Self-Portrait in a Steel Helmet
Medium: Black chalk and wash on paper
Dimensions: 24 x 19.5 cm
Acquired in 2009 with the assistance of the Art Fund, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and anonymous donors
Unsentimental, yet poignant, Self-Portrait in a Steel Helmet is both Rosenberg’s final self-portrait and his final finished work as a painter. It was drawn in the trenches, in gouache and chalk on crumpled brown wrapping paper possibly salvaged from a parcel sent from home, and its fragile state documents this important part of its history. The portrait appears to relate closely to a sketch made in a letter, entitled Self-Portrait Sketch in Tin Helmet (c. 1916, Imperial War Museum), of which Rosenberg joked to his family that it was ‘The New Fashion boiler hat – the trench hat.’
Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890 and raised in great poverty in Whitechapel. Despite an early talent for drawing and writing, by the age of fourteen he was unhappily apprenticed to a firm of Fleet Street engravers. He took evening art classes at Birkbeck College, where he won many prizes, following Gertler and Bomberg to the Slade (1911-14). Afterwards Rosenberg visited his sister in South Africa where he painted, wrote and lectured about art, before returning to England in 1915. After joining the army, he was sent to the Front in 1916, and with the exception of one ten-day leave in 1916, remained there until his premature death on April Fool’s Day 1918. Despite publishing only two short collections of poetry during his lifetime, he is now regarded as one of the finest War Poets of his generation.
Also see Isaac Rosenberg: Whitechapel at War (2008). This catalogue accompanied the first exhibition to focus on poet-painter Isaac Rosenberg for almost 20 years. It was also the first exhibition exploring his art in the context of Whitechapel painters David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Jacob Kramer, Bernard Meninsky and Clare Winsten, along with writers John Rodker, Joseph Leftwich and Stephen Winsten. Rosenberg 's poetry articulated the struggle between modernism and tradition. The publication includes contributions from Rosenberg’s biographers and literary critics Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Jean Liddiard, Dr Vivien Noakes and Dr Joseph Cohen (USA), plus contributions from art historian Dr Dominic Williams (University of Reading) and Ben Uri curators Sarah McDougall and Rachel Dickson.
Born: 1890 Bristol, England
Died: 1918 Fampoux, France