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I meant to write about William Rothenstein for long now. He is a Bradford man, but made a name for himself in London. Isabella, my daughter [who studies art at the Slade] told me about his London career and I keep hearing that he’s is going to be the shiniest star on the skies of English Art, if he’s not that already.

William (or Will as everyone seem to refer to him) was born to Moritz Rothenstein, a well-to-do wool merchant  from Germany, who converted to become a Unitarian. His mother remained an orthodox Jewess (I believe from Hungary originally), despite some of the children being baptised and all that. I believe William befriended Ernest Sichel, who had finished in the Slade and later lived in Bradford himself, and he moved to London to study art at the Slade upon his advice. He started his studies there in the late 1880s. He was studying under Charles Holroyd, another Yorkshireman, whom I should write about at some point. Back then Slade was very different  than the Bohemian circles my daughter is ‘running with’, as they say these days. There was a lot of copying and drawing, and all that highly disciplined, rigorous training that Isabella looks down on. Of course Sickert’s New English Art Club was alreadly fledgling, but Rothenstein received all the classic art education the Slade was so famous for at the time. But amidst all the studying he always had time to come home – yes, it is possible, Isabella, especially if your mother is willing to pay your train fare!.

Anyway, by now ‘young’ Rothenstein has become an important and influential man: artist and art writer. In 1898 he co-founded the Carfax Gallery in St. James’ Piccadilly with John Fothergill, which was closely associated with such artists as Charles Conder, Philip Wilson Steer, Charles Ricketts and Augustus John. Lately, he has been travelling nationwide to give lectures and talks – Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, you name it. In 1907 he was at the opening of the Spring Exhibition of the Leeds Art Gallery, I saw him there. Isabella, who was a mere girl in short skirts back then, pointed him out on the street sniggering that he was the most diminutive man she’s ever seen. At the opening he talked about the ‘chasm  between Arts and Commerce’ alluding to the Arts and Crafts movement, but I don’t recall much of his talk to be honest. He did mention how impressed he had been when he, as a young artist, came home to Yorkshire in 1903. Rothenstein was one of the organisers of the first exhibition of the then freshly anointed Bradford Art Gallery, which turned out to be popular and a great financial success. This was all a long time ago, and I didn’t know back then how interesting that little man really is.

Now I see his name more and more often, Sir Michael [Sadler, Vice Chancellor of Leeds University] is becoming a close friend of him and they have a busy private and business correspondence. It’s a real arty relationship: I think Sir Michael would be keen to invite him to deliver a lecture or lectures, and Rothenstein being a prolific portraitist will no doubt benefit from Sir Michael’s enormous network of illustrious friends who may be interested in commissioning him. Sir Michael has some very optimistic plans for several young painters to make designs for panels in the Leeds Town Hall as well. I believe he wants Rothenstein to be involved in some ways, maybe picking the artists, but no one has illusions about our Leodian aldermen dragging their feet whenever art needs to be financing. But I’m sure Sir Michael will figure something out in the end!

The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds holds several interesting portraits by Rothenstein, such as the portraits of Michael Sadler, Emeritus Professor Charles Edwin Vaugham, Honorary Librarian 1908-13, Alfred Chaston Chapman FRS, Sir Joseph Hooker and Alfred Russel Wallace. The Gallery also owns ‘Cockerel’, a wonderful print by his son Michael, who became a successful and talented printer after the war.

Rothenstein’s Sadler portrait and his son’s print is currentloy on display in the Gallery’s current exhibition ‘Jewish Artists in Yorkshire’, which showcases Yorkshire-born artists’s works. As a related event, the Gallery has invited Rothenstein-expert Samuel Shaw for a public talk:

‘Crossing the Threshold: The Jewish and Yorkshire Identities of William Rothenstein / Talk by Samuel Shaw
Wednesday 22 May, 5.30-6.30pm

Using works featured in the exhibition, ‘Jewish Artists in Yorkshire’, this talk will explore the career of the influential British artist Sir William Rothenstein, who grew up in the large German-Jewish community based in nineteenth-century Bradford.

The Buffer Girls - a painting Rothenstein started to work on during his time lecturing at Sheffield University during the First World War.

The Buffer Girls – a painting Rothenstein started to work on during his time lecturing at Sheffield University during the First World War.

William Rothenstein maintained good ties with the University of Leeds indeed – in 1919 he designed the hood for Doctors of Philosophy (Honorary and otherwise) (Speaight, p. 305). The planned panels for the city hall, however, never came to fruition: the designs were just too discordant: Edward Wadsworth, Stanley Spencer, Paul and John Nash, H. S. Williamson, Albert Rothenstein and the Leeds-based Jacob Kramer were just too individualistic in their approach. The failure caused William embarrassment; he felt himself to be blamed and a temporary friction resulted between himself and Sadler (Speaight, pp. 315-16).

In his memoirs he writes about 1920: “To sole effect of my Sheffield activities [professorship at the University, which he later resigned from], was to move Sir Michael Sadler to make a gesture – a well meant gesture – of the success of which I was doubtful. I had been wiser to be frank at the start. Sadler’s plan was for several young painters to make designs for panels in the Leeds Town Hall. If the civic authorities could be persuaded to accept them, and to find the necessary money, the designs would be carried out in situ; failing this Sadler would pay £20 for each design, and, in addition, all material expenses. I knew the municipal mind too well to be hopeful; yet when I put Sadler’s project before Wadsworth, Stanley Spencer, the two Nashes, H. S. Williamson and my brother Albert, the yagreed to accept it. At Sadler’s suggestion, Jacob Kramer, a Leeds man, joined the group. The designs were to be approved by me; to reject any of these was disagreeable, but one by Stanley Spencer was, though admirable in itself, ill adapted to the others. I was compelled, therefore, to tell him so. […] The Nashes’ designs also came in for some criticism, but finally all were completed. Sadler deemed them insufficiently harmonious, while I knew they would shock the municipal eye. Had the work been commissioned, these gifted young men would have carried it out; but without a definite promise, the could scarcely be expected to achieve completed and harnonious designs.I agreed with Sadler that it would be wise to let the matter gently drop, without reflecting on the capacity of the artists to carry the scheme through. But I had been weak in furthering the project I did not believe would reach fruition. I learnt my lesson, and later was more happily situated when associated with the execution of wall paintings at St Stephen’s Hall, and at Morley College.” Recollections: pp. 348-49

Clare A.P. Willsdon describes the situation differently in her ‘Mural Painting in Britain: 1840 – 1940: Image and Meaning‘. According to Willsdon, Rothenstein initiated the murals and persuaded Sadler to start the project. Even so, the failure, was just as unsavoury for all parties involved.

As attested to by Alice Kingsley’s recollections, Rothenstein was indeed conspicuously short of stature: “the smallest man I’d ever seen”. Alice later became Mrs William Rothenstein! (Speaight, p. 82)

Sources: Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein: The Portrait of an Artist in His Time, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1962, pp. 7, 15-16, 206, 272, 315.

William Rothenstein, Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1900-1922, London: Faber & Faber, 1932, p. 57