The Second World War: Ben Uri ‘carries on’

Centenary Stories from the Archives

Posted by Claire Jackson / Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 29th September 2014

At the start of the Second World War in 1939, Ben Uri collections were put into storage but Ben Uri was still active and reopened in a Gallery space before the war ended. It was to be their home for the next 16 years.

It might be though that during war time that all cultural activities would be halted but (as we learnt in a previous blog – part 6 of this centenary series- on Engel Lund) that the National Gallery held popular concerts during the war, so too, Ben Uri, after an initial thought that they would cease activities decided that they would ‘carry on’.

As mentioned in a previous blog, before war broke out on 9 September 1939 the permanent collection was moved to Judah Beach’s home for safe keeping, however even with the quietness of the ‘phony war’ by the beginning of October the Committee was worried about the danger of air raids. The treasurer, Cyril Ross, offered the basement of 28 Great Castle Street, near Oxford Circus ‘reputed to be immune against a direct hit’ for the collection. This was an unusual step in that many people and organisations were moving their collections out of London. However, the building not only survived the war but became a ‘listed’ building in 1973.

‘Ben Uri is one of the few Jewish Cultural institutions to survive the outbreak of war’

Cyril Ross wrote to Ben Uri’s secretary Mr Yehudah, on 5 October 1939 that as ‘I am afraid that no activities of the Ben Uri will be possible for some time’ his salary was to be reduced to a nominal 10%. Those few people who did pay their subscriptions had stopping paying and Ben Uri had very little income. However only a few weeks later the Committee changed their minds and decided to hold monthly lectures in the East End in addition to ‘any function held in the West End, especially as the Ben Uri is one of the few Jewish Cultural institutions to survive the outbreak of war. This contradiction caused Yehudah, to write 30 August 1940, that his acceptance of a lower salary was based upon a reduction of work “our activities having for several months been continued and even extended” and that his salary should have continued.

Lectures were held between January – April 1940 on such diverse topics as ‘The Jewish contribution to English Literature’, ‘Democracy and Despotism Contrasted’, ‘Picasso’, and ‘Philosophy through the Ages’.

‘That in spite of the war the Ben Uri continue to acquire pictures …’

It was resolved ‘that in spite of the war the Ben Uri continue to acquire pictures by way of gift, and to collect subscriptions and donations … for the cultural works of the Society.’ Donations included ‘Jewish Wedding’ by Chana Kowalska donated by Moshe Oved. Sir Philip Herzog presented a picture by his sister Helena Darmesteter.

Darmesteter image
Reflections in a Mirror (Darmesteter). Donated 1942. Ben Uri Collection.

Some works such as Emanuel Manasse’s Head of Louis Golding and Max Sokol’s Portrait of Alfred Wolmark were still being paid for on an installment plan. This portrait had originally been envisaged as being in bronze but it was instead made of wood which Wolmark claimed was more difficult to execute and made the finished object more valuable. Although strict rationing started in January 1940, a reception was held that month, to commemorate the purchase of the Manasse sculpture. Despite their financial straits Ben Uri was also proactive in their collecting. For example Alva was invited in 1942 to submit a couple of works with a view to Ben Uri purchasing one of them.

Resuming Useful Work – Plans for an Exhibition

Although many collections were, like the Ben Uri’s, in storage during the war, gradually more exhibitions began to be held. In addition to concerts at the National Gallery already mentioned, a picture a month from the National Collection was retrieved from the Welsh slate mines where they were being kept. In 1942, Ben Uri agreed to lend a Jacob Epstein sculpture to an exhibition in Leeds.

By 1942 the Committee felt they too should hold an exhibition “in the near future” to include works of well known artists as well as some of the best of the permanent collection. Quite a long wish list was drawn up and the secretary was instructed to advertise for the owners of works by Modigliani, Pasternack, Lieberman, Chagall, Josef Israels, Kissling, Ury, Kauffman, William Rothenstein, Banderman, Pissaro, Bakst, Antokolsky, Levitan and Pascin; asking whether they would loan them for an exhibition. If there was a positive response they would contact their patrons and members asking for a renewal of subscriptions “to enable the Society to resume its useful work”.

A New Home

‘The question of acquiring independent premises is still receiving earnest attention … we remain undaunted, because our faith in the aim of the Ben Uri is unshakable.’

Ben Uri press cutting
Portman Street Opening 1944. Ben Uri Archives.

A momentous meeting was held on 17 June 1943, Cyril Ross, had secured a lease on a large Georgian house owned by Mr Ben Tolbert in Portman Street near Marble Arch. It would cost £287, which Mr Tolbert had assured him was the same as his outgoings. Although when the lease came to be signed an extra sum was included which Tolbert promised to return to Ben Uri as a donation.

Ben Uri received possession of 14 Portman Street in October 1943. The accounts show that the first thing that was purchased (with an advance from the treasurer) was a set of china, a tray and 6 spoons! A new constitution was drawn up for this new era and and at last the long planned exhibition started to be organised by the new secretary, Frederick Solomonski.

Ben Uri Portman Street
14 Portman Street. Ben Uri Archives

The collection was retrieved from Great Castle Street at the beginning of November but it took a while to organise the opening exhibition as the Committee wanted really ’eminent works’ concentrating on loans from private collections.

Ben Uri opening exhibition

The exhibition celebrated Camille Pissarro, Josef Israels and Max Liebermann amongst others. A lecture on Pissarro by G B Manson, former director of the Tate Gallery, accompanied the exhibition.

Ben Uri Camille Pissarro lecture
Lecture on Camille Pissaro. Ben Uri Archives.

Even though the allies had landed in Normandy the war was not yet over; flying bombs started raining over Britain during 1944, and a recital was postponed as the committee were worried that the public ‘would refrain from coming during the present uneasy days of continual bombing.’

14 Portman Street was not bombed and Ben Uri stayed there until 1960. The large space enabled Ben Uri to expand their social and cultural activities as well as hold regular exhibitions. Ben Uri had survived the war and was indeed ‘carrying on’.