Turbulent Times for Ben Uri 1938-1939

Centenary Stories from the Archives

Posted by Claire Jackson / Ben Uri archivist / Posted 18th September 2014

David Bomberg The Studio

As war loomed across Europe, and preparations were being made to store the collection, a collective of artists led by David Bomberg attempted to take over the running of Ben Uri.

David Bomberg and the Ben Uri

In 1938 there was an attempt by a group of artists to take over Ben Uri,one of the main instigators was David Bomberg. Bomberg was an artist whose works had been amongst the very earliest acquired by Ben Uri (in 1920 and 1923), he had even given a lecture in 1928 concerning on his travels in the Middle East.

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Yiddish cutting advertising Ben Uri lecture by David Bomberg 1928 (Ben Uri Archives). Mount Zion with the Church of the Dormition (David Bomberg) purchased 1928. Ben Uri Collection.

Bomberg gave another lecture in 1931 which was according to Judah Beach, who presided over the event not only interesting and instruction but had “shown Mr Bomberg in a new light”. An appeal by Bomberg to purchase another work in 1932 was declined due to lack of funds. “The Committee appreciates the offer and very much regrets its ability to acquire your valuable and important painting through circumstances over which it has not control.” At that time Ben Uri had an £180 overdraft, equivalent to c.£8000 in today’s money as well as debts to pay.

However Bomberg did exhibit an oil painting The Ronda, Spain (a charcoal sketch of this is now in the Ben Uri collection) at the Ben Uri Annual Exhibition of Works by Jewish Artists in 1936. The Jewish Chronicle reviewer was so impressed by Bomberg’s entry that he subtitled his review “David Bomberg – The Great Master”. The picture was priced at £262 and 10 shillings by far the most expensive picture in the show. It did not sell and a simultaneous one man show at the Cooling Gallery of more of Bomberg’s Spanish pictures also did not result in any sales.

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By 1938 Bomberg decided that Ben Uri was not supporting artists in the way that he wished. On the 18th January he wrote to Jacob Kramer in Leeds:

“The Ben Uri has to reorganised and I said that I would be willing to help if the power was held in the artist’s hands only – all the Committee of the Ben Uri will resign if we come forward to plan a reconstruction … the Jewish artists are starving none of us can work, most of us  receive one form of charity or another – we can make a market for ourselves if we organise.”

Bomberg proposed meeting with fellow artists to discuss the matter, he said that he had a benefactor who would fund the takeover A very successful man of business and social influence in London guarantees us success if the artists could come up with a workable plan.

Ben Uri was, at this time, in the midst organising its annual exhibition which was to be held that year at Queens Hall as part of a fair in aid of the Jewish National Fund (JNF). This show drew Ben Uri’s largest ever crowd but only lasted three days. Bomberg wrote to Ben Uri in August 1938 proposing that their next exhibition of Contemporary Jewish Artists should be held at the New Burlington Gallery, rather than the Ben Uri rooms (at the Anglo-Palestine Club) in Great Windmill Street and it should be up for a period of 6 weeks. As the letter has not survived it is not clear whether Bomberg also included any of his proposals for running the Ben Uri but “after a long and exhaustive discussion”, the suggestion was rejected on the grounds that to organise such an exhibition would be too expensive as a guarantee of £450 was required.

An Artist’s Memorandum

At the following meeting in November 1938 after agreeing that pictures and equipment should be moved into safe storage at Judah Beach’s, a Committee Member’s house in North London, the secretary reported that he had had some meetings with and now received a memorandum signed by “Jacob Kramer, Emmanuel Levy, Mancin Reith, Arnold Auerbach, Mayer Klaus, H Brodsky, Louis Snowman, David Bomberg, Louis Blum, Mark Gertler and Hans Feibusch”.

The secretary had agreed to submit the petition to the Committee for discussion, point by point. The Committee initially refused to discuss the contents and discussed what their policy was to be to the demands as a whole. They decided to write to David Bomberg, (as representative of memorandees) thanking the artists for their offer of cooperation and reminding them they could join the Ben Uri as artist members at a special rate of 5 shillings a year. It was subsequently decided not to write just to Bomberg but to each of the artists separately. Mark Gertler was to be contacted to ask particularly whether he would not only join the Ben Uri but become a member of the Art Committee.

However at the next meeting in January 1939 a different response was agreed a special subcommittee would meet the artists to hear their grievances and report back at the subsequent meeting. Sixteen artists attended the meeting on 28 February, ten of whom joined the Ben Uri. The archives do not document exactly who attended the meeting or sent their apologies. The minutes record that artists agreed ‘by vote’ that Ben Uri should hold a comprehensive exhibition of painting, drawings and sculpture in the autumn at a West End Gallery, to be opened by a prominent person, ‘not on a Sunday’, Jewish art was to “adequately represented” and a percentage of the proceeds were to be used to aid refugees. The hanging committee was to be Feibusch, Oppenheimer and Bloch. Feibusch had inquired of the Cooling Gallery as to their availability for October 1939 and Ben Uri agreed to assign £50 towards the exhibition.

In the meantime, Bomberg had contacted Ben Uri again asking for personal support, the Committee was exasperated, as itt was not within their remit to financially support artists. Bomberg apparently wrote yet again, Cyril Ross instructed the Ben Uri secretary, Mr Judah Yahudah to reply, asking Bomberg to stop sending begging letters and offering to pay for a studio out of his own funds but not his whole living expenses.

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Yahudah’s letter to Bomberg was more concilatory in language and mentioned that in at the “critical time” there were many calls on Mr Ross’s purse. It was indeed a critical time, war was coming, the ‘Contemporary Artists’ exhibition and that of ‘French Jewish Art’ which was also being prepared for 1939 did not take place. Read next week’s blog to find out what Ben Uri did do during the war, which included opening a new gallery in central London, where the organisation was to stay for the next 14 years!

Explore David Bomberg’s pictures held in the Ben Uri collection.