chronicle, 15 June 1906, p. 34. 11 Herbert Read, letter to Jacob Kramer, 10 March 1918, Sir Herbert Edward Read correspondence, file/box 9.7, Special Collections, University of Victoria, Canada. 12 Jewish Chronicle, 3 April 1908, p.10. 13 Lisa Tickner, Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the early Twentieth Century (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 144. 14 New Paths 1917–1918 Verse Prose Pictures (London: C W Beaumont, 1918), p. 139. 15 J. G. Fletcher, ‘Tendencies in Present Day English Art’ in New Paths 1917-1918 Verse Prose Pictures (London: C W Beaumont, 1919), p. 117. 16 See uncatalogued correspondence, Leeds Art Gallery archive. 17 Jewish Chronicle (1 August 1919), p. 24. 18 Herbert Thomson to Councillor Arthur Willey [20 January 1920], uncatalogued letter, Leeds Art Gallery archive. 19 Jewish Chronicle, 19 December 1919, p. 24. 20 Michael Sadleir, Sir Michael Sadler: A Memoir by His Son (London: Constable and Company Ltd., 1949), pp. 319–320. 21 The Art News, 6 January 1910. 22 Sadler correspondence Tate Archive TGA 8221. 23 Sadleir, Sir Michael Sadler: A Memoir by His Son, p. 226. 24 Sadleir, Sir Michael Sadler: A Memoir by His Son, p. 319. 25 William Rothenstein to Jacob Kramer, 29 February 1920, Kramer Archives, Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. 26 Edward Wadsworth to Jacob Kramer, 18 June 1920, Kramer Archives. 28 William Rothenstein to Jacob Kramer, 28 February 1921, Kramer Archives. 29 William Rothenstein to Jacob Kramer, 23 March 1921, Kramer Archives. 30 Yorkshire Post, undated cutting, University of Leeds Archive. 31 Michael Sadler to Jacob Kramer, 8 October 1921, Kramer Archives. 1 2
Sir Michael Sadler: A Memoir by His Son, p. 323. Charles Aitken to Michael Sadler, 21 October 1921, TGA 8221. 34 Campbell Dodgson to Michael Sadler, 31 October 1921, TGA 8221. 35 Yorkshire Evening Post, undated cutting, University of Leeds Archive. 33