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I’ve always been fascinated by the family stories that make an artist. Remember when I was writing about little Henry Moore earlier this year? I know that his family background, despite the humble roots, almost predestines him to become a great artist.

I met Mrs Kirschner the other day for tea and we talked about the unlikely and not-so-unlikely turns in the art world. Would you know that this hard-working lady, a mother of five boys (I say!), has such a keen interest in contemporary art in the capital. Well, for her it’s family interest really. She told me this amazing family saga that began in Leeds back in the last century and continues in London now and this is where our little worlds collide. Serendipity! I love serendipity!

So Mrs Kirschner, whose family is originally from Lithuania knew a family called the Rosenbergs pretty well and she was telling me all about their life in the Leeds ghetto after they first settled in England. The head of the family, Barnett spoke only Russian and Yiddish when they arrived in 1881 or thereabouts. Mrs K, Becky that is, told me that Lithuania was hell for Jews at the time, and of course Mr Rosenberg, being a young man was facing forced conscription too. So he came over and settled in Leeds, where I honestly don’t think his circumstances were improved a bit, but at least he wasn’t running from pogroms.

Towards the end of the 1880s Barnett Rosenberg moved to Bristol and interestingly this is where Becky met them, when she herself first came over with her family. She was travelling with young Hacha Rosenberg and her and daughter Minnie. The Rosenbergs stayed in Bristol and Becky’s family decided to move up to Leeds where they settled for good. She kept in touch with Hacha all this time, so she knows that they had four more children in Bristol, Isaac, Annie, Rachel and David. Some fifteen years ago they moved again, this time to Stepney in London’s East End, ‘the heart of the Ghetto’, where Barnett was hoping for better employment opportunities. Struggle after struggle for them!

Becky began to get sadder and sadder letters from Hacha after their move to London. She complained that Barnett had no skill and no business aptitude at all, so he failed to find any work and ended up pulling a wheelbarrow around London. Hacha was forced to sell embroidery to help the family (now with yet another child, Elkon, born) and their family life was fraught with tension and unhappiness strained with the relentless duty of feeding the many mouths from practically no income. It’s a bit unfair to say that Barnett was worthless: a devoutly religious, learned man, well versed in Yiddish and Talmudic studies, but not aptly equipped with survival skills for London’s East End at all.

When Becky talks about these cruel circumstances and their abject poverty, she wells up with nostalgia for their motherland, their old home, their ancient roots, everything. It must be hard to be so far from home, to be forced to live in what is practically exile in the ugliest corners of this fair land. Becky was a wee lass when they came over, barely ten years, but she still remembers everything. Well, everything she wants to.

Well, Isaac Rosenberg, Hacha’s eldest son, was born here in England and never knew any life but the English Ghetto. But from the earliest years he wanted nothing else but to sit and draw and write poetry. He didn’t make friends at school and was a precocious boy growing old fast, pursuing nothing but his solitary passion. The only time he was willing to meet people was when he chalked pictures on pavements and attracted quite a crowd with his talent. His headmaster in Stepney was very supportive (Remember Henry Moore’s art teacher? Very important to meet good teachers in one’s early artistic career!) He arranged special art classes for him and helped him meet the right people in the right circles.

Coincidentally one of Hacha’s embroidery customers, the Amshewitz family also had a son with artistic interests, John Henry, who is seven years older and helped Isaac a lot in starting his budding art education. For one thing he helped him obtain a pass to work in the National gallery for example and supported him in his first attempts to publish art criticism. Isaac left school in 1904 and, although Hacha tried everything to save his artistic son from the drudgery of everyday life, he had to enter into employment. He worked as an apprentice to Hentschel Engravers on Fleet Street. Then through some educational board or committee for Jews he met an influential chap called Emanuel.

This is where Becky’s story ends and mine starts: Isabella actually knows this Emanuel, Lewis Emanuel is the name. He runs all kinds of art clubs and seems to be a member of practically all committees and organisations in London. He’s definitely a good person to know for an aspiring artist. Isabella can’t stand him, and it seems that, as usual, there is a rift between his ‘Establishment tastes’ and the young generation. Anyway, Emanuel helps Rosenberg a lot and he finally enrolled in the Slade last year, so that’s how Isabella knows him too. She told me that last October all the others followed him to the Slade, that is, a chap called Bernard Meninsky, a Morris Goldstein and Jakob Kramer, who grew up in Leeds and Becky knows him well too. According to my lovely daughter, who is not exactly rolling in it either, you can tell who they are at a distance because they’re extremely poor and walk together everywhere to save money on tube fare and protect one another from antisemitic bullying. Isabella’s beloved Gertler is of course a seasoned Slade student by now, he was the first of the many poor Jewish artists to enroll.

Now, last month there was some scandal about Rosenberg. Of course I hear two versions of the story, both of them quite confusing – only Isaac himself knows what happened. Hacha told Becky that he was working on some enormous painting day and night, like a maniac. He was completely absorbed in the picture. And the lady who was his patron gave him a cheque for his Slade fees, which was five shillings short – a whole fortune for the Rosenbergs. So Isaac decided not to send it on to the school. In Isabella’s version, both Mr Emanuel and the patron lady (a Mrs Cohen, I think) hated his picture and didn’t see any improvement on it. Isabella thinks she paid less because of the picture and their disagreements, but my daughter lives in the clouds. I’m fairly sure that isn’t the case. Anyway the lady was outraged when she learned that Isaac withheld her cheque, and accused him of dishonesty. Hacha is so very worried of course, and on top of everything the troublesome painting didn’t take the prize in the Slade’s summer competition. Of course, due to her overdeveloped sense of justice (or injustice), my Isabella has visions of Isaac starving to death on the pavement in front of the Slade, while his wealthy patrons pass him by laughing, but according to Becky they are pretty sure they can secure funds from the Jewish Educational Aid Society that helped Gertler too. Here is hoping!

Alongside Lavender herself and her lovely daughter Isabella, Mrs Becky Kirschner is a figment of our imagination, but the rest is true I swear!

1. The Rosenberg story came from two brilliant essays in the catalogue of  ‘Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and his Circle’, Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art, 2 April – 8 June 2008 and The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds, 16 June – 5 September 2008:

Sarah MacDougall and Rachel Dickson: ‘Isaac Rosenberg the Painter Part 1: ‘Art is not a Plaything’, pp. 16-33. and ‘Issac Rosenberg the Painter Part 2: ‘Shaken and Shivered’, p.. 34-61.

2. While Lavender seems pretty plugged in into the London circle of young Jewish artists, she cannot have known that Jakob Kramer would paint brilliant ‘The Jew (Meditation), which is now one of the most treasured pieces in the collection of the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds. He painted it in 1917 and the aforementioned Lewis Emanuel, one of Rosenberg’s influential patrons, HATED it. When the painting was published, Emanuel accused the modernists of collaborating with the press to form a cartel against the traditionalists. He called the modernists “‘tom-fools’ of the art and literary world […] simply carrying their destructive revolutionary and anarchistic lives and ideas into the peaceful realms of art and beauty”. He regretted the artificial and unclean influence of the Slade on Rosenberg’s art and encouraged him to get on a course at Bolt Court, which was geared to train artists with skills to survive, especially in printing. (MacDougall and Dickson, p. 22-23).

The controversial painting now hangs in the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery along with some beautiful later paintings by Bernard Meninsky, whom Lavender mentioned above. Is it really distressing and ugly? Well, in our experience, our visitors love it – everyone stops and looks at it even if for only a minute, and children love it especially.

Is it the vibrant, yet somehow calm tones? Is it the monolithic, simple figure? It’s perhaps our most popular painting, Mr Emanuel! Spot the painting in this video:

3.The painting Isaac Rosenberg was working on day and night in August 1912 was entitled ‘Joy’ and it is now lost.

4. And where it all started:outside London, Leeds and Manchester were the two cities that had the most sizable Jewish immigrant population at the end of the nineteenth century. In Leeds, the immigrants mostly settled in the Leylands district:

This map comes from a paper by Laura Vaughan and Alan Penn ‘Jewish Immigrant Settlement Patterns in Manchester and Leeds, 1881‘ from 2005, where you can read more about the population of the these areas at the time the Rosenbergs and the Kramers first settled there. Bernard Meninsky was brought up in Liverpool before moving to London.