The poetic artist

By Suzanne Lewis - Thursday 27th 2008f March 2008

Sonia Cohen

The Isaac Rosenberg exhibition is the sixth in the Ben Uri Gallery's important and ongoing series 'The Whitechapel Boys', which explores the group of London-based Jewish artists, all born, raised or working in and around the East End in the first decades of the twentieth century, and who each made a particular and significant contribution to British Modernism.

Previous exhibitions in the series include Bernard Meninsky (2001), Mark Gertler: A New Perspective (2002), The Tortoise and the Hare: William Roberts and Jacob Kramer (2003), Rediscovering Wolmark: a pioneer of British modernism (2004) and Embracing the Exotic: Jacob Epstein and Dora Gordine (2006).

As the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War approaches and barely a handful of survivors remain, it is both timely and fitting for the Ben Uri to mark this occasion, with the simultaneous launch of the exhibition Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and his Circle and of Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s new biography of Rosenberg, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

The exhibition will be the first for almost 20 years to focus on British-born, Jewish poet-painter Rosenberg (1890-1918), who died at the Front on April Fool’s Day 1918, aged just 27. It will also be the first to critically examine his position as an artist rather than as a poet, located within the wider context of the emergence of British modernism and set against the backdrop of the First World War.

Now regarded as one of the finest war poets of his generation, Rosenberg published only two poetry collections, Night and Day (1912) and Youth (1915), together with the play Moses (1916), during his lifetime, all at his own expense. ‘His true vocation was poetry’, wrote fellow poet and British Museum curator Laurence Binyon, ‘and he thought of himself as a poet rather than as a painter’. But Rosenberg’s talent as a painter deserves far greater consideration than this cursory statement allows. In both poetry and painting, he sought to articulate the ongoing struggle between modernism and tradition, then at the heart of contemporary debate.

Born in Bristol in 1890 and brought up in great poverty in Whitechapel, Rosenberg showed extraordinary early prowess in drawing and writing as a schoolboy, but by the age of 14 was unhappily apprenticed to a firm of Fleet Street engravers. Passionate about art and poetry, he read obsessively, scribbled verses during meal-times and spent his evenings at art classes at Birkbeck College, where he won many prizes for drawing and life studies. In Whitechapel, he formed lasting relationships with his contemporaries, many of whom studied alongside him at the Slade School of Art (1911-14), where he was awarded a prize for Head Painting in his first year. The iconoclast David Bomberg, a fellow ‘Whitechapel Boy’ and former Slade student, also included Rosenberg in the much debated ‘Jewish Section’ of the Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements exhibition held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in May 1914.

Pre-war Rosenberg visited South Africa in 1914 for the sake of his health, painting, writing and lecturing about art, before his return 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, he remained there until his early death, while on night patrol, on 1 April 1918. Despite the attention of influential patrons such as Edward Marsh (secretary to Winston Churchill and an avid collector), no solo exhibition of his work was held until the memorial show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1937, almost twenty years after his death.

This new exhibition draws upon the full range of Rosenberg’s artistic output, from his earliest schoolboy compositions to the last hurried sketches, executed at the Front under extreme conditions. A number of masterful and rarely-seen early drawings will be shown, including his prize-winning Head of a Monk (1908-11) and Head of a Barrister (1910), as well as a small number of never previously exhibited works: the tiny, faint Self-Portrait (1906), his splendid three-quarter length Self-Portrait (1911) and a facsimile of an early East End drawing, The Wharf; the last published in a rarely-seen 1912 catalogue (Special Collections, Parkes Library, University of Southampton).

Focusing on Rosenberg ‘the painter’, within the larger context of early British modernism and the East End ‘ghetto’, the exhibition highlights Rosenberg’s most mature work, including an extraordinary series of portraits created against the backdrop of the War. The exhibition further provides the first opportunity to the see displayed together the single greatest run of Rosenberg Self-Portraits, with over a dozen images in a variety of media, including his best-known jaunty Self-Portrait of 1915, now in the National Portrait Gallery, and the contrasting fragile yet resilient Self-Portrait with Steel Helmet, completed in the trenches only a year later. Artworks, photographs and ephemera will also help to illustrate the complex and crucial relationships between Rosenberg and his close friends, the Whitechapel writers John Rodker, Joseph Leftwich and Stephen Winsten, for whom the term ‘Whitechapel Boys’ was initially coined, and with the the only ‘Whitechapel Girl’, the artist Clare Winsten (Clara Birnberg). A number of intimate reciprocal portraits of Rosenberg and Birnberg are shown, alongside Rosenberg’s tender oil of Sonia Cohen, probably Rosenberg’s best female portrait.

The exhibition will also examine the range of the Whitechapel Boys’ own individual war experiences, from conscientious objector (Gertler, Rodker), ‘alien’ non-combatant (Kramer), Official War Artist (Meninsky), to frontline soldier (Rosenberg and Bomberg), with works by these artists as well as associates such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Horace Brodzky. It will also throws light on the numerous literary and artistic ‘little magazines’, which characterised this period, and to which all the Whitechapel Boys so energetically contributed.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated colour catalogue with contributions from Rosenberg cholars including Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Dr Joseph Cohen (USA), Dr Dominic Williams (University of Reading), Jean Liddiard, and the exhibition curators. A Rosenberg study day, examining both literary and artistic contexts, will be held at the Imperial War Museum, London on Tuesday 13 May.

• Suzanne Lewis is Operations Manager of the Ben Uri Gallery

Isaac Rosenberg: Whitechapel at War is at the Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art, 108a Boundary Road, NW8 from 1 April to 8 June. The exhibition tours to the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, Leeds University, venue for the 1959 Rosenberg retrospective, from 16 June – 5 September. For more information, call 020 7604 3991 or email