Dannie Abse and the Ben Uri Literary Circle

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 9th October 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

“I start with the visible and am startled by the visible”

With the sad news of the death of the eminent doctor, poet and playwright Dannie Abse, we look at both his relationship with Ben Uri and Ben Uri’s role encouraging poets and authors in a literary circle which ran from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Ben Uri Portman Street
Ben Uri Gallery 14 Portman Street.

In the last blog we looked at how, in 1943, in the midst of war, Ben Uri moved to a new home in Portman Street. Having a permanent venue enabled Ben Uri not only to hold regular art exhibitions but to widen their activities to include music, drama, art classes and literature. The ‘Literary Circle’ discussed books and invited authors, poets and critics to their meetings, many of which were organised by the poet Jon Silkin. It was via this group that Dannie Abse made his first connections with Ben Uri.

Dannie Abse was born in 1923 in Cardiff, the son of a solicitor, whose own parents had emigrated from Europe and changed their name from Absenowitz. His mother was”very warm and very volatile” and from a Swansea Valley Jewish family who spoke Welsh as well as Hebrew. His father was from a Bridgend Jewish family, who owned cinemas in south Wales. Abse’s father had tried to branch out on his own, “but it failed and he had to go back into the family business. He was a wonderful failure all his life and I loved him. He always backed the wrong horse, and lived vicariously through his sons.” It was a high achieving family one of Dannie’s brothers, Wilfred, became a psychiatrist, the other, Leo, became a campaigning MP.

Dannie’s primary school teacher in Cardiff was George Thomas who went on to become Speaker of the House of Commons, his next school was a Catholic one. Influenced by his brother Leo, who had been out to the Spanish Civil war Dannie was the only non Franco supporter in the school. However it was Wilfred, who was equally influential and who encouraged Dannie to go to medical school, putting his name down at Westminster Hospital when Dannie was still a teenager and recalling stories about his own medical school life. These convinced Dannie that being a medical student would be fun. He was already writing poetry but after his political radicalisation they were not, as he put it, about “daffodils, Lesser Celandines, [and] skylarks”.

Dannie Abse (unknown copyright holder)
Dannie Abse

Dannie moved to London to study medicine, lodging in Belsize Park where he entered the milieu of German and Austrian refugees who lived in the area. He also thrived in the liberal atmosphere of London, a contemporary recalled that he took to cafe society like a duck to water.

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Event Programme 1947. Ben Uri Archives.

In 1947, whilst still at medical school, Abse showcased some of his poems at a Ben Uri event, together with some other young poets. It was still a year before his first published book After Every Green Thing, and three years before he finally qualified as a doctor. Abse was to go on to be a very prolific poet with 14 published volumes as well as keeping up his medical career as a heart specialist.

Even when an established poet Abse continued to attend the Ben Uri literary circle such as during this event in 1959.

Ben Uri Events Programme 1959
Event Programme 1959. Ben Uri Archives.

Dannie Abse did not just write poetry he also wrote plays. A play entitled The Joker written for the radio in 1962 was reworked for the stage in 1975 with a new title The Courting of Essie Glass and was produced at the Ben Uri that year. The lead was the radical actress, Miriam Karlin whom Abse had had in mind when writing the play. He attended the performance and spoke afterwards to the audience.

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The Courting of Essie Glass programme 1975. Ben Uri Archives.

This was not the only time that Karlin and Abse appeared together at the Ben Uri in 1985 they both took part in an event together with Harold Rosenthal, an opera critic, Kenneth Snowman, antique dealer; each looking back on their careers, entitled ‘How I started …’.

Ben Uri events Abse How I Started

They were all near contemporaries but Abse outlived them all, dying on the 28th September 2014, his final few years were much affected by the death of his wife in a car crash in 2005. In an interview on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme in 2013 to commemorate the publication of his latest book, he lamented the time he felt he wasted in the cafe’s of North London in his youth but the truth was that there are few writers who achieved so much in their long careers.

The Second World War: Ben Uri ‘carries on’

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

Centenary Stories from the Archives

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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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’.

Turbulent Times for Ben Uri 1938-1939

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 18th September 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

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 Brodzky, 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 it 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.

Capturing Pre-War Jewry in Pictures

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 11th September 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

In this weeks stories from the archive we visit, a – now lost – world of European Jewry in the 1930s as captured by two very different men, Roman Vishniac and George Loukomski, both of whom exhibited their findings at Ben Uri.

Last week I wrote about Abram Games, the great graphic designer who captured the spirit of post war Britain, this week I am focusing on two men who used different media to capture pre war European Jewry, one of whom, Roman Vishniac, was a very good friend of Games.

It is 1935 and anti-semitism is on the rise in Europe particularly in Hitler’s Germany after the passing of the Nuremberg laws.

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The Tragedy of German Jews (1935). Ben Uri Archives.

At the time of this lecture two men were travelling around Europe drawing and photographing Jewish religious and secular life. The first George Lukomski, was interested in the development and design of the religious buildings of a community which had lived in Europe for many hundreds of years.

George Lukomski: Jewish Architecture

George Lukomski (Loukomski) was born in 1884 in Kaluga from a noble family, he sometimes styled himself Prince Lukomski. After studying art and architecture he began travelling across Russia and Europe drawing and sketching, eventually settling in Kiev becoming Keeper of Fine Art at the Museum. After the Russian revolution, Lukomski helped to turn some of the Czar’s palaces into Museums; in 1924 he went to live in Paris.

George Lukomsky
George Lukomski

Although not Jewish, Lukomski made a specialty of drawing synagogues ranging from grand buildings to ancient wooden structures in small towns and villiages across Europe. He regularly exhibited these drawings and, in 1935 there was a Ben Uri  exhibition of drawings and watercolours of ‘ghetto’ scenes and synagogues built between the fourteen and eighteenth centuries.

Ben Uri exhibition Lukomski 1935
Ben Uri LukomsKi Exhibition 1935. Ben Uri Archives.

The exhibition was opened by the Chief Rabbi Dr Hertz with an introduction by the Jewish historian Cecil Roth. The correspondent of the Jewish Chronicle asked why he had chosen to draw so many synagogues and Lukomski said that he was fascinated by them and it was one of the few areas of architecture that had been hitherto neglected. Lukomski continued on his travels and after having received introductions from Roth went to Portugal and then to Spain. However the Spanish civil war was raging around him and he found himself imprisoned in Grenada. He managed to smuggle out a telegram to Lisbon asking that a plane be sent to rescue the British and French civilians. I don’t know how Lukomski actually escaped but he made his way back to England where he spent the war. Cecil Roth had opened his home in Oxford to many refugees.

After the war Lukomski returned to France continuing drawing, writing and publishing books about architecture including Jewish synangogues. In 1958, some of his works were again exhibited at Ben Uri some described poignantly as images of “destroyed synagogues”. The Lukomski pictures exhibited in 1935 and 1958 were given to public collections in Israel. The first President of Israel Chaim Weitzmann, had two Lukomski drawings of the synagogues in Druyha and Pinsk on his wall.

This picture is in the Ben Uri Collection.

Loukomski Synagogue Interior
Interior of a Synagogue. Ben Uri Collection

Roman Visniac – Capturing Everyday Life

Roman Vishniac was born in 1897 in Russia, to a family of wealthy umbrella makers. As a medical student in 1915 he tried to help some fellow Jews who had been been declared German spies and transported to the Russian interior without food or water. Vishniac himself, managed to escape to Berlin in 1920 when he lived until 1939. For eight years in the 1930s he travelled back and forth from Berlin to the ghettos of Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania taking photographs of Jewish life, a camera hidden under his coat. He was commissioned to do so by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee(JDC) as part of a fund-raising drive to help support these poor communities. Vishniac developed and printed these pictures in his dark room in his Berlin apartment. Although he believed that he had taken over 16,000 images only 2000 survived. Some of these were smuggled out via Cuba hidden in the lining of clothing of a friend. Vishniac he fled Germany to America (via a French internment camp) arriving in New York in 1940.

Ben Uri Exhibition Vishniac 1983
A Vanished World Roman Vishniac

Two hundred of the surviving pictures were selected by Vishniac in 1983 and published as A Vanished World with text based upon his own memories and knowledge. In order to promote this book in the UK, an exhibition of 66 of the photographs were exhibited at Ben Uri (and then toured around the country). Vishniac wrote the captions and came over to London to give a talk at the Ben Uri. It was, according to the curator at the time one of the most popular exhibitions they had held for many years, despite an exclusive spread in the Sunday Times magazine being a casualty of a printers strike. Not only was the exhibition a window into a lost world but an emotional experience for many visitors who had lost family in the war. One woman recognised a picture of herself as a child.

George Lukomski died in Nice in the early 1950’s, Vishniac survived (although one hundred members of his family perished in the war) until 1990. After his death more photographs were discovered amongst his papers. Vishniac’s collection and archives are housed in theInternational Center for Photography in New York.

Both Vishniac and Loukomski recorded life in a changing world but neither could have known at the time just how important a record their work was to be.

Ben Uri Holocaust Learning Resource

Abram Games

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 4th September 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

As a new exhibition opens on the life of the iconic 20th Century designer Abram Games we celebrate a 50 year relationship with Ben Uri. The extraordinary vision of the Ben Uri Council helped not only Games but also to cement the place of commercial art and graphic design in art galleries and museums today.

Abram Games (originally Abraham Gamses, he would joke that he dropped the ‘ham’ as it was not kosher!), was born in London in 1914, his father was a Latvian born photographer. When Games was 22, he won a prize to design a poster to advertise evening classes at the London County Council and encouraged by this set himself up as a free lance poster designer.

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Your Talk May Kill Your Comrades poster

Commissions from London Transport, Shell, the Post Office and other bodies followed. When war broke out in 1939, he wrote a paper on the value of posters in military education which led to him being appointed official poster designer to the War Office. A stream of iconic images and messages to the serving soldier either at home or abroad were created by him. They were not always looked on favourably by the authorities being too hard-hitting or even, as in the case of a recruiting poster for the ATS, too glamorous.

After the war, Games continued his free lance commercial work for London Transport, BOAC, the Financial Times and others, he also produced posters for Jewish charities such as this arresting ‘Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry’ poster for the World Jewish Relief organisation CBF.

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Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry Abram Games 1945

In 1948 Games  won another competition to design stamps for the 1948 Olympics, and three years later he created the iconic Festival Star image for the Festival of Britain, by now he was also teaching at the Royal College of Art. The world was changing and the parameters of what was accepted as art were broadening.

The First One Man Show for a Graphic Designer in Britain – 80 Posters & Other Work (1952) – A Ben Uri First

On the suggestion of Charles Spencer, who had just joined the Ben Uri Council, Abram Games was invited in 1952, to exhibit his work. He leaped at this opportunity and exhibited eighty posters and preliminary sketches, a huge output boosted by his war time work. There was so much material that extra rooms had to be made available at the gallery in Portman Street. Games offered to pay the expenses in connection with the show.

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80 Posters Games Exhibition. Ben Uri Archives

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80 Posters Games Exhibition 1952. Ben Uri Archives

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80 Posters Games Exhibition 1952. Ben Uri Archives.

Over 1000 people came to see the exhibition Art News and Review called the show ‘astonishing’ and an ‘outstanding event’: ‘prior to Games contribution “Poster-Artist” was an art school label for a non existent profession’.

This was not the end of Abram Games’ involvement in Ben Uri, he got involved in a wide range of their activities. In 1954 he was in charge of the organisation of the Studio Arts Ball, an annual event arranged by the younger members of Ben Uri. A popular aspect of these dances was the fancy dress competition and Games got into the spirit by dressing up as a portrait of Winston Churchill.

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Ben Uri Studio Ball 1954 Fancy Dress. Ben Uri Archives.

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Ben Uri Studio Ball 1954 Ben Uri Archives.

Although Games was known for his graphic design he also drew landscapes exhibiting pen and ink drawings at two Ben Uri exhibitions in 1956. By the late 1950’s it was becoming harder to make ensure a profit from social activities such as the dances and balls so a new annual event was instituted a ‘Picture Fair’ where artist’s donated their work and tickets were sold, every ticket holder was guaranteed one of the pictures.

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Ben Uri Contemporary Jewish Artists 1956. Ben Uri Archives

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Ben Uri Picture Fair 1959. Ben Uri Archives

Games regularly donated work to Ben Uri Picture Fairs for over 30 years including the year he died; he also helped judge annual “open exhibitions”.

Designing For the Ben Uri 1966-1977

Games did not just design posters but also created logos and symbols including the first insignia for BBC television. In 1966 Games used his trademark style to create a 50th anniversary graphic for Ben Uri. He also designed a Ben Uri logo which was used on publications and as a letter head from the late 1970s-1990s.

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Cover of Ben Uri 50th Anniversary Brochure (1966). Ben Uri Archives.

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Ben Uri Logo (1980). Ben Uri Archives

Ben Uri Exhibitions 1979-2005

There were three more major Ben Uri exhibitions of Abram Games’ design work after the groundbreaking 1952 one. A joint exhibition of designers and illustrators entitled The Other Hand (1979), a show of Games’ designs for the Jewish Community (1991) and a loan exhibition from the Design Museum Abram Games, Graphic Designer: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means (2005).

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Games Designs For Jewry 1991

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The Other Hand Exhibition 1979. Ben Uri Archives.

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Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means catalogue cover.

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Design for Encyclopaedia Judaica No 5 (1969) Abram Games. Ben Uri Collection.

Not only did Games make a significant contribution to Ben Uri by regularly donating pictures to be sold at Picture Fairs he also gave two works to the permanent collection in 1982. Ben Uri may have helped Games by exhibiting his work in a groundbreaking 1952 show but he repaid them with a faith and commitment to the organisation which lasted the rest of his life.

The Jews Temporary Shelter 1930-1932

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 28th August 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

Ben Uri spent just two years with a gallery in London’s East End, at the Jewish Temporary Shelter, 63 Mansell Street. What was the Shelter and why was Ben Uri based there?

The sharp-eyed reader will have noticed in the previous blog post in this series that the 1931 flyer for the Engel Lund recital showed a new address for Ben Uri, one which they shared between 1930-1932 with ‘The Jews Temporary Shelter’.

The Shelter, originally known as the ‘Poor Jews Temporary Shelter’, was founded in 1885 to provide a refuge for the homeless, jobless and destitute arrivals in England. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 had been the catalyst for wide spread pogroms which together with enforced conscription of boys aged 12-25 into the Russian army caused a large number of Jews to flee from Eastern Europe.

As there were very few direct shipping routes from the Baltic ports across the Atlantic, many initially went to Hamburg. There, if they could obtain a visa, (which usually involved bribery), refugees could sail to London in appalling steerage class conditions for 16 shillings a head, they were also often sold bogus onward tickets to America.

The Shelter originally gave aid only to emigrants in the form of a bed for 14 days and 2 meals a day (3 meals from 1897). Inmates were required to pay what they could afford for their keep and after 1905 Aliens Act there was a test to ensure they were fit for work. As well as staff to run the Shelter, representatives would meet ships coming into the docks in order to offer immediate assistance, as newly arrived refugees were vulnerable to waterfront thieves and fraudsters. Those in transit were helped to buy steamship tickets mainly to South Africa and to get their currency changed.

According to the records held at London Metropolitan Archives in 1910, the Shelter helped 11,000 migrants. Aid was not only given to Jews, during the first World War refugees fleeing Belgium were also helped. It was estimated that from 1885 to 1937 the Shelter had been responsible for meeting 1,180,000 migrants at the docks and that 126,000 had stayed at the Shelter.

The Shelter was based at 82 Leman Street and later moved to Mansell Street in Whitechapel. During the Second World War, the building was used to house those who had lost their homes in the blitz but was later requisitioned by the American army. In the 1970s, the Shelter moved to Willesden in North London.

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Location of the Jews Temporary Shelter in 1906 and 1930.

The superintendent of the Shelter between 1912 and 1940 was Adolph Michaelson. He married a year before obtaining this post and lived with his wife Sarah and five children in an apartment in the shelter building. Outtakes from a film available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website shows shelter residents in the dining room in 1938.  Michaelson (as in this portrait identifiable by his moustache), his wife and daughter also appear in the film.

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Portraits of Adolph and Sarah Michaelson by D Mandel. Ben Uri Collection.

Ben Uri is beginning vibrant work in the most oppressed part of London

In addition to his busy role at the Shelter, Michaelson was the Chairman of the Ben Uri from c.1926-1944. Committee meetings were held at the Shelter in Leman Street from 1922 and when the Shelter rebuilt its premises in Mansell Street in 1930 room was made for a Ben Uri gallery too.

Now, when so many groans are heard from groups, institutions and individuals, it is truly a joy to hear that the Art and Literary Society Ben Uri is beginning vibrant work in the most oppressed part of London, in the hotbed of Jewish poverty, the East End. The new home could become the refuge for the Yiddish word and for an exchange of thoughts and convivial pastimes, as well as a support point for art and artists

To coincide with the new premises Ben Uri published a catalogue of the collection which included descriptions of 77 works with 13 reproductions. It was written in Yiddish and translated into English both versions being available.

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Catalogue – Yiddish 1930. Ben Uri Archives.

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Catalogue – English 1930. Ben Uri Archives.

The German newspaper Die Zeit noted:

To come into the Ben Uri gallery is truly to see a temple of art. A wonderful collection of paintings by famous Jewish artists adorns the walls. [There are] sculptures and engravings. The whole environment is artistic and the members will have a friendly home for two evenings a week.

There was even a report in the London Times: ‘Though it only represents a beginning the opening of the Ben Uri Jewish Art Gallery at 63 Mansell Street, E1 is a first step towards filling an obvious need’.

Art classes, which had stopped in 1916, were restarted, this time targeting the young and a building fund was launched. When the Jewish Communal Centre at Woburn House in Bloomsbury was opened in 1932, Ben Uri moved there, together with the Jewish Museum.

It was never to have another gallery in the East End, when a writer to the Jewish Chronicle complained that they were betraying their roots by moving to Woburn House, the reply was that Ben Uri was not an East End body, its original home in 1915, being in Notting Hill, the studio of their founding Director, Lazar Berson.

A Musical Interlude

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 21st August 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

This blog post celebrates a remarkable Danish soprano, who championed Yiddish culture, stood up to anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany and lived until she was 96!

Did you know that the Ben Uri also has a strong musical tradition? At one time after World War II, there was a Ben Uri orchestra, chamber group and an opera circle. However, this week I want to look at a 1931 Ben Uri recital by soprano named Engel Lund (known to her friends as ‘Gagga’).

Engel Lund was born in Iceland in 1900. She moved to Denmark as a child and trained as a singer of lieder (German) and French songs but was also a keen collector of folk songs. She was fluent in five languages and learned fifteen more in order to sing the songs in the original vernacular.

I can break down national prejudice by the beauty of the songs

Lund travelled all over Europe giving performances of folk songs from around the world including songs in Hebrew and Yiddish. This concert advert recently came to light as part of the project to catalogue the Ben Uri archives in time for its centenary next year. The flyer not only advertises the concert itself but recounts an extraordinary story. In 1930, when Lund was in Hamburg, anti-Semitism was already so prevalent that she was advised to drop Yiddish from her repertoire but she refused to do so declaring ‘I find … that I can break down national prejudice by the beauty of the songs’.

BU_events Recital Lund 1931
Flyer for Engel Lund Concert 1931. Ben Uri Archives. © Ben Uri Gallery The London Jewish Museum of Art.

Lund had sung on the radio in England in 1930 but it was a great coup for Ben Uri to have Lund perform under their auspices during this trip to London: ‘Ben Uri members and friends will be able not only to hear but to see her at the recital’. Although it was unusual to have a non Jewish performer the Committee unanimously felt that her ‘great contribution’ towards Jewish folklore justified her invitation. The concert was a great success, despite one reviewer complaining that she sung ‘Hava Nagilla’ at the wrong tempo.

Engel Lund folk songs 1936
Engel Lund’s Book of Folksongs 1936

In 1936, Lund and her longtime accompanist and collaborator Ferdinand Rauter published ‘Engel Lund’s Book of Folk Songs’ which included songs from 14 countries. It was recently re-recorded by Norbert Meyn at the Royal College of Music studios.

Lund and Rauter spent the war in England, Lund performed nearly 30 times at the popular lunch-time National Gallery concerts organised by Myra Hess, as well as on the radio.

After the war, Lund continued travelling and performing, eventually retiring to Iceland where she taught at the conservatoire until her 90th year. She died at the age of 96. An obituary published in the Independent newspaper described her as:

a large woman in all respects and had a corresponding voice. She liked a good glass of red wine, or two or three. She had opinions about most things, which were mostly sound, and liked to express them.

The obituary writer recalled one occasion, when Lund was invited to meet the novelist Iris Murdoch:

She hesitated a moment, no doubt to consult her diary and said: ‘Wednesday? No, I shall be teaching all day. But don’t worry; I have read all her books, and I don’t like them’.

The Jewish Art and Antiquities Exhibition 1927

Centenary Stories from the Archives

In 1906 The Whitechapel Art Gallery had a show of Jewish Art and Antiquities, 21 years later, in 1927, they had another exhibition on the same theme. This was a chance for Ben Uri to bring their collection to a wide audience at last.

Ben Uri Council June 1926

The Chairman, Mr Michaelson opened the meeting by saying that:

the spirit of the society has been greatly shattered during the past months and therefore it is essential to carry on its work in a more vigorous manner than that of before.

Edward Good, another Committee member, said that he felt that they had been remiss in not illuminating the various questions and problems of our modern Jewish life. Ben Uri must be a ‘centre for all types of Jewish creative efforts and also be a home for social and spiritual repose’.

Membership should include admission to lectures and social events. A musical and literary evening was organised and plans were made to invite the noted Yiddish poet Sholem Asch to speak during his forthcoming visit. One of the very few documents for 1927 shows that without a Gallery, the Society could just about afford to run lectures and dances and still purchase pictures without making a loss.

BU accounts 1927
Accounts 1927 Ben Uri Archives

How were they going to get the collection, languishing at the home of their secretary, to public notice?

A Letter to Cameo Corner (1927)

Edward Good, (also known as Moshe Oved, a Yiddish poet, writer and sculptor), owned a shop selling jewellery in Bloomsbury. The shop, Cameo Corner, was very well known, and even patronised by Queen Mary who apparently would sit and chat with Good, who had a propensity to spend hours talking whilst his customers were waiting to be served.

Good received a letter from J. Nightingale Duddington, secretary of the Whitechapel Art Gallery asking for to borrow a sculpture of Good by Jacob Epstein. Duddington was putting on an exhibition on Jewish Art and Antiquities, a follow up to a 1906 show of the same name. Good suggested a number of collections including the Ben Uri which he felt had material also suitable for the exhibition.

BU whitechapel loans
Letter from Good to Duddington, 1927

Ben Uri sent 19 pictures including works by David Bomberg, Jacob Kramer, Solomon J Solomon, Simeon Solomon, Henryk Glicenstein and Isaac Lichtenstein.

lichtenstein_isaac_head_of_a_yemenite_woman
Head of a Yeminite Woman by Isaac Lichtenstein 1921

This picture was listed in the Whitechapel Exhibition catalogue as A Woman With A Pitcher. Only a few months prior to this, in 1926, Lichtenstein had contacted the Ben Uri asking for help getting a visa to come to England.

The Whitechapel Jewish Art and Antiquities exhibition was a huge success and not only reviewed by the London and specialist art press but also by The Scotsman and provincial papers. The Daily Telegraph commented ‘from the artistic and antiquarian points of view, it was doubly interesting not only to jews but members of all communities’. The Jewish Chronicle was particularly admiring of the Epstein sculpture of Edward Good saying it compelled attention and admiration. The only dissenting voices were some local school children who declared that the only ‘pictures’ they wanted to see were at the cinema!

Bezalel and Ben Uri (Part 2)

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 7th August 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

Continuing the story of the relationship between the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and Ben Uri in London, founded 9 years apart.

In the last blog post, we learned how both Ben Uri and Bezalel were started and both chose the name of the biblical craftsman, Bezalel Ben Uri, as an inspiration for their mission to revive and promote Jewish art.

Bezalel and Ben Uri Find a Home

Two years after starting the Bezalel school in Jerusalem, its founder Boris Schatz had purchased a building in 1908 in Shmuel HaNagid Street. He opened a Museum in 1912, whose collection became the nucleus for the Israel Museum in 1965.

Bezalel 1913
Photo of Bezalel Jerusalem in 1913

In contrast, in London, although the Ben Uri was active, it had no venue of its own. The Committee could not even decide where it should be located. Lazar Berson, the Director, had a studio in Notting Hill, but in March 1916 he proposed that they should look for a better space:

It should be as nice as possible and richly decorated with Jewish artworks to serve as the first steps towards a Jewish Museum…with regard to this proposed plan […] Sofer suggested that the location of the studio should be moved nearer to the East [End].

Berson abruptly left England for America in September 1916 and his art classes folded, although Ben Uri continued with lectures and social events at members’ homes and hired halls. The growing permanent art collection was kept at the house of their secretary, Judah Beach, in West Hampstead.

The Ben Uri Committee continued looking for a home however they had ongoing monetary problems. Pictures had been purchased with loans from benefactors, who were often Committee members and appeals to recoup the monies did not always raise enough. Membership fees were not regularly collected and money was often lost on lectures once venue hire was paid. An offer to bring Ben Uri under the umbrella of the Jewish Association of Arts and Sciences (known as the Society of Jewish Artists) but ‘still maintain it’s autonomy as a separate entity’ was rejected: ‘The Ben Uri does not need a separate artists society because the Jewish artists who love their people will come to the Ben Uri of their own accord’ (Minutes 2nd August 1919).

The Society of Jewish Artists put on an official exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1923, whilst the Ben Uri had yet to exhibit their collection, except at one-off events in rented rooms and members’ homes.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, although Bezalel had reopened in 1919 after a year-long hiatus because of the war, it also had its own financial problems. Funding, which had originally come from supporters in Germany, was very tight in the difficult post-war economy. Schatz visited Europe and the USA for a succession of fundraising trips.

In 1924, whilst visiting Carlsbad (Czech Republic) Schatz met Morris Mayer, the editor of Di Tsayt (a Yiddish daily paper) and close confidant of the Ben Uri Committee. Back in London Mayer reported that the Bezalel School needed to raise £1000 to continue its activities and was looking for £100 from each country. The Ben Uri Committee asked for an official letter to find out exactly what was required and when this arrived (May 1924) they, despite their own problems, pledged £5 towards the £100 sought.

The first Ben Uri Gallery Opens!

Opening Great Russell Street 1925
Ben Uri Opening of Gallery and Club 1925

A momentous event happened on March 1925 – a venue was found for Ben Uri, not in the East End, but opposite the British Museum in Great Russell Street. The first Committee meeting there was held in candle light ‘good old time style’ as the electricity was not connected. The members were full of optimism, a talk as given on the ‘correlation of the Jewish People with the Arts’ and it was reported that their Vice President, the artist Leopold Pilichowski, was going to Israel to witness the opening of the Hebrew University, and it was agreed that he would also represent Ben Uri at this auspicious occasion.

Within weeks of opening it was clear that the club was not to be a success. When Pilichowksi returned to England with a painting he had made of the University opening, he also had received a letter from Boris Schatz asking for the Ben Uri collection, particularly the Hirszenberg picture The Sabbath Rest, pictured.

Hirszenberg Samuel The Sabbath Rest
The Sabbath Rest by Samuel Hirszenberg

Edward Good, a Committee member, said that if they sent it to Jerusalem ‘at least we would have done something. This is a consolation should it come to this’. There was a vigorous discussion and it was proposed to reply: ‘It is vital for London to have a little Museum having regard to the fact that London possesses so many Jews’. Nevertheless it was also agreed to have another meeting to discuss the future of Ben Uri and a final appeal was to be published in the Jewish press.

Sending to Jerusalem
Extract from Minutes 10 March 1926

There was no agreement to send all or part of the collection to Israel, although a donation of a sculpture was made in the 1960s. However, in 1926, the Great Russell Street Ben Uri clubhouse was closed and the Committee did not meet again for four months. All was not lost as not long after, an opportunity was to arise to show most of the collection in a major exhibition which garnered national attention – but that is a future tale in this series of blogs.

What happened to Bezalel? Lack of money forced it to close in 1929 and by the time it reopened in 1935 Boris Schatz had died during a fundraising trip to America in 1932. An emotional eulogy was read by Edward Good at the Ben Uri AGM. The Bezalel Gallery became part of the Israel Museum but the art school continues until today.

Despite the difficult times for Bezalel and for Ben Uri both survived to celebrate their centenaries, Bezalel in 2006 and Ben Uri next year in 2015.

Bezalel Ben Uri

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 28th July 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

In this week’s blog we examine the origins of Ben Uri and the parallel story of the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts founded in 1906. Both took inspiration from the biblical craftsman Bezalel Ben Uri.

Where does the name Ben Uri came from?

Then the Lord said to Moses, See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all manner of workmanship – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. (Exodus 31, 1-5).

Bezalel Ben Uri is the name of the master craftsman mentioned in the bible as creating the tabernacle where the spirit of God was to dwell. The word Bezalel can be translated as ‘in the shadow of’ or protection ‘of God’. He was the son (Ben) of Uri of the tribe of Judah.

Bezalel School of Art 1906

The 1915 founders of Ben Uri were not the first to use the name of this ancient figure to call for a renaissance in Jewish Art. Ten years earlier at a Zionist congress held in Basel in Switzerland a resolution was passed to create a ‘Bezalel’ school of Art. Boris Schatz, who was running an art school in Bulgaria, opened the Bezalel School (later Academy) in Jerusalem in 1906.

Boris Schatz
Boris Schatz

To help him start the school Schatz took with the artist, Ephraim Lilien who taught there during the opening year. In some versions of the logo design for Bezalel by Lilien there is a representation of Bezalel Ben Uri building the tabernacle but who also looked suspiciously like Schatz himself! In most versions of the logo the figure does not appear.

Bezalel

Bezalel Logo for Schatz’s own use

bezalel logo
Bezalel Logo

The Jewish National Art Association London Ben Ouri 1915

It is not clear whether the London founders of Ben Uri, as it quickly became known, chose the second part of the biblical name in order to differentiate themselves from Bezalel in Jerusalem or in homage to its ideals. Certainly Lazar Berson, the creator of Ben Uri, was a great admirer of Lilien, writing a 1915 article about him for his regular column in the Yiddish paper Die Tsayt.

Lilien-EphraimMoses The Palms of Sakkarah
The Palms of Sakkarah (Lilien)

The first secretary of Ben Uri, Solly Abrahams even used the pseudonym Bezalel on official Ben Uri communications.

bezalel heading 1915
Ben Uri Headed Paper. Abraham Bezalel (Solly Abrahams)

Like Bezalel in Jerusalem, Berson set about giving art classes creating items inspired by Biblical themes.