Alfred Wolmark: A Case Study for considering the Migrant Child

Blog post by Jim Ranahan Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 17th November 2015

Alfred Wolmark is a major figure in Anglo-Jewish art and is also respected for his role in founding and developing Ben Uri. As such, his artwork has been well publicised and critically appraised over many years – see Ben Uri’s Learning resource on Wolmark and Judaism.

However, Wolmark is also a prominent example of a migrant child, brought to England at a formative age and therefore experiencing the three main dimensions of migration differently to adult migrants and their children born in Britain. These dimensions are summarised as place of origin; place of settlement and the journey between the two.

Wolmark Self Portrait
Alfred A. Wolmark Self-Portrait (1902)

Whilst most migrants experience the competing orbits of émigré family and a wider British establishment, the actual memory of the original homeland and migration process differs. Adult migrants make a conscious decision to migrate (or at least they respond to severe external pressures). Adults retain some control over the re-location process (however arduous that actually becomes). Migrant children and those born here have no such control, but the former may respond to the situation differently to ‘true’ second generation children.

Both groups draw their migration and settlement reference points from their own families and émigré communities, with ‘host’ communities often only later featuring. Additionally, migrant children often have direct experience and residual knowledge of the original homeland – with familial affiliations and / or traumatic insights into the actual migration process. Such direct experience will inevitably be partial and depending on the age profile, may be almost subliminal. However, it is this experience which may influence how a migrant child responds to the re-settlement process and future developments, when compared to second generation siblings or contemporaries. I hope that an initial consideration of Wolmark’s pattern of and response to migration will prompt similar consideration within other communities.

Wolmark In the Synagogue
Alfred A. Wolmark In the Synagogue (1906)

Aaron Wolmark was born in 1877 in Warsaw, then in the Russian Partition (of Poland). When aged six years old, his family migrated to England, initially to Devon before settling in the East End of London. Wolmark was of an age to comprehend the migration process and to retain a memory of life and family in Warsaw. Whilst in his twenties, Wolmark returned to Poland for three years and it is tempting to speculate on what drew him back. Certainly, some of his famous early work drawing on his Jewish heritage dates from this period. However, it is also important to remember the competing effects on Wolmark’s development, as a Jewish migrant child growing up within a supportive home environment [family and émigré community], but set within a wider and sometimes hostile society.

By 1895, just when Wolmark was attending the Royal Academy Schools, British anti-Semitism was becoming more overt and strident. Wolmark would have witnessed this and may have experienced it first hand, at the same time as he encountered in East London increasing numbers of refugees fleeing continental anti-Semitism. This strained and emotive atmosphere provides the backdrop for Wolmark’s adoption of the forename Alfred in the mid-1890s. However, he retained the name Aaron and was known as Alfred A. Wolmark for the rest of his life. He also remained committed to a distinctively Jewish cultural presence within Britain, working with Ben Uri for many years and serving as a vice president of Ben Uri.

Wolmark Still Life
Alfred A.Wolmark Still Life (1930)

At first sight, this community focused cultural awareness is at odds with Wolmark’s growing rejection of overtly Jewish imagery in his own works, as he adopted an advanced modernist style as the new century progressed. However, this move towards the artistic avant-garde reflects at least in part Wolmark’s access to and perhaps acceptance of a developing continental art tradition. Apart from his return to Poland, Wolmark also visited France, Spain and the U.S.A. and he gained many artistic insights.

His increasing use of bold colours attracted the nickname ‘King of Colour’ and his reputation as a colourist led to him being rewarded in 1913 with a commission for stained glass windows in Saint Mary’s Church, Slough (completed in 1915). This was significant, both for Wolmark personally (as he had not undertaken major glasswork before) and for inter-community relations, given contemporary levels of anti-Semitism and Wolmark’s background. His abstract rendition of an Old Testament subject, ‘Days of Creation’ would not have compromised either his professional or personal views at this time.

Wolmark Stained Glass Window
Historic Glass Window at Slough Parish Church by Alfred A Wolmark Extracts and Reports (1915)

Whilst the Ben Uri archive encounters Alfred Wolmark as a largely self-assured individual, offering little direct insight through the available records to his formative years and early motivation, his biographical details accumulated from family and via later researchers provides a partial insight to his personal migration story. His immersion in the East End émigré community may ultimately not have been sufficient to meet his personal development as an artist, but whilst he looked ‘home’ to Jewish Poland and ‘abroad’ to Europe and the U.S.A. for inspiration, he never forgot the rich Jewish heritage in Britain. He deserves the esteem that Anglo-Jewish art circles and Ben Uri hold him in.

Ben Uri is keen to share migration stories with other communities. If aspects of Alfred Wolmark’s experiences as a migrant child chime with or differ from your experiences, please leave your own stories on our Out Of Chaos Centenary website.