Founded in 1915, in the second year of the First World War, in London’s East End by Russian-Jewish émigré Lazar Berson, Ben Uri is Britain’s oldest Jewish cultural organisation. It is named after Bezalel Ben Uri, the legendary biblical craftsman who created the tabernacle in the Temple in Jerusalem, and to indicate a special kinship with the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, established only nine years earlier, by Boris Schatz in 1906 in Jerusalem. Originally an ‘Arts Society’, designed to provide support for Yiddish-speaking, Jewish-émigré artists and craftsmen working outside the cultural mainstream, Ben Uri’s founders nursed the ambition of building a National Museum of Jewish Art by assembling a permanent collection of work by Jewish artists, which – given the time and circumstances – was a grand and visionary objective.
Almost from its inception through to the final wave of emancipation for the British Jewish community in the late 1970s, Ben Uri became the centre of Jewish cultural life in London. Great names and personalities of British Jewry were formally associated and involved including: Israel Zangwill (writer – known as the ‘Jewish Dickens’), President, 1922–23; Leopold Pilichowski (artist), 1923–33; Alfred Wolmark (artist), 1923–59; Solomon J Solomon, R.A.(artist), 1924; Lord Israel Sieff (of Marks and Spencer), 1934–68; Sir Jacob Epstein (artist),1936–37; Cecil Roth (historian), 1936–37; Kenneth Snowman (of Goldsmiths Wartski), 1946–56; Sir Barnet Strauss (politician), 1949–52; Joseph Leftwich (Yiddish scholar and poet), 1951; Selig Brodetsky (Zionist leader and President of the Hebrew University), 1952–54; Martin Paisner, CBE (Lawyer), 1972–86; Sir Trevor Chinn (industrialist), 1975; Samuel Sebba, 1965–69; and Mrs. Sebag-Montefiore, 1986–89. Personalities regularly opened or supported Ben Uri exhibitions from Mrs Anthony de Rothschild in 1934, to Sir Laurence Olivier in 1964, to HRH Prince Charles, who in 2001 contributed the foreword to The Ben Uri Story exhibition and book.
Over the last century, the collection has continued to grow: from 80 works by 1930, to over 900 by 2000, to more than 1300 by 2016. Today it comprises over 400 artists from 35 countries of birth, and, uniquely, among national collections, two-thirds of the artists are émigrés, and over a quarter are women. The collection is widely recognised as a unique and distinctive visual and academic survey of Jewish artistic and social life during the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries in Britain and, to a lesser degree, central and eastern-Europe and Israel.
Among the earliest acquisitions were an important series of works on paper by the Pre-Raphaelite Simeon Solomon, and two seminal paintings by ‘Whitechapel boy’ David Bomberg, including his East End masterpiece Ghetto Theatre (1920), acquired direct from the artist, three years before the Tate acquired its first two works in 1923. (Today Ben Uri’s Bomberg holdings are second only to those of the Tate and Pallant House, Chichester). In 1923 Ben Uri raised significant funds (£123, 10/–) by subscription – then equivalent to the cost of a small apartment in London’s East End – to acquire the award-winning, monumental oil, The Sabbath Rest (1894) by Polish master Samuel Hirszenberg; and in 1937, Polish émigré Jankel Adler’s Still Life was purchased direct from the artist in two instalments, again before any other UK museum accessioned his work.
Reflecting the Jewish diaspora, the collection’s strength lies in early twentieth-century artists and is particularly rich in works by first-generation émigrés, notably the ‘Whitechapel Boys’: ‘Father’ of the Whitechapel Boys, Alfred A. Wolmark, exhibited more at Ben Uri than at any other gallery, and Ben Uri holds more of his works than any other museum including recently acquired early masterpieces, In the Synagogue (1906), and the transitional Sabbath Afternoon (c. 1909–10), as well as the recent long-term loan from the Guggenheim family of his iconic, epic canvas, Last Days of Rabbi ben Ezra (1905), which until recently hung in the Jewish Museum, New York. Former custodians of Gertler’s seminal Merry-go-Round (1916), Ben Uri acquired one of the artist’s most important interpretations of Jewish subject matter, Rabbi and Rabbitzin (1914) in 2002, as well as the final portrait by poet-painter Isaac Rosenberg, Self-portrait in Steel Helmet, executed in the trenches in France in 1916, before the artist’s untimely death only two years later. This original core group of Ben Uri artists from among the ‘Whitechapel Boys’ – to which should be added the names of Jacob Kramer and Bernard Meninsky – were then fighting prejudice as immigrants and outsiders, while today they are pillars of the Modern British Art movement (with important paintings by Bomberg and Gertler recently accessioned by the Huntington Collection, Los Angeles).
In 1920 Ben Uri actively supported Renesans, the UK’s first, Yiddish cultural journal, which reproduced works by Simeon Solomon, David Bomberg, Jacob Kramer, Bernard Meninsky, Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Moïse Kisling, Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani many of them for the first time in a Yiddish publication.
Ben Uri regularly exhibited many international Jewish artists well before any other UK museum including Bomberg in 1925, Chagall and Modigliani in 1934, Reuven Rubin in 1937, Martin Bloch in 1936, Jankel Adler in 1944, Josef Herman in 1948 and Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff in 1956. Ben Uri also regularly accessioned works by international Jewish artists, including Arthur Segal and Lesser Ury, prior to any other British museum.
Teddy Kollek, inspiration of the Israel Museum in 1965 and the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 1993 opened the new Ben Uri museum concept at a glittering opening reception on London’s Bond Street in 2001 as a highlight of his final visit to London.
Recent masterworks acquired over the past ten years, which demonstrate the museum’s wider vision include Chaïm Soutine’s masterly portrait, La soubrette, widely considered to be the finest example of the artist’s work in the UK; rediscovered Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio, Chagall’s extraordinary and celebrated response both to the opening of the death camps in April 1945 and to his own wife’s death in September 1944; a pair of raw, brutal art works by George Grosz, The Lecture or Letter to an Anti-Semite (1935), and Interrogation (1938), both harrowing depictions of Nazi brutality; and an important, characteristic, joyful cityscape by leading post-war painter Frank Auerbach (b. 1931). These are among more than 375 new works which have entered the collection in the last decade, with the generous support of the Art Fund, The V&A / MLA Purchase Grant Fund, The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the Government ‘In Lieu’ scheme, and the generous support of artists and donors.
Today the Ben Uri Collection is recognised as not only a significant part of both British history and the cultural heritage of British Jewry, but, since the expansion of its remit and the inclusion of work by non-Jewish artists, it is the only specialist art museum in Europe addressing universal and ever-more central issues of identity and migration through the visual arts. The future and second millennium is a new large building in central London to present the journeys and stories of diverse immigration to London from 1900 with the Jewish experience at its core combined with the traditional museum offer to significantly widen and increase the museum’s relevance in a world where social integration is an irreplaceable component of a peaceful society.
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