F ew works of the early twentieth century paint as vivid a picture of the heady Bohemian London nightlife as William Roberts’ The Joke, appearing for the first time at auction as part of Sotheby’s 20 November sale of Modern & Post-War British Art.
As one of Britain’s greatest narrative painters, and a graduate of the ‘golden years’ of the Slade School – where he counted artists including Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg and C.R.W. Nevinson as peers – the paintings that Roberts produced in the period immediately after the First World War and into the 1920s and ‘30s are widely regarded as his most accomplished and original compositions.
Portraiture in particular fascinated Roberts – both in the form of the many self-portraits executed throughout his life, as well as those of friends and fellow artists. He painted those that he knew - including artists such as Wyndham Lewis and Augustus John – but few could have played such a pivotal role in his life as the artist Jacob Kramer, the subject of the present work. Kramer, who was born in Russia and arrived with his parents in England at the turn of the century, settling in Leeds, was one of the small coterie of Jewish students with whom Roberts surrounded himself whilst at the Slade. Drawn to those such as Bomberg who, like Roberts, was brought up in London’s gritty East End, the young artists socialised together at the many bars and tearooms of the day. And in 1915 at the ABC teashop on Tottenham Court Road one such meeting with Bomberg and Kramer was to shape the course of Roberts’ life for good, with the introduction to Kramer’s younger sister, Sarah, later to become Roberts’ wife.
Roberts clearly respected his artist brother-in-law, painting him on several occasions and in 1923 made him the central focus of The Joke. Included in the artist’s very first solo exhibition at the Chenil Galleries in 1923, it was from this exhibition that the painting was acquired by the grandfather of the present owner, remaining in the family collection ever since. Based on a small, squared pencil sketch of the same name created earlier that year, the painting depicts Kramer and two unidentified male friends together with the well-known Creole model Hélène Yelin at the Harlequin Tea Rooms. Situated on Beak Street, just off London’s bustling Regent Street, the Harlequin became a hub for artists, models and muses in the 1920s, and in his later memoir Roberts recalled:
‘The Harlequin was becoming popular, due no doubt to is feminine patrons, whose vocal talents turned the place at times into a sort of Café Chantant, when the dark-skinned Hélène sang the “Raggle Taggle Gypsies, O!”’
Run by the well-known Papani, who had previously worked at the Café Royal, it was a place to see and be seen. In The Joke Roberts captures the dimly lit interior from a slightly elevated perspective, seen for example in later works such as The Chess Players (1929, Private Collection, sold in these rooms, 10th May 2012, lot 17 for £1,161,250) with Hélène seated to the right of Kramer, enthralled by the joke that he is telling. Married to a musician Hélène and her two sons lived next door to the Roberts’ in Albany Street in the 1920s, and became a frequent sitter for Roberts as well as other artists including Kramer and Jacob Epstein (who produced a bronze bust of her in 1919).
The atmosphere and subject matter of the Harlequin led Roberts to produce some of the most striking and important paintings of his entire oeuvre, the majority of which are now housed in public collections. They capture the growing influence of New York over British culture, and the birth of the Jazz age, with a great sense of excitement that abounded during this post-war period. Paintings such as The Joke provide an insight into the inter-war years of the Bohemian scene – a time when British artists flourished, shaking off the confines of tradition and creating some of the most striking and evocative paintings of the century, of which The Joke must surely be considered one.