Archives for August 2014

The Jews Temporary Shelter 1930-1932

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 28th August 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

Ben Uri spent just two years with a gallery in London’s East End, at the Jewish Temporary Shelter, 63 Mansell Street. What was the Shelter and why was Ben Uri based there?

The sharp-eyed reader will have noticed in the previous blog post in this series that the 1931 flyer for the Engel Lund recital showed a new address for Ben Uri, one which they shared between 1930-1932 with ‘The Jews Temporary Shelter’.

The Shelter, originally known as the ‘Poor Jews Temporary Shelter’, was founded in 1885 to provide a refuge for the homeless, jobless and destitute arrivals in England. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 had been the catalyst for wide spread pogroms which together with enforced conscription of boys aged 12-25 into the Russian army caused a large number of Jews to flee from Eastern Europe.

As there were very few direct shipping routes from the Baltic ports across the Atlantic, many initially went to Hamburg. There, if they could obtain a visa, (which usually involved bribery), refugees could sail to London in appalling steerage class conditions for 16 shillings a head, they were also often sold bogus onward tickets to America.

The Shelter originally gave aid only to emigrants in the form of a bed for 14 days and 2 meals a day (3 meals from 1897). Inmates were required to pay what they could afford for their keep and after 1905 Aliens Act there was a test to ensure they were fit for work. As well as staff to run the Shelter, representatives would meet ships coming into the docks in order to offer immediate assistance, as newly arrived refugees were vulnerable to waterfront thieves and fraudsters. Those in transit were helped to buy steamship tickets mainly to South Africa and to get their currency changed.

According to the records held at London Metropolitan Archives in 1910, the Shelter helped 11,000 migrants. Aid was not only given to Jews, during the first World War refugees fleeing Belgium were also helped. It was estimated that from 1885 to 1937 the Shelter had been responsible for meeting 1,180,000 migrants at the docks and that 126,000 had stayed at the Shelter.

The Shelter was based at 82 Leman Street and later moved to Mansell Street in Whitechapel. During the Second World War, the building was used to house those who had lost their homes in the blitz but was later requisitioned by the American army. In the 1970s, the Shelter moved to Willesden in North London.

Ben Uri shelter map
Location of the Jews Temporary Shelter in 1906 and 1930.

The superintendent of the Shelter between 1912 and 1940 was Adolph Michaelson. He married a year before obtaining this post and lived with his wife Sarah and five children in an apartment in the shelter building. Outtakes from a film available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website shows shelter residents in the dining room in 1938.  Michaelson (as in this portrait identifiable by his moustache), his wife and daughter also appear in the film.


Mandel Portrait Mrs Michaelson
Portraits of Adolph and Sarah Michaelson by D Mandel. Ben Uri Collection.

Ben Uri is beginning vibrant work in the most oppressed part of London

In addition to his busy role at the Shelter, Michaelson was the Chairman of the Ben Uri from c.1926-1944. Committee meetings were held at the Shelter in Leman Street from 1922 and when the Shelter rebuilt its premises in Mansell Street in 1930 room was made for a Ben Uri gallery too.

Now, when so many groans are heard from groups, institutions and individuals, it is truly a joy to hear that the Art and Literary Society Ben Uri is beginning vibrant work in the most oppressed part of London, in the hotbed of Jewish poverty, the East End. The new home could become the refuge for the Yiddish word and for an exchange of thoughts and convivial pastimes, as well as a support point for art and artists

To coincide with the new premises Ben Uri published a catalogue of the collection which included descriptions of 77 works with 13 reproductions. It was written in Yiddish and translated into English both versions being available.

BU_Cat_1930_front Yiddish
Catalogue – Yiddish 1930. Ben Uri Archives.

BU_Cat_1930_front English
Catalogue – English 1930. Ben Uri Archives.

The German newspaper Die Zeit noted:

To come into the Ben Uri gallery is truly to see a temple of art. A wonderful collection of paintings by famous Jewish artists adorns the walls. [There are] sculptures and engravings. The whole environment is artistic and the members will have a friendly home for two evenings a week.

There was even a report in the London Times: ‘Though it only represents a beginning the opening of the Ben Uri Jewish Art Gallery at 63 Mansell Street, E1 is a first step towards filling an obvious need’.

Art classes, which had stopped in 1916, were restarted, this time targeting the young and a building fund was launched. When the Jewish Communal Centre at Woburn House in Bloomsbury was opened in 1932, Ben Uri moved there, together with the Jewish Museum.

It was never to have another gallery in the East End, when a writer to the Jewish Chronicle complained that they were betraying their roots by moving to Woburn House, the reply was that Ben Uri was not an East End body, its original home in 1915, being in Notting Hill, the studio of their founding Director, Lazar Berson.

A Musical Interlude

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 21st August 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

This blog post celebrates a remarkable Danish soprano, who championed Yiddish culture, stood up to anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany and lived until she was 96!

Did you know that the Ben Uri also has a strong musical tradition? At one time after World War II, there was a Ben Uri orchestra, chamber group and an opera circle. However, this week I want to look at a 1931 Ben Uri recital by soprano named Engel Lund (known to her friends as ‘Gagga’).

Engel Lund was born in Iceland in 1900. She moved to Denmark as a child and trained as a singer of lieder (German) and French songs but was also a keen collector of folk songs. She was fluent in five languages and learned fifteen more in order to sing the songs in the original vernacular.

I can break down national prejudice by the beauty of the songs

Lund travelled all over Europe giving performances of folk songs from around the world including songs in Hebrew and Yiddish. This concert advert recently came to light as part of the project to catalogue the Ben Uri archives in time for its centenary next year. The flyer not only advertises the concert itself but recounts an extraordinary story. In 1930, when Lund was in Hamburg, anti-Semitism was already so prevalent that she was advised to drop Yiddish from her repertoire but she refused to do so declaring ‘I find … that I can break down national prejudice by the beauty of the songs’.

BU_events Recital Lund 1931
Flyer for Engel Lund Concert 1931. Ben Uri Archives. © Ben Uri Gallery The London Jewish Museum of Art.

Lund had sung on the radio in England in 1930 but it was a great coup for Ben Uri to have Lund perform under their auspices during this trip to London: ‘Ben Uri members and friends will be able not only to hear but to see her at the recital’. Although it was unusual to have a non Jewish performer the Committee unanimously felt that her ‘great contribution’ towards Jewish folklore justified her invitation. The concert was a great success, despite one reviewer complaining that she sung ‘Hava Nagilla’ at the wrong tempo.

Engel Lund folk songs 1936
Engel Lund’s Book of Folksongs 1936

In 1936, Lund and her longtime accompanist and collaborator Ferdinand Rauter published ‘Engel Lund’s Book of Folk Songs’ which included songs from 14 countries. It was recently re-recorded by Norbert Meyn at the Royal College of Music studios.

Lund and Rauter spent the war in England, Lund performed nearly 30 times at the popular lunch-time National Gallery concerts organised by Myra Hess, as well as on the radio.

After the war, Lund continued travelling and performing, eventually retiring to Iceland where she taught at the conservatoire until her 90th year. She died at the age of 96. An obituary published in the Independent newspaper described her as:

a large woman in all respects and had a corresponding voice. She liked a good glass of red wine, or two or three. She had opinions about most things, which were mostly sound, and liked to express them.

The obituary writer recalled one occasion, when Lund was invited to meet the novelist Iris Murdoch:

She hesitated a moment, no doubt to consult her diary and said: ‘Wednesday? No, I shall be teaching all day. But don’t worry; I have read all her books, and I don’t like them’.

The Jewish Art and Antiquities Exhibition 1927

Centenary Stories from the Archives

In 1906 The Whitechapel Art Gallery had a show of Jewish Art and Antiquities, 21 years later, in 1927, they had another exhibition on the same theme. This was a chance for Ben Uri to bring their collection to a wide audience at last.

Ben Uri Council June 1926

The Chairman, Mr Michaelson opened the meeting by saying that:

the spirit of the society has been greatly shattered during the past months and therefore it is essential to carry on its work in a more vigorous manner than that of before.

Edward Good, another Committee member, said that he felt that they had been remiss in not illuminating the various questions and problems of our modern Jewish life. Ben Uri must be a ‘centre for all types of Jewish creative efforts and also be a home for social and spiritual repose’.

Membership should include admission to lectures and social events. A musical and literary evening was organised and plans were made to invite the noted Yiddish poet Sholem Asch to speak during his forthcoming visit. One of the very few documents for 1927 shows that without a Gallery, the Society could just about afford to run lectures and dances and still purchase pictures without making a loss.

BU accounts 1927
Accounts 1927 Ben Uri Archives

How were they going to get the collection, languishing at the home of their secretary, to public notice?

A Letter to Cameo Corner (1927)

Edward Good, (also known as Moshe Oved, a Yiddish poet, writer and sculptor), owned a shop selling jewellery in Bloomsbury. The shop, Cameo Corner, was very well known, and even patronised by Queen Mary who apparently would sit and chat with Good, who had a propensity to spend hours talking whilst his customers were waiting to be served.

Good received a letter from J. Nightingale Duddington, secretary of the Whitechapel Art Gallery asking for to borrow a sculpture of Good by Jacob Epstein. Duddington was putting on an exhibition on Jewish Art and Antiquities, a follow up to a 1906 show of the same name. Good suggested a number of collections including the Ben Uri which he felt had material also suitable for the exhibition.

BU whitechapel loans
Letter from Good to Duddington, 1927

Ben Uri sent 19 pictures including works by David Bomberg, Jacob Kramer, Solomon J Solomon, Simeon Solomon, Henryk Glicenstein and Isaac Lichtenstein.

Head of a Yeminite Woman by Isaac Lichtenstein 1921

This picture was listed in the Whitechapel Exhibition catalogue as A Woman With A Pitcher. Only a few months prior to this, in 1926, Lichtenstein had contacted the Ben Uri asking for help getting a visa to come to England.

The Whitechapel Jewish Art and Antiquities exhibition was a huge success and not only reviewed by the London and specialist art press but also by The Scotsman and provincial papers. The Daily Telegraph commented ‘from the artistic and antiquarian points of view, it was doubly interesting not only to jews but members of all communities’. The Jewish Chronicle was particularly admiring of the Epstein sculpture of Edward Good saying it compelled attention and admiration. The only dissenting voices were some local school children who declared that the only ‘pictures’ they wanted to see were at the cinema!

Bezalel and Ben Uri (Part 2)

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 7th August 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

Continuing the story of the relationship between the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and Ben Uri in London, founded 9 years apart.

In the last blog post, we learned how both Ben Uri and Bezalel were started and both chose the name of the biblical craftsman, Bezalel Ben Uri, as an inspiration for their mission to revive and promote Jewish art.

Bezalel and Ben Uri Find a Home

Two years after starting the Bezalel school in Jerusalem, its founder Boris Schatz had purchased a building in 1908 in Shmuel HaNagid Street. He opened a Museum in 1912, whose collection became the nucleus for the Israel Museum in 1965.

Bezalel 1913
Photo of Bezalel Jerusalem in 1913

In contrast, in London, although the Ben Uri was active, it had no venue of its own. The Committee could not even decide where it should be located. Lazar Berson, the Director, had a studio in Notting Hill, but in March 1916 he proposed that they should look for a better space:

It should be as nice as possible and richly decorated with Jewish artworks to serve as the first steps towards a Jewish Museum…with regard to this proposed plan […] Sofer suggested that the location of the studio should be moved nearer to the East [End].

Berson abruptly left England for America in September 1916 and his art classes folded, although Ben Uri continued with lectures and social events at members’ homes and hired halls. The growing permanent art collection was kept at the house of their secretary, Judah Beach, in West Hampstead.

The Ben Uri Committee continued looking for a home however they had ongoing monetary problems. Pictures had been purchased with loans from benefactors, who were often Committee members and appeals to recoup the monies did not always raise enough. Membership fees were not regularly collected and money was often lost on lectures once venue hire was paid. An offer to bring Ben Uri under the umbrella of the Jewish Association of Arts and Sciences (known as the Society of Jewish Artists) but ‘still maintain it’s autonomy as a separate entity’ was rejected: ‘The Ben Uri does not need a separate artists society because the Jewish artists who love their people will come to the Ben Uri of their own accord’ (Minutes 2nd August 1919).

The Society of Jewish Artists put on an official exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1923, whilst the Ben Uri had yet to exhibit their collection, except at one-off events in rented rooms and members’ homes.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, although Bezalel had reopened in 1919 after a year-long hiatus because of the war, it also had its own financial problems. Funding, which had originally come from supporters in Germany, was very tight in the difficult post-war economy. Schatz visited Europe and the USA for a succession of fundraising trips.

In 1924, whilst visiting Carlsbad (Czech Republic) Schatz met Morris Mayer, the editor of Di Tsayt (a Yiddish daily paper) and close confidant of the Ben Uri Committee. Back in London Mayer reported that the Bezalel School needed to raise £1000 to continue its activities and was looking for £100 from each country. The Ben Uri Committee asked for an official letter to find out exactly what was required and when this arrived (May 1924) they, despite their own problems, pledged £5 towards the £100 sought.

The first Ben Uri Gallery Opens!

Opening Great Russell Street 1925
Ben Uri Opening of Gallery and Club 1925

A momentous event happened on March 1925 – a venue was found for Ben Uri, not in the East End, but opposite the British Museum in Great Russell Street. The first Committee meeting there was held in candle light ‘good old time style’ as the electricity was not connected. The members were full of optimism, a talk as given on the ‘correlation of the Jewish People with the Arts’ and it was reported that their Vice President, the artist Leopold Pilichowski, was going to Israel to witness the opening of the Hebrew University, and it was agreed that he would also represent Ben Uri at this auspicious occasion.

Within weeks of opening it was clear that the club was not to be a success. When Pilichowksi returned to England with a painting he had made of the University opening, he also had received a letter from Boris Schatz asking for the Ben Uri collection, particularly the Hirszenberg picture The Sabbath Rest, pictured.

Hirszenberg Samuel The Sabbath Rest
The Sabbath Rest by Samuel Hirszenberg

Edward Good, a Committee member, said that if they sent it to Jerusalem ‘at least we would have done something. This is a consolation should it come to this’. There was a vigorous discussion and it was proposed to reply: ‘It is vital for London to have a little Museum having regard to the fact that London possesses so many Jews’. Nevertheless it was also agreed to have another meeting to discuss the future of Ben Uri and a final appeal was to be published in the Jewish press.

Sending to Jerusalem
Extract from Minutes 10 March 1926

There was no agreement to send all or part of the collection to Israel, although a donation of a sculpture was made in the 1960s. However, in 1926, the Great Russell Street Ben Uri clubhouse was closed and the Committee did not meet again for four months. All was not lost as not long after, an opportunity was to arise to show most of the collection in a major exhibition which garnered national attention – but that is a future tale in this series of blogs.

What happened to Bezalel? Lack of money forced it to close in 1929 and by the time it reopened in 1935 Boris Schatz had died during a fundraising trip to America in 1932. An emotional eulogy was read by Edward Good at the Ben Uri AGM. The Bezalel Gallery became part of the Israel Museum but the art school continues until today.

Despite the difficult times for Bezalel and for Ben Uri both survived to celebrate their centenaries, Bezalel in 2006 and Ben Uri next year in 2015.