Archives for September 2014

The Second World War: Ben Uri ‘carries on’

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 29th September 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

At the start of the Second World War in 1939, Ben Uri collections were put into storage but Ben Uri was still active and reopened in a Gallery space before the war ended. It was to be their home for the next 16 years.

It might be though that during war time that all cultural activities would be halted but (as we learnt in a previous blog – part 6 of this centenary series- on Engel Lund) that the National Gallery held popular concerts during the war, so too, Ben Uri, after an initial thought that they would cease activities decided that they would ‘carry on’.

As mentioned in a previous blog, before war broke out on 9 September 1939 the permanent collection was moved to Judah Beach’s home for safe keeping, however even with the quietness of the ‘phony war’ by the beginning of October the Committee was worried about the danger of air raids. The treasurer, Cyril Ross, offered the basement of 28 Great Castle Street, near Oxford Circus ‘reputed to be immune against a direct hit’ for the collection. This was an unusual step in that many people and organisations were moving their collections out of London. However, the building not only survived the war but became a ‘listed’ building in 1973.

‘Ben Uri is one of the few Jewish Cultural institutions to survive the outbreak of war’

Cyril Ross wrote to Ben Uri’s secretary Mr Yehudah, on 5 October 1939 that as ‘I am afraid that no activities of the Ben Uri will be possible for some time’ his salary was to be reduced to a nominal 10%. Those few people who did pay their subscriptions had stopping paying and Ben Uri had very little income. However only a few weeks later the Committee changed their minds and decided to hold monthly lectures in the East End in addition to ‘any function held in the West End, especially as the Ben Uri is one of the few Jewish Cultural institutions to survive the outbreak of war. This contradiction caused Yehudah, to write 30 August 1940, that his acceptance of a lower salary was based upon a reduction of work “our activities having for several months been continued and even extended” and that his salary should have continued.

Lectures were held between January – April 1940 on such diverse topics as ‘The Jewish contribution to English Literature’, ‘Democracy and Despotism Contrasted’, ‘Picasso’, and ‘Philosophy through the Ages’.

‘That in spite of the war the Ben Uri continue to acquire pictures …’

It was resolved ‘that in spite of the war the Ben Uri continue to acquire pictures by way of gift, and to collect subscriptions and donations … for the cultural works of the Society.’ Donations included ‘Jewish Wedding’ by Chana Kowalska donated by Moshe Oved. Sir Philip Herzog presented a picture by his sister Helena Darmesteter.

Darmesteter image
Reflections in a Mirror (Darmesteter). Donated 1942. Ben Uri Collection.

Some works such as Emanuel Manasse’s Head of Louis Golding and Max Sokol’s Portrait of Alfred Wolmark were still being paid for on an installment plan. This portrait had originally been envisaged as being in bronze but it was instead made of wood which Wolmark claimed was more difficult to execute and made the finished object more valuable. Although strict rationing started in January 1940, a reception was held that month, to commemorate the purchase of the Manasse sculpture. Despite their financial straits Ben Uri was also proactive in their collecting. For example Alva was invited in 1942 to submit a couple of works with a view to Ben Uri purchasing one of them.

Resuming Useful Work – Plans for an Exhibition

Although many collections were, like the Ben Uri’s, in storage during the war, gradually more exhibitions began to be held. In addition to concerts at the National Gallery already mentioned, a picture a month from the National Collection was retrieved from the Welsh slate mines where they were being kept. In 1942, Ben Uri agreed to lend a Jacob Epstein sculpture to an exhibition in Leeds.

By 1942 the Committee felt they too should hold an exhibition “in the near future” to include works of well known artists as well as some of the best of the permanent collection. Quite a long wish list was drawn up and the secretary was instructed to advertise for the owners of works by Modigliani, Pasternack, Lieberman, Chagall, Josef Israels, Kissling, Ury, Kauffman, William Rothenstein, Banderman, Pissaro, Bakst, Antokolsky, Levitan and Pascin; asking whether they would loan them for an exhibition. If there was a positive response they would contact their patrons and members asking for a renewal of subscriptions “to enable the Society to resume its useful work”.

A New Home

‘The question of acquiring independent premises is still receiving earnest attention … we remain undaunted, because our faith in the aim of the Ben Uri is unshakable.’

Ben Uri press cutting
Portman Street Opening 1944. Ben Uri Archives.

A momentous meeting was held on 17 June 1943, Cyril Ross, had secured a lease on a large Georgian house owned by Mr Ben Tolbert in Portman Street near Marble Arch. It would cost £287, which Mr Tolbert had assured him was the same as his outgoings. Although when the lease came to be signed an extra sum was included which Tolbert promised to return to Ben Uri as a donation.

Ben Uri received possession of 14 Portman Street in October 1943. The accounts show that the first thing that was purchased (with an advance from the treasurer) was a set of china, a tray and 6 spoons! A new constitution was drawn up for this new era and and at last the long planned exhibition started to be organised by the new secretary, Frederick Solomonski.

Ben Uri Portman Street
14 Portman Street. Ben Uri Archives

The collection was retrieved from Great Castle Street at the beginning of November but it took a while to organise the opening exhibition as the Committee wanted really ’eminent works’ concentrating on loans from private collections.

Ben Uri opening exhibition

The exhibition celebrated Camille Pissarro, Josef Israels and Max Liebermann amongst others. A lecture on Pissarro by G B Manson, former director of the Tate Gallery, accompanied the exhibition.

Ben Uri Camille Pissarro lecture
Lecture on Camille Pissaro. Ben Uri Archives.

Even though the allies had landed in Normandy the war was not yet over; flying bombs started raining over Britain during 1944, and a recital was postponed as the committee were worried that the public ‘would refrain from coming during the present uneasy days of continual bombing.’

14 Portman Street was not bombed and Ben Uri stayed there until 1960. The large space enabled Ben Uri to expand their social and cultural activities as well as hold regular exhibitions. Ben Uri had survived the war and was indeed ‘carrying on’.

Turbulent Times for Ben Uri 1938-1939

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 18th September 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

David Bomberg The Studio

As war loomed across Europe, and preparations were being made to store the collection, a collective of artists led by David Bomberg attempted to take over the running of Ben Uri.

David Bomberg and the Ben Uri

In 1938 there was an attempt by a group of artists to take over Ben Uri,one of the main instigators was David Bomberg. Bomberg was an artist whose works had been amongst the very earliest acquired by Ben Uri (in 1920 and 1923), he had even given a lecture in 1928 concerning on his travels in the Middle East.



Yiddish cutting advertising Ben Uri lecture by David Bomberg 1928 (Ben Uri Archives). Mount Zion with the Church of the Dormition (David Bomberg) purchased 1928. Ben Uri Collection.

Bomberg gave another lecture in 1931 which was according to Judah Beach, who presided over the event not only interesting and instruction but had “shown Mr Bomberg in a new light”. An appeal by Bomberg to purchase another work in 1932 was declined due to lack of funds. “The Committee appreciates the offer and very much regrets its ability to acquire your valuable and important painting through circumstances over which it has not control.” At that time Ben Uri had an £180 overdraft, equivalent to c.£8000 in today’s money as well as debts to pay.

However Bomberg did exhibit an oil painting The Ronda, Spain (a charcoal sketch of this is now in the Ben Uri collection) at the Ben Uri Annual Exhibition of Works by Jewish Artists in 1936.The Jewish Chronicle reviewer was so impressed by Bomberg’s entry that he subtitled his review “David Bomberg – The Great Master”. The picture was priced at £262 and 10 shillings by far the most expensive picture in the show. It did not sell and a simultaneous one man show at the Cooling Gallery of more of Bomberg’s Spanish pictures also did not result in any sales.



By 1938 Bomberg decided that Ben Uri was not supporting artists in the way that he wished. On the 18th January he wrote to Jacob Kramer in Leeds:

“The Ben Uri has to reorganised and I said that I would be willing to help if the power was held in the artist’s hands only – all the Committee of the Ben Uri will resign if we come forward to plan a reconstruction … the Jewish artists are starving none of us can work, most of us  receive one form of charity or another – we can make a market for ourselves if we organise.”

Bomberg proposed meeting with fellow artists to discuss the matter, he said that he had a benefactor who would fund the takeover A very successful man of business and social influence in London guarantees us success if the artists could come up with a workable plan.

Ben Uri was, at this time, in the midst organising its annual exhibition which was to be held that year at Queens Hall as part of a fair in aid of the Jewish National Fund (JNF). This show drew Ben Uri’s largest ever crowd but only lasted three days. Bomberg wrote to Ben Uri in August 1938 proposing that their next exhibition of Contemporary Jewish Artists should be held at the New Burlington Gallery, rather than the Ben Uri rooms (at the Anglo-Palestine Club) in Great Windmill Street and it should be up for a period of 6 weeks. As the letter has not survived it is not clear whether Bomberg also included any of his proposals for running the Ben Uri but “after a long and exhaustive discussion”, the suggestion was rejected on the grounds that to organise such an exhibition would be too expensive as a guarantee of £450 was required.

An Artist’s Memorandum

At the following meeting in November 1938 after agreeing that pictures and equipment should be moved into safe storage at Judah Beach’s, a Committee Member’s house in North London, the secretary reported that he had had some meetings with and now received a memorandum signed by “Jacob Kramer, Emmanuel Levy, Mancin Reith, Arnold Auerbach, Mayer Klaus, H Brodzky, Louis Snowman, David Bomberg, Louis Blum, Mark Gertler and Hans Feibusch”.

The secretary had agreed to submit the petition to the Committee for discussion, point by point. The Committee initially refused to discuss the contents and discussed what their policy was to be to the demands as a whole. They decided to write to David Bomberg, (as representative of memorandees) thanking the artists for their offer of cooperation and reminding them they could join the Ben Uri as artist members at a special rate of 5 shillings a year. It was subsequently decided not to write just to Bomberg but to each of the artists separately. Mark Gertler was to be contacted to ask particularly whether he would not only join the Ben Uri but become a member of the Art Committee.

However at the next meeting in January 1939 a different response was agreed a special subcommittee would meet the artists to hear their grievances and report back at the subsequent meeting. Sixteen artists attended the meeting on 28 February, ten of whom joined the Ben Uri. The archives do not document exactly who attended the meeting or sent their apologies. The minutes record that artists agreed ‘by vote’ that Ben Uri should hold a comprehensive exhibition of painting, drawings and sculpture in the autumn at a West End Gallery, to be opened by a prominent person, ‘not on a Sunday’, Jewish art was to “adequately represented” and a percentage of the proceeds were to be used to aid refugees. The hanging committee was to be Feibusch, Oppenheimer and Bloch. Feibusch had inquired of the Cooling Gallery as to their availability for October 1939 and Ben Uri agreed to assign £50 towards the exhibition.

In the meantime, Bomberg had contacted Ben Uri again asking for personal support, the Committee was exasperated, as it was not within their remit to financially support artists. Bomberg apparently wrote yet again, Cyril Ross instructed the Ben Uri secretary, Mr Judah Yahudah to reply, asking Bomberg to stop sending begging letters and offering to pay for a studio out of his own funds but not his whole living expenses.


Yahudah’s letter to Bomberg was more concilatory in language and mentioned that in at the “critical time” there were many calls on Mr Ross’s purse. It was indeed a critical time, war was coming, the ‘Contemporary Artists’ exhibition and that of ‘French Jewish Art’ which was also being prepared for 1939 did not take place. Read next week’s blog to find out what Ben Uri did do during the war, which included opening a new gallery in central London, where the organisation was to stay for the next 14 years!

Explore David Bomberg’s pictures held in the Ben Uri collection.

Capturing Pre-War Jewry in Pictures

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 11th September 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

In this weeks stories from the archive we visit, a – now lost – world of European Jewry in the 1930s as captured by two very different men, Roman Vishniac and George Loukomski, both of whom exhibited their findings at Ben Uri.

Last week I wrote about Abram Games, the great graphic designer who captured the spirit of post war Britain, this week I am focusing on two men who used different media to capture pre war European Jewry, one of whom, Roman Vishniac, was a very good friend of Games.

It is 1935 and anti-semitism is on the rise in Europe particularly in Hitler’s Germany after the passing of the Nuremberg laws.

The Tragedy of German Jews (1935). Ben Uri Archives.

At the time of this lecture two men were travelling around Europe drawing and photographing Jewish religious and secular life. The first George Lukomski, was interested in the development and design of the religious buildings of a community which had lived in Europe for many hundreds of years.

George Lukomski: Jewish Architecture

George Lukomski (Loukomski) was born in 1884 in Kaluga from a noble family, he sometimes styled himself Prince Lukomski. After studying art and architecture he began travelling across Russia and Europe drawing and sketching, eventually settling in Kiev becoming Keeper of Fine Art at the Museum. After the Russian revolution, Lukomski helped to turn some of the Czar’s palaces into Museums; in 1924 he went to live in Paris.

George Lukomsky
George Lukomski

Although not Jewish, Lukomski made a specialty of drawing synagogues ranging from grand buildings to ancient wooden structures in small towns and villiages across Europe. He regularly exhibited these drawings and, in 1935 there was a Ben Uri  exhibition of drawings and watercolours of ‘ghetto’ scenes and synagogues built between the fourteen and eighteenth centuries.

Ben Uri exhibition Lukomski 1935
Ben Uri LukomsKi Exhibition 1935. Ben Uri Archives.

The exhibition was opened by the Chief Rabbi Dr Hertz with an introduction by the Jewish historian Cecil Roth. The correspondent of the Jewish Chronicle asked why he had chosen to draw so many synagogues and Lukomski said that he was fascinated by them and it was one of the few areas of architecture that had been hitherto neglected. Lukomski continued on his travels and after having received introductions from Roth went to Portugal and then to Spain. However the Spanish civil war was raging around him and he found himself imprisoned in Grenada. He managed to smuggle out a telegram to Lisbon asking that a plane be sent to rescue the British and French civilians. I don’t know how Lukomski actually escaped but he made his way back to England where he spent the war. Cecil Roth had opened his home in Oxford to many refugees.

After the war Lukomski returned to France continuing drawing, writing and publishing books about architecture including Jewish synangogues. In 1958, some of his works were again exhibited at Ben Uri some described poignantly as images of “destroyed synagogues”. The Lukomski pictures exhibited in 1935 and 1958 were given to public collections in Israel. The first President of Israel Chaim Weitzmann, had two Lukomski drawings of the synagogues in Druyha and Pinsk on his wall.

This picture is in the Ben Uri Collection.

Loukomski Synagogue Interior
Interior of a Synagogue. Ben Uri Collection

Roman Visniac – Capturing Everyday Life

Roman Vishniac was born in 1897 in Russia, to a family of wealthy umbrella makers. As a medical student in 1915 he tried to help some fellow Jews who had been been declared German spies and transported to the Russian interior without food or water. Vishniac himself, managed to escape to Berlin in 1920 when he lived until 1939. For eight years in the 1930s he travelled back and forth from Berlin to the ghettos of Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania taking photographs of Jewish life, a camera hidden under his coat. He was commissioned to do so by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee(JDC) as part of a fund-raising drive to help support these poor communities. Vishniac developed and printed these pictures in his dark room in his Berlin apartment. Although he believed that he had taken over 16,000 images only 2000 survived. Some of these were smuggled out via Cuba hidden in the lining of clothing of a friend. Vishniac he fled Germany to America (via a French internment camp) arriving in New York in 1940.

Ben Uri Exhibition Vishniac 1983
A Vanished World Roman Vishniac

Two hundred of the surviving pictures were selected by Vishniac in 1983 and published as A Vanished World with text based upon his own memories and knowledge. In order to promote this book in the UK, an exhibition of 66 of the photographs were exhibited at Ben Uri (and then toured around the country). Vishniac wrote the captions and came over to London to give a talk at the Ben Uri. It was, according to the curator at the time one of the most popular exhibitions they had held for many years, despite an exclusive spread in the Sunday Times magazine being a casualty of a printers strike. Not only was the exhibition a window into a lost world but an emotional experience for many visitors who had lost family in the war. One woman recognised a picture of herself as a child.

George Lukomski died in Nice in the early 1950’s, Vishniac survived (although one hundred members of his family perished in the war) until 1990. After his death more photographs were discovered amongst his papers. Vishniac’s collection and archives are housed in theInternational Center for Photography in New York.

Both Vishniac and Loukomski recorded life in a changing world but neither could have known at the time just how important a record their work was to be.

Ben Uri Holocaust Learning Resource

Abram Games

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 4th September 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

As a new exhibition opens on the life of the iconic 20th Century designer Abram Games we celebrate a 50 year relationship with Ben Uri. The extraordinary vision of the Ben Uri Council helped not only Games but also to cement the place of commercial art and graphic design in art galleries and museums today.

Abram Games (originally Abraham Gamses, he would joke that he dropped the ‘ham’ as it was not kosher!), was born in London in 1914, his father was a Latvian born photographer. When Games was 22, he won a prize to design a poster to advertise evening classes at the London County Council and encouraged by this set himself up as a free lance poster designer.

Your Talk May Kill Your Comrades poster

Commissions from London Transport, Shell, the Post Office and other bodies followed. When war broke out in 1939, he wrote a paper on the value of posters in military education which led to him being appointed official poster designer to the War Office. A stream of iconic images and messages to the serving soldier either at home or abroad were created by him. They were not always looked on favourably by the authorities being too hard-hitting or even, as in the case of a recruiting poster for the ATS, too glamorous.

After the war, Games continued his free lance commercial work for London Transport, BOAC, the Financial Times and others, he also produced posters for Jewish charities such as this arresting ‘Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry’ poster for the World Jewish Relief organisation CBF.

Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry Abram Games 1945

In 1948 Games  won another competition to design stamps for the 1948 Olympics, and three years later he created the iconic Festival Star image for the Festival of Britain, by now he was also teaching at the Royal College of Art. The world was changing and the parameters of what was accepted as art were broadening.

The First One Man Show for a Graphic Designer in Britain – 80 Posters & Other Work (1952) – A Ben Uri First

On the suggestion of Charles Spencer, who had just joined the Ben Uri Council, Abram Games was invited in 1952, to exhibit his work. He leaped at this opportunity and exhibited eighty posters and preliminary sketches, a huge output boosted by his war time work. There was so much material that extra rooms had to be made available at the gallery in Portman Street. Games offered to pay the expenses in connection with the show.

80 Posters Games Exhibition. Ben Uri Archives

80 Posters Games Exhibition 1952. Ben Uri Archives

80 Posters Games Exhibition 1952. Ben Uri Archives.

Over 1000 people came to see the exhibition Art News and Review called the show ‘astonishing’ and an ‘outstanding event’: ‘prior to Games contribution “Poster-Artist” was an art school label for a non existent profession’.

This was not the end of Abram Games’ involvement in Ben Uri, he got involved in a wide range of their activities. In 1954 he was in charge of the organisation of the Studio Arts Ball, an annual event arranged by the younger members of Ben Uri. A popular aspect of these dances was the fancy dress competition and Games got into the spirit by dressing up as a portrait of Winston Churchill.

Ben Uri Studio Ball 1954 Fancy Dress. Ben Uri Archives.

Ben Uri Studio Ball 1954 Ben Uri Archives.

Although Games was known for his graphic design he also drew landscapes exhibiting pen and ink drawings at two Ben Uri exhibitions in 1956. By the late 1950’s it was becoming harder to make ensure a profit from social activities such as the dances and balls so a new annual event was instituted a ‘Picture Fair’ where artist’s donated their work and tickets were sold, every ticket holder was guaranteed one of the pictures.

BU exhib contemporary Jewish Artists 1956 cover
Ben Uri Contemporary Jewish Artists 1956. Ben Uri Archives

BU_exhib Picture Fair 1959 cover
Ben Uri Picture Fair 1959. Ben Uri Archives

Games regularly donated work to Ben Uri Picture Fairs for over 30 years including the year he died; he also helped judge annual “open exhibitions”.

Designing For the Ben Uri 1966-1977

Games did not just design posters but also created logos and symbols including the first insignia for BBC television. In 1966 Games used his trademark style to create a 50th anniversary graphic for Ben Uri. He also designed a Ben Uri logo which was used on publications and as a letter head from the late 1970s-1990s.

Ben Uri Pub 50th Games
Cover of Ben Uri 50th Anniversary Brochure (1966). Ben Uri Archives.

BU logo 1980
Ben Uri Logo (1980). Ben Uri Archives

Ben Uri Exhibitions 1979-2005

There were three more major Ben Uri exhibitions of Abram Games’ design work after the groundbreaking 1952 one. A joint exhibition of designers and illustrators entitled The Other Hand (1979), a show of Games’ designs for the Jewish Community (1991) and a loan exhibition from the Design Museum Abram Games, Graphic Designer: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means (2005).

Ben Uri Exhibition Games 1991
Games Designs For Jewry 1991

The Other Hand Exhibition 1979. Ben Uri Archives.

games meaning minimum means 2005
Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means catalogue cover.

games abram design based on jeremiah
Design for Encyclopaedia Judaica No 5 (1969) Abram Games. Ben Uri Collection.

Not only did Games make a significant contribution to Ben Uri by regularly donating pictures to be sold at Picture Fairs he also gave two works to the permanent collection in 1982. Ben Uri may have helped Games by exhibiting his work in a groundbreaking 1952 show but he repaid them with a faith and commitment to the organisation which lasted the rest of his life.