JACOB KRAMER: THE HARE RACHEL DICKSON
EXTRACT FROM The Tortoise and the Hare; Edited by Ruth Artmosnky and Rachel Dickson. DATE 2013. SOURCE Published by Ben Uri Research Unit (The London Jewish Museum of Art, 2003). Accompanies the exhibition William Roberts and Jacob Kramer: The Tortoise and The Hare. For further information see collection, exhibitions and research on Benuri.org.
Jacob Kramer: The Hare Rachel Dickson Jacob Kramer was one of those Russian/Jewish artists who prowl around the perimeter of British art like unwanted orphans, never quite fitting in, never toeing the aesthetic line, generally seeming too emotional to pass for true British Modernists Waldemar Januszczak Jacob Kramer would have been a conspicuous figure in any environment; in Leeds he was a figure of fantasy. Possessed of every characteristic liable to provoke prejudice – he was a Jew, a foreigner by birth, a frequenter of shabby and even disreputable haunts, frequently drunk, even at times something of a vagrant….he was a loyal friend, a man of delicate sensibilities, wholly without ‘push’ or malice and of invariable courtesy. It is to the immense credit of Leeds that it should have shown no prejudice against one who presented so easy a target for prejudice and for legitimate criticism also, and should instead have so fully recognised his childlike goodness and his authentic though sadly ebbing talent, and taken Kramer, not with pity, but with pride to its heart. John Rothenstein, ‘Summer’s Lease’ Jacob Kramer has always been an anomalous figure within early twentieth century British modernism, one who does not fit comfortably into the ranks of his francophile peers. To a certain extent this fringe role was self-perpetuated, certainly after 1920, by his turning his back on London, the centre of the English art world, in favour of Leeds, the provincial city that had nurtured him. The latter phase of his life, and the notoriety he achieved in Leeds as a colourful and somewhat eccentric figure, have always tended to eclipse the seriousness of purpose of his early work, and his position as an English ’expressionist’.
Kramer and Roberts were opposites: in contrast to Roberts, the plodding tortoise, Kramer was the hare, who as a young man was bursting with visual experimentation and his own passionately-felt aesthetic theories. Yet by the 1930s Kramer stopped painting seriously and instead directed his energies into his beloved Yorkshire Luncheon Group and in being a ‘local character’; no exhibition opening or civic function in Leeds was complete without Jacob. His artistic legacy is small compared to Roberts – he destroyed much of his early work and many of the later pastel portraits are second rate, but amongst the remaining early works there is evidence of a unique vision.
Kramer and Roberts began their artistic careers at one of the most extraordinary periods in modern British art. Having met and overlapped during Kramer’s one academic year at the Slade, 1913-14, and having moved in the same artistic and social circles (Kramer introduced Roberts to his sister Sarah, who would subsequently become Roberts’ wife), their lives gradually took separate paths. Tellingly, Roberts’ son John wrote of his Uncle: “JK I met six times in all, perhaps. And always with other company. He didn’t speak about art to me. Nor did W.R […] I can tell you they did not get on.” The root of this divergence lies, most obviously, in differences in character and in background – although both suffered a frugal existence for much of their lives. Kramer latterly squandered money on drink, and, despite his local ‘celebrity’ status, lived in one rented room; the Roberts’ eventually found a degree of security in later life being gifted a house in Camden Town which functioned as the tortoise’s ‘shell’ against the world. Whereas life for Roberts was almost obsessively ordered, Kramer lived in a state of constant restlessness and flux. He was unsettled in his identity as a Russian Jewish immigrant in Leeds; in his later home life; in his adult relationships with women. His allegiance was split geographically between Leeds and London. As an artist, he was torn between theory and practice, between representation and abstraction, between traditionalism and the avant-garde.
His letters hint at him as a neurotic, plagued by real or imagined ill health. Contemporary accounts describe an extraordinary physical presence that inspired other artists (portraits exist by David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, John Flanangan, Fred Lawson and, of course, Roberts); a character that craved social contact and discourse; a mind eager to devour new ideas but also ready to question and to stubbornly form and hold on to his own opinions. An extrovert at times, but also characterised by self-doubt and shyness. Somewhat of a showman, he wasn’t afraid to lecture on his philosophies on art to an often-unreceptive audience; an artist who produced early work in an extraordinary range of experimental styles; a frequent contributor to avant-garde publications; yet, as he wrote to Herbert Read in 1918: “I want you to bear in mind that at times I have great difficulty in writing – I mean to express myself fully in words. Being mixed up with other languages – Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew etc, I find that the English language becomes so difficult.”
For Roberts, one cannot underestimate the importance of Sarah, his muse, who created and represented stability and created the boundaries of his daily life – she experienced more and more of the outside world on his behalf over time.
Like her brother, Sarah was a ‘big’
personality. Whereas Kramer experienced life first-hand, and drank and caroused, Roberts, the abstemious drinker, gradually withdrew from public life. He too privately produced pamphlets but rather than revealing theories on art, they were vehicles for Roberts’ thinly veiled criticism of the art establishment.
Both repeatedly used Sarah as a model, although she was no longer available to Kramer after she moved in with Roberts (they were finally married in 1922 after the birth of their son John in 1919). Kramer’s early drawings portray her in a variety of guises: as the Augustus John-like gipsy, the old master beauty, the young elegant Edwardian lady, the gleefully dancing girl, sketched quickly and dynamically. His other most frequent model was his mother, Cecilia, who represented both the specific and the generalised. In one work she is portrayed as the archetypal Russian peasant woman.
It is a highly charged work, representing not only the personal
suffering of his mother, but also the accumulated anguish of the Jewish people.
LEEDS For Kramer, his position as a Russian-born Jewish immigrant in Leeds was far from clearly defined.
Richard Cork, when referring to the parallel situation of Bomberg and his
contemporaries in London’s East End, summed up the situation thus: “Their frustration centred not only on economic deprivation but also on their ambiguous status as the children of Jewish immigrants. Torn between loyalty to family tradition and an ambitious urge to move outside these limits and participate in the artistic or political life of Britain as a whole, these energetic friends constantly found themselves fighting contradictory impulses.” For Kramer, his Jewish identity was perhaps less burdensome within a small community such as Leeds. He wore his Jewishness lightly, was not particularly observant, and had parents who were both artistic (in Russia his father had been a painter and his mother a singer). Having arrived in Leeds in 1900 and attended school (as an able student, he achieved three ‘standards’ in two years), Jacob entered Leeds School of Art in 1907 under the enlightened headmaster,
Haywood Rider. In 1910 Kramer was given the special role of caretaker of art materials, with a salary of £12 per annum, and in 1911 he was awarded a Senior Scholarship of £50 per annum. Rider recognised Kramer’s talent and became a continuing source of encouragement to him, not least when Kramer felt he had outgrown Leeds and was looking to move to a London art school.
The fact that Kramer grew up in the largely Jewish Chapeltown Road area of Leeds, not in the Leylands, the established ‘ghetto’, indicates that a degree of assimilation was already taking place. Jacob, and Sarah and Millie, two of his three sisters, represented the new generation, rejecting traditional Jewish methods of education (his sisters all attended board schools) and adopting English forms of entertainment, such as the theatre and the music hall. As an adult Kramer no longer attended synagogue; Sarah commented: “After our youth, when he trailed to the synagogue in Leylands, I don’t believe he went to a proper service”. This was not for a lack of spiritual feeling; on the contrary, Kramer is also recorded as sitting in empty churches because of their very spirituality. Indeed, the quest for spirituality in his art became an overriding concern. Inevitably, Jewish subjects were some of Kramer’s earliest subjects because of availability; his sitters from 1913 are most often members of his immediate family interspersed with recognisably Jewish figures who must have frequented the Kramer’s home and neigbourhood. Jewish subjects were also treated in the widest range of styles, ranging from the most representational to the most highly stylized.
Perhaps familiarity with the subject gave Kramer
the confidence to be most experimental.
However, at the same time, Kramer was also drawing overtly Christian subject matter. The idea of a Jewish artist depicting Christian themes, presented no problem to Kramer; indeed, this became an important subject for him over a number of years, as part of his search for the spiritual in art.
Although Kramer himself no longer observed the outward ‘trappings’ of
Judaism, he was nevertheless a profoundly spiritual man. Reverend William Elborne, an old friend, recalled: “in spite of being a Jew, (he) had read and studied the Gospels, and formed a strong conclusion that Christ was the greatest Jew ever born […] Kramer by his deep spirituality
doubted the orthodox likeness of Christ.
He envisaged a more remarkable and grander
countenance.” Kramer himself summed up his views in a 1933 newspaper article: you may think it strange that I, a Jew, should spend nearly all my mature life trying to express Christ…and yet, why not? I am not an orthodox Jew. I have a respect for all religions. My Christ is to be – a symbol of – what shall I say? of the Problem of Suffering; a theme universal to all mankind – Jew, Christian, Mohammedan alike […] I want to represent Christ as an expression of human nature – as an ordinary man like you and me, but a man who carries in his face all the sorrow of mankind. Don’t go away with the idea that there is anything strange in a Jew painting Christ This search for the spiritual in art is at the heart of Kramer’s early and best work, and, for someone who claimed to have difficulty with written English, is articulated at length in a letter to Herbert Read: […] as you know Read that the degree of expression in a work of art is a measure of its greatness […] If the expression is guided by deep emotion, I always find that I reproduce a replica of the subject of reality […] 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. I also mentioned that there are several critics who do understand the spiritual propensities and they do not exist in Leeds […] However, I pointed out that merely to copy from nature does not constitute expression as I understand it. The artist who has not made a study of the spiritual phases of his development, merely produces a false symbolism – he shows us beauty and charm, without in my opinion, realising full power of expression In the face of such passion and conviction of argument, Read could find little to dispute, save urging Kramer to substitute the word ‘intuition’ for spirituality. It seems perhaps unsurprising that the Englishman should tend towards the more rational, less emotional interpretation.
Their continuing correspondence shows that Kramer was conscious of the multiple possibilities of modern art – mentioning Cubism, Futurism and Post-impressionism, yet none sufficiently answered his needs and were therefore dismissed as inadequate solutions. It is clearly apparent now that Kramer was expounding the values of Expressionism at a time when a name had not yet been put to it. As Read commented many years later, “Kramer is and always has been an expressionist – and that if you like has been his misfortune, for expressionism, as a style has never been accepted in this country – at least not since the Middle Age […] Jacob Kramer,
because he is and has remained an expressionist, has suffered the same neglect as his contemporary David Bomberg.”
For Kramer, the great unresolved problem of his art was how to reduce detailed representation to its simplest abstracted form, without losing the recognisable image and whilst embodying the greatest weight of spiritual expression. Kramer’s Russian identity seemed harder for him to resolve. Although he was only eight when he came to England, he nevertheless retained something of an eastern/northern European consciousness; much of his art has a quality that is bold, decorative, strong. His parents were still Yiddish speaking and, as many of his early drawings portray, his mother still dressed in the headscarf and full skirts reminiscent of a Russian peasant. Kramer’s subject matter repeatedly made reference to ‘Russian’ images, whilst his portraits were often characterised by the inclusion of Mongolian features: One must also remember that Kramer was not naturalised until 1922 and joined the Russian Labour Battalion rather than the Jewish Brigade as suggested, for his brief period of military service during the First World War. Nevertheless, Kramer’s earliest artistic endeavours were specifically influenced by his Jewish identity.
Following a period during autumn 1909 when extensive ‘expert’ reports on his
financial and artistic suitability were carried out, Kramer was successful in his application to the Jewish Educational Aid Society for financial assistance to enable him to continue at Leeds School of Art. (He was already in receipt of a Junior Scholarship but was ineligible to try for a Senior Scholarship until 1911). The earliest reference to Kramer in JEAS minutes dates is 8 December 1909, the date also noted as that of his adoption by the Society. Fortunately, a committee member of the Society, which was set up to assist with the educational needs of deserving but impoverished young Jewish men and women in the fields of art, science, literature and music, was a Leeds man, Dr Myer Coplans, of the School of Medicine at Leeds University. Despite being on the Science Committee, he enthusiastically took Kramer under his wing as joint case guardian with Haywood Rider, and was at one point even prepared to resign from the Society at what he believed was the mishandling of the payment of a grant to Kramer.
The name ‘Jacob Kramer’ became a regular entry in the Monthly Return of Cases under the ‘Art’ section. Kramer often appeared alongside entries for Gertler, Bomberg, Rosenberg and Meninsky from the end of 1909 to July 1914, as the JEAS supported him, first through Leeds School of Art, and then through a single academic year, 1913-14, at the Slade School in London. Correspondence continues into the early 1920s regarding requests for repayment of the large sum of £184 spent on him (JEAS assistance was considered a loan), with the Society resorting to employing a Leeds solicitor to look into Kramer’s whereabouts and his family circumstances, as he had written as late as 1919 that his current situation meant it was impossible for him to pay back any amount. Kramer’s original Application Form dated 5 November 1909 reveals the poverty of his Leeds home life; he describes the family home as four rooms, rented for 7/6 a week, shared with his parents and four siblings (three at school, one a baby, who must have died during infancy). JEAS funding was supposed to support academic endeavour but occasionally it had to fulfil a more prosaic need; Minutes dated February 1912 note that Michael Sadler, Vice Chancellor of Leeds University and Kramer’s patron, reported that he required a set of false teeth. December 1912 minutes record a request for money for extra clothing so that Jacob could spend Christmas with the writer, Weedon Grossmith, suitably attired (a request exceptionally granted, as normally strictly against JEAS rules).
In 1913 when Kramer wished to apply to the Slade (a letter to the JEAS indicates his desperation to leave Leeds as he felt he had wholly outgrown Leeds School of Art), the Society sought assessment of his artistic talent from a figure no less than the distinguished Royal Academician, Solomon J Solomon, who was on the Art committee. Minutes dated 29 October 1913 record that he had been consulted and made a positive recommendation to the Society on Kramer’s behalf.
Despite the constraints of Leeds School of Art, the larger artistic milieu in Leeds itself was to have an enormous influence on Kramer, in particular through the prevailing aesthetic philosophies during 1911-1913. Of particular significance was the avant garde and modernist aesthetics promoted within the Leeds Arts Club, where the art and writings of Wassily
Kandinsky became a focal point, in contrast to the francophile ideas being fostered in London, in the wake of Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912. Founded in 1903, the Leeds Arts Club was an “Association dedicated to the free interchange and expression of modern thought” and became the inspiration for the Fabian Arts Club in London. By 1911 Frank Rutter, the progressive Curator of Leeds City Art Gallery, had become President and used the club as a means of promoting his own philosophical predilections – including a theory of ‘significant form’. Rutter maintained that it was marks, shapes and colour irrespective of pictorial content which stimulated ‘aesthetic emotion’ during the contemplation of a work of art.
Rutter encouraged club members to produce non-pictorial abstract drawings, and to represent musical sounds with quick, reflex sketches and paintings. His “achievement […] was to focus argument and debate upon individual creativity and emotional expression, matters outside the narrow conventions of contemporary criticism”; matters perfectly in tune with those emerging in Kramer. Indeed, he paraphrased closely some of these ideas in his essay Form and Shape, written during 1914. The club also encouraged a broadness of thought, and “by late 1913 there was a consensus that avant-garde art consisted in a spectrum of tendencies ranging from a ‘designed’ formal abstraction (Rutter’s Futurism) to an expressive informal abstraction (witnessed in each fresh arrival from Kandinsky)”. The reference to Kandinsky is especially pertinent – his work had only been introduced into London in 1910 at the Allied Artists Association Salon; subsequently it had found its earliest champion not in a London figure such as Roger Fry, but in Michael Sadler, Vice Chancellor of Leeds University, and his son Michael Sadleir, who bought a set of Kandinsky woodcuts whilst a still student.
Sadler, who had first known of Kramer through his involvement with the JEAS, became his most significant patron (his encouragement convinced Kramer to apply to the Slade rather than the Royal Academy Schools), and a first-hand source of extraordinary avant garde art. An unofficial patron of the Arts Club, he allowed meetings to beheld in his home and gave ready access to his
art collection which included works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Klee, Kandinsky, Marc, Nolde, housed in the billiard room of his new Leeds house. A letter from him indicates where Kramer’s aesthetic preferences lay at the time, and that he was not always prompt in returning the works he had been lent: “I am sorry to say that the Kandinsky pictures and drawings have not yet been returned. We were expecting them the day after your lecture. Would you kindly see that they are brought back safely at once. You will remember that when we lent on of the Gauguins for an exhibition at the Arts Club, it got damaged” The Club freely discussed Kandinsky’s oeuvre and in 1913 work arrived which was complete in its non-representation. A Blaue Reiter exhibition was planned, as was an extended visit by Kandinsky, when it was hoped he would spend time with Sadler and Rutter; alas the War disrupted all these plans. Sadler himself directly supported a number of young artists (he bought ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’ from Mark Gertler in 1911). An immense source of practical and financial support to Kramer at a time when Kramer’s own father was in increasingly failing health, he paid £65 to Kramer in exchange for works over a nine-month period during 1914-15. At this time, his son, Michael also made the first translation into English of Kandinsky’s Uber das Geistige in der Kunst, which was published in 1914. (A copy inscribed to ‘JK’ was found with Herbert Read’s papers after his death.) It was at this time either at the Arts Club or at the University that Kramer met Herbert Read who was also to have enormous influence on him. Read himself described the prevailing aesthetic atmosphere in Leeds at the time:
You must try to recover the creative enthusiasm of those years immediately preceding the First World War. Cubism had just effected a complete break with the artistic traditions of the past. In Paris and Munich great artists – Picasso, Braque, Leger, Kandinsky – were arousing our enthusiasm with their daring innovations. The excitement reached England. Such was the atmosphere in which Jacob and I first met and joined in lively discussion. I, in my youthful enthusiasm had been swept into the vortex; Jacob had his own firm position on the edge of it and was not to be seduced by any manifestos that ran contrary to his nature.
Read was almost Kramer’s exact contemporary, only a year younger. Both were evolving their personal aesthetics; both, nurtured in the rarefied and progressive atmosphere of the Leeds Arts Club, responded to expressionism rather than the current fashionable French ‘post-impressionist ideas, which were circulating in London in the wake of Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912. Rutter himself organised a Post Impressionist exhibition in June 1913 at the Leeds Arts Club prior to opening a similar exhibition in London in October.
The friendship with Kramer was of particular significance to Read, as Kramer was the first living artist with whom he came into contact; consequently, many of Read’s early ideas as to what an artist should be like were embodied in Kramer. For Kramer, Read became the focus of an extended correspondence between 1918 -1919, begun in wartime, in which the two men thrashed out their personal theories of expressionism and spirituality in art.
LONDON When Kramer arrived at the Slade in October 1913, to attend most of the remaining academic year, he had a personal aesthetic firmly developed, an inclination towards Expressionism and northern Europe in his art, and a sympathetic patron. Unfortunately, virtually nothing remains of Kramer’s work from this Slade period. He destroyed much of it at the time or asked others to do so for him, due to a lack of self-confidence or to his own rigorously imposed standards. Joseph Leftwich recalled one occasion when “Goldstein brought out some of Kramer’s life drawings done at the Slade, that he had kept. They were like Old Masters or Augustus John. In front of us all Kramer tore them to pieces. That was not the kind of work he wanted left to indicate his quality in art. His whole group was in revolt.”
However, the broader influence of this year was significant. The year not only reinforced the principles of rigourous draughtsmanship and a move towards simplification, as exemplified in many of his works dating from 1913-15, it also served to place Kramer within an emerging avant-garde and a new bohemian circle. Kramer’s artistic identity became partly defined by the group of Jewish Slade students who studied there between 1908-1914. Significantly, they were linked not only by their Jewishness, but by their commitment to modernism; the list of Bomberg, Rosenberg, Kramer, Gertler (and their non-Slade friend, the sculptor Jacob Epstein) is a list of
iconoclasts. There was also safety in numbers, and the artists mixed with Jewish writers such as Joseph Leftwich, Winsten, Rodker. Leftwich himself recalled We met in the Whitechapel Library, at Toynbee Hall, at the People’s Palace in Mile End, at the concerts of the Ethical Society in South Place. My own group was Winsten, Rodker, and Rosenberg. But we were often joined by others, Bomberg, Gertler […] Morris Goldstein […] and arriving at the Slade from Leeds Jacob Kramer and from Liverpool Bernard Meninsky […] our friends who were at the Slade brought back to Whitechapel some of their new friends there. Jacob Epstein came and Augustus John. These haunts may not have sounded as romantic as their Parisian counterparts, but they fulfilled the same functions: as places where the artists could meet and talk without spending much money. They also frequented the Café Royal, the Harlequin Tea Rooms in Beak Street, and the ABC Tea Rooms, in particular, a branch in Tottenham Court Road. Indeed, Sarah Roberts met her future husband there, in the company of Kramer and Bomberg.
A series of reminiscences by Jacob given late in his life to an unnamed patron, owner of a Leeds printing works, and kept by Sarah, also record how he took on a role as protector to Bomberg and Roberts, who were both bullied by another student, Guevarah. To effect this position, he “went to a boxing stable in the Mile End Road where he took lessons from Joe Becket, the heavyweight champion. I asked Jacob why he went to this trouble on behalf of the weaker students. He said that they were all his friends, including Guevarah, and he wanted to teach him a sharp lesson without actually getting involved in an unseemly brawl.”
A taste for this bohemian life would remain with Kramer during the twenties when he vacillated between London and Leeds. Later popular haunts included the Tour Eiffel restaurant in Percy Street in Fitzrovia, where the owner displayed artists’ work and where Kramer mixed with colourful figures such as the painter Nina Hamnett, who sat to him. A number of contemporary anecdotes describe Kramer in some or other dramatic situation; Wyndham Lewis remembered Kramer showing his biceps to Augustus John at the wedding of Roy Campbell, a fellow bohemian and writer; Epstein recounted attending Marlborough Street Police Court with Kramer to plead of behalf of Betty May (Augustus John’s model and mistress, and briefly Kramer’s mistress). He also described Kramer during the sittings for a portrait bust, now in the Tate Collection, as “a model who seemed to be on fire. He was extraordinarily nervous. Energy
seemed to leap into his hair as he sat, and sometimes he would be shaken by queer tremblings like ague. I would try to calm him so as to get on with the work.” Kramer drew a reciprocal portrait, subsequently reproduced as a lithograph, in return for sitting for the sculptor. In 1932 Kramer established his own bohemian salon in Leeds – The Yorkshire Luncheon Group (complete with official manifesto) in the upper room of the First City Luncheon Bar, and subsequently painted portraits of both its owner, the celebrated flautist, Lupton Whitelock, and its equally celebrated barmaid. Guests and speakers included such luminaries as Sir William and John Rothenstein, Julian Huxley, the sculptor Frank Dobson, Herbert Read and Father John O’Connor, the inspiration for G K Chesterton’s Father Brown. At the same time, a local publication, The Heaton Review paralleled the activities of the Luncheon Group in magazine format and provided a platform for contemporary writers and artists to publish their work. Although described in its editorial as “The Chronicle of Any English Village”, The Heaton Review had a definite Yorkshire bias and sought to promote local journalistic activity and the image of the ‘Tyke’ – the archetypal Yorkshireman. Contributors were sought from “our present leaders in thought, art, literature, music or drama.” Kramer became a frequent contributor of images, providing abstract accompaniments to written pieces, as well as portraits of local figures, alongside the images of ‘celebrities’ such as Gandhi and Epstein. The year at the Slade also led to Kramer’s involvement with avant garde exhibitions and artistic groups. He was included in the Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition ‘Twentieth Century Art: a Review of Modern Movements’, held from 8 May – 20 June 1914. Kramer and his Slade companions, Goldstein, Meninsky, Bomberg, Rosenberg and some of the Parisian Jewish artists, were included in the so-called Jewish section, organised by Bomberg and Epstein. The works shown were by no means specifically Jewish; rather this was a convenient tag to unite and distinguish the group from other English painters (Kramer himself was still technically a Russian, only naturalised eight years later).
Towards the end of the year, Kramer also showed as a non-member at the New English Art Club, that bastion of respectable British art, in their Winter 1914 show. Both Bomberg and Gertler had shown previously as non-members. Kramer exhibited a large oil depicting a maternal scene
which caused controversy and was only finally hung through the efforts of Ambrose McEvoy (one of Kramer’s teachers at the Slade) and Augustus John. Both Kramer and Roberts produced a number of mother and child images. Indeed, the subject is a recurrent theme of Kramer’s, treated in a variety of styles ranging from the tender representational, which seems to betray a feeling of nostalgia for a lost Russia; the curious Mongolian features and to a stark pared-away modernist simplicity. Perhaps the subject held particularly poignancy because he lost a younger brother in infancy.
In early 1915 Kramer was informed by postcard from fellow-Yorkshireman, Edward Wadsworth, the Secretary, that he had been elected a member of the recently-founded progressive London Group and, as such, would be eligible to exhibit works in their forthcoming exhibition. Wyndham Lewis reviewed the exhibition in the second issue of Blast, confining himself to a ‘consideration of the pictures in the Vorticist or Cubist section’.
He had clearly
decided that Kramer was sufficiently ‘Vorticist’ to be included in his article, and also to become an individual contributor to Blast itself, although there is little evidence that Kramer’s works were Vorticist in the same way as those of Bomberg or Roberts, or even Lewis’ own. Lewis included a curious satirical cartoon depicting military themes by Kramer in Blast 2. Perhaps here was Kramer demonstrating in some small way his solidarity with his fellow artists who really were experiencing the theatre of war. Perhaps it also represented Lewis’s idea of a ‘good’ satirical cartoon; in the same issue, in an article entitled ‘Modern Caricature and Impressionism’ he damned the “ineffectiveness of the English variety”.
Lewis further affirmed his support for Kramer as a member of the avant-garde by inviting him to exhibit with the Vorticists at the Dore Gallery during the spring of 1915. Lewis also promised in Point 6 of his ‘Notice to the Public’ in Blast 2, that Kramer’s work would also be included in Blast 3. Unfortunately, this was never realised as by then, as Lewis wrote: ‘All of Europe was at war and a bigger blast than mine had rather taken the wind out of my sails.’
The war period was somewhat of a watershed for Kramer. Of his peer group, he was one of the least directly affected. He only enlisted in 1918, after a tribunal. as the conflict was coming to an end and his military life was short and often miserable, his temperament wholly unsuited to the
entire experience. A letter from Michael Sadleir indicates he was unable to arrange a war artist position for Kramer and, although Sadler Senior had suggested he joined the Jewish Battalion, Kramer rejected the advice and, after a brief period in a distribution camp in Ripon, was posted to South Wales with the Russian Labour Corps.
Nevertheless, Kramer would not let a war stand in the way of his art and he kept up his demanding correspondence with Read who was at the Front.
In his letters, amongst the
discussions of aesthetic philosophies and the spiritual in art, Kramer complained repeatedly how unsatisfactory his situation was and begged Read for assistance: Now Read I thought of you a great deal, thinking whether it is possible for you to help me in any way, by finding me some suitable work while I am in the army – either in Leeds or in any other place where I could find a little freedom to do my own work. […] I know for a fact that the ordinary routine of military work will affect me a great deal and having suffered from bad nerves for such a long time and at the same [time] being a grade III man on account of my eyesight. I shall be greatly relieved Read if you can really do anything for me. In case you want to know the names of some of the officers in the regiment, I shall let you know. Eight days later, now settled at Fort Scaveston in South Wales, Kramer wrote again: Well my dear Read, I am wasting my time here – none of them here know that I paint or draw, as otherwise the captain would have put me on easier work. However Read, you must let me know what to do as I am about fed up wasting my time day by day in the hut, listening to the continual vulgar talk which makes me sick and my mind dull. In case you think you will want to write to my Captain who looks a very decent man or to the C.O., you can use the above address. Incredibly, despite his own perilous situation, Read was able to arrange for Kramer to become regimental librarian, and under these happier circumstances he was even able to draw and paint a little, finding a sympathetic sitter in his Company Sergeant Major. This morning the Colonel called me in and was very much interested – he was very fine indeed and spoke on art and various other subjects for about an hour […] Well, he has given permission to do any drawing I like and I have been appointed as librarian to the regiment – it is a damn good job and it means that I shall have plenty of time for my work. I really don’t know how to thank you Read – it was so good of you.
Little other war-related work survives; however a photograph taken in the 1980s in the Roberts home in Primrose Hill, illustrating a highly simplified study of marching, helmeted figures (now lost), shows that Kramer was absorbing the Vorticist influences around him, in much the same way as Bomberg and Roberts. It became another tool in his already established quest for simplification as means of conveying ‘expression’ within a work.
The treatment of the
cylindrical forms also suggests a familiarity with the work of Leger.
During the last years of the War and its aftermath, the output of avant-garde art and literature continued to flourish, and Kramer was a ready contributor. The correspondence between Kramer and Read mentions Art & Letters, a quarterly magazine edited by Read and their old Leeds ally, Frank Rutter, published between 1917-1920. (Kramer even referred to his sister’s enjoyment of a particular issue, which she had taken with her whilst hop-picking in Kent.) The magazine confronted a wide range of aesthetic issues – Rutter himself wrote on ‘Music and Painting’; Read contributed several poems including ‘Kneeshaw Goes to War’ referred to in a letter to Kramer. Kramer contributed a drawing to the Winter 1918-19 issue. Other contributors included a trio of Sitwells, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Siegfried Sassoon, plus illustrations from Picasso and Gaudier Brzeska. Not only was publicity to be gained through contribution, and a means of basking in reflected glory of exalted company, but also a financial incentive; Art & Letters was run as a co-operative and endeavoured to pay its contributors.
Kramer also contributed a design for a woodcut to the sole issue of the review New Paths published in 1918. Edited by C W Beaumont and Michael Sadleir, it discussed contemporary trends in English poetry and painting. J G Fletcher, who contributed verse to the issue, also wrote on ‘Tendencies in Present Day English Art’ describing Kramer as: […] far more essentially Hebraic in his outlook than Gertler, whose Jewish extraction seems over emphasised. Kramer is a grim bitter realist. If he recalls anyone, it is the Flemish painters, or that astounding modern primitive, Henri Rousseau le Douanier. The only difference is that Kramer obtains the effect of Primitivism through a ruthless elimination of all that is unessential. He is primitive by deliberate choice, rather than by instinct. At the suggestion of the noted Anglo-Jewish writer, Israel Zangwill, Kramer provided several illustrations for Voices, a literary and artistic monthly magazine, edited by Thomas Moult. Two
illustrations were reproduced in the June 1920 issue, and the November issue illustrated a suggested design, simplified and angular, for Lewis Golding’s novel Forward From Babylon. The editors of Voices were certainly more liberal than Golding’s own publishers when it came to supporting contemporary art, as a letter from Golding to Kramer indicates: ‘I learnt with much chagrin this morning that my blooming old publisher finds your picture “unsuitable”. O ye gods! O ye gods minnows, sprats, roaches, tadpoles and all petty fish! What! Shall I be graced with a picture of a little lady in gloves picking ducky cowslips. Or a big lady in a crinoline playing the harpsichord?’ Golding’s last two sentences seem to poke fun at the type of art all too commonly seen in the magazine Colour which promoted new technologies of colour reproduction. A monthly magazine begun in 1914, it featured lavish illustrations of artworks, often traditional and sometimes rather saccharine in style, alongside a few more avant-garde offerings. As early as August 1916 it reproduced two works by Kramer. Subsequent issues included a reproduction of one of Kramer’s paintings, which provoked much controversy in the press at large, and paredaway monochrome and mask-like portraits, which must have provided a startling visual contrast to the normal Colour fodder. The critic Charles Marriott (TIS) wrote an extensive profile of Kramer in the January 1918 issue accompanying the Epstein image. Kramer also provided a beautifully coloured image of a gipsy (not Sarah) for the cover of the January 1919 issue. Whilst contributing to Voices, Kramer was also providing material, both written and drawn, for Renesans, a unique British Yiddish artistic and literary magazine. Edited by Leo Keonig and Joseph Leftwich, it was short-lived, only publishing six issues in 1920. However, despite being written in Yiddish, Renesans was well thought of as a promoter of modern art. Thomas Moult wrote favourably in his own magazine: ‘It has one unique quality: there is no dependence in its pages on the well-established writers and artists; in letter-press and painting alike it is the younger men who are being encouraged.’ Leftwich himself, looking back, described Renaissance as ‘a remarkable magazine […] it was certainly abreast of the times in art – for to take the issue in which Kramer’s Form & Shape appeared – June 1920 – it had a cover design by Bomberg, a drawing by Modigliani, a picture by Chagall, a woodcut by Lucien Pissarro, a picture by Kramer, a drawing by Meninsky, and a reproduction of Epstein’s ‘Christ’.’
Return to Leeds Contemporary newspaper articles reveal that from 1915 Kramer was constantly searching for a receptive audience for his aesthetic theories - as if it was easier for him to talk about the work rather than to produce it. He is recorded as lecturing regularly in Leeds, Bradford, and also in Glasgow, where he was invited to become a member (the only non-Scot out of a membership of 26) of the newly formed Glasgow Society of Painters & Sculptors – “a society of the younger artists of Scotland (very advanced)”. He found kindred spirits within the society and chose to support their inaugural exhibition in April 1919 rather than attend his own solo exhibition of drawings at Frank Rutter’s Adelphi Gallery in London, commenting: “They hear little of the younger generation in England and I promised them to make known their spirit in art.” In 1922 Kramer became a member of the ‘Little Movement’ in Nottingham, for ‘emancipation of the arts’ and was also elected Honorary Secretary for the Northern Society of Artists and Sculptors. A 1925 newspaper article talks about Kramer’s own intention to set up a society of Yorkshire artists in London. Kramer’s move to London in 1913, which he broached with such early enthusiasm, marked the start of a period of great uncertainty in his life. From the mid 1910s to early 1920s Kramer would feel a constant pull between Leeds and London. London was then the heart of the emerging avant garde with its flurry of exhibition and publishing activity, and its colourful bohemian life struck a chord with him. Yet by the end 1916 Kramer was the sole breadwinner for his large Leeds family. His correspondence reveals a constant change of home address, from his earliest lodgings with fellow Leeds artist, Philip Naviasky, in West Hampstead, through Fitzrovia and Chelsea, and then finally back to Leeds. The letters to Herbert Read during 191819 repeatedly reveal a firm resolve, at least on paper, to move permanently, with his family, to London – yet this never materialises; Kramer was all talk and no action. He also wrote often of his ill health – whether real or exaggerated, we do not know.
Although they had developed their initial art theories simultaneously in Leeds before 1914, the War itself separated Kramer and Read by a vast gulf of experience.
Equally, so much of the
avant-garde imagery of the Vorticists, the English Futurists, of Nevinson, Bomberg, Roberts and
others, derived from wartime experience – the one formative experience that Kramer lacked. Perhaps this was yet another reason for Kramer to abandon London for Leeds. Although he never clearly articulated his reasons for leaving London, snippets of information in various newspaper interviews give a few clues amongst lame excuses and sweeping generalisations: “In London there are too many people. I have tried to work in Chelsea, but cannot. There are too many sham artists. The district is not genuine” Furthermore: London is not really the place for creative artists. I prefer anywhere in the provinces. There is too much excitement in London, too much distraction, not sufficient isolation. It is an hysterical place. There are too many cliques and coteries and groups. I don’t think there is any artist at all who has done really good work in London. They have always had to go away to do it. It is a nerve-wracking place. These new revolutions in art are nearly all due to the hectic rivalry of the coteries. I, personally, have kept away from London as I infinitely prefer the North to work in. There are, moreover, just as many knowledgeable and sympathetic collectors in the North as in the South John Rothenstein, however, speculated on the real reasons for his departure: “He was reticent about his reason for his premature departure form an arena in which he might have continued to receive the stimulus he required from fellow artists and won a serious reputation. I had the impression that it was due to some sort of failure of confidence.” Francis Watson, a local writer, who knew Kramer in Leeds during the 1930s, described Kramer’s relationship with Leeds and London as “lurking ambivalence”. In all probability, the reasons for his departure were many and complex. As an immigrant son, Kramer was only too familiar with insecurity. Leeds was the city that had accepted his wandering family, and nurtured his art – perhaps he felt he owned it an allegiance? Unlike his brother-in-law, he had no wife or child to root himself and to provide a haven of security in the big city. Perhaps he had an intuition that his expressionist ideas would not find real acceptance in London anyway? Of course, there was always the benefit of being a big fish in a little sea in Leeds. Leeds attracted its fair share of celebrities and Kramer often convinced them to sit for him: Eric Gill, Matthew Smith, Gracie Fields, Sybil Thorndyke; artists, musicians, writers of the day. Occasionally, Kramer himself would stray briefly from the north to draw or paint an important sitter; he returned to London to draw Gandhi and spent time in France painting and drawing the elderly composer Delius.
Whatever the reasons were, real or excuses, the return to Leeds had to be for those which were deeply felt, for it meant a complete withdrawal from the modernist arena. Post-war Leeds was no longer in the forefront of artistic developments. The ambitious plan in 1920, prompted by Sir Michael Sadler, to have seven contemporary artists, including the Nashes, Stanley Spencer, and his protégé, Kramer, decorate the walls of Victoria Hall in Leeds Town Hall, came to naught. Indeed, by 1925 Kramer would admit that regarding current modern art, “Leeds was hopeless”.
Unfortunately, despite claims that he could work without distractions in Yorkshire, the visual evidence does not support this – the twenties onwards saw the gradual decline of his art, a withdrawal into his Yorkshire Luncheon Group, into pastel portraiture, into local preoccupations, and into drink. A letter from a friend ‘David’ summed up the situation in 1938, with painful accuracy: You mustn’t forget Jacob, that you are an artist, and that there is nothing sillier than an artist who doesn’t paint….What you want is a renaissance – you’ve certainly got talents in you, but they’ve got lost amongst a heap of beer bottles, talk, worries, a touch of laziness and ordinary worldly habits that are no use to you as an artist. If you don’t come out of all this and continue working in the spirit you must have had in former years it will be a loss to the artistic world and the end of Mr Jacob Kramer. Kramer put his energies into the YLG often financing himself through portraiture of the great and the good in Leeds, particularly the faculty members of the University. A contemporary and fellow Leeds ‘bohemian’, Nellie Pickering, recalled how his landlady, Mrs Smiles “would telephone me to say that Jacob had a lot of bills to pay and could I arrange to ‘bump’ into him because he always said ‘I must paint you’.” The walls of many Leeds family homes would be incomplete without their token Kramer pastel portrait, rapidly executed to pay the next round of bills. Occasionally there is a flash of the old talent amongst these later portraits.
In conclusion, although their lives and art took divergent paths, both Jacob Kramer and William Roberts shared a neglect by a wider public during their lifetimes, and a concomitant distrust of the establishment. Nevertheless, both, in their own ways, were anti-establishment figures. Kramer revealed himself in his early works as an artistic revolutionary, a pioneer within British
modernism, while Roberts continued to beat a singular and isolated path. Yet, finally, hare-like, rushing hither and thither as artist, philosopher, lecturer, and bohemian, it is not so much that Kramer ‘lost’ the race with Roberts, but rather that, ultimately, he ran a different course.