Transatlantic Journeys and a Successful Party

Centenary Stories from the Archives 1

Posted by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / posted 14th July 2014

Ben Uri’s 100th birthday is less than a year away and some exciting celebratory events are being planned. We are currently delving through the Ben Uri archives to select items for a major centenary exhibition in the Inigo Rooms, KCL, Somerset House East Wing. This show will use both art and archives to tell our fascinating story. In this new series of blogs, the Ben Uri archivist will be sharing some little known tales from the archives and highlighting some recently discovered gems.

Art has no territorial borders, it wanders from one nation to a neighbouring one, and they get reciprocally fertilised

(Taken from Lecture Notes c. 1916 Ben Uri Archives)

Visitors to the Ben Uri will currently be enjoying the Max Weber exhibition, showing the works of an artist who travelled to Paris and London for inspiration before returning to his adopted homeland of America.

Did you know that some of Ben Uri’s archives made their own transatlantic trip?

Some years ago, the original minute book of the founders of Ben Uri was discovered in New York at YIVO, the Yiddish archive centre. Yiddish was the language of choice of the first and second generation Jewish emigrants who started Ben Uri on 1st July 1915 in the melting pot that was the East End of London at that time.

Whitechapel 1914
Whitechapel 1914

As part of the centenary preparations copies of these minutes have been made and sent to the Ben Uri in London. They are currently in the process of being translated together with other early Ben Uri Yiddish material. The minute book is nearly 100 pages in length and covers the period 1916-1921. I have chosen just a few extracts to talk about in this first blog which, hopefully will give you a flavour of those early days.

A complete success: the first Ben Uri event is organised

Minutes 8 January 1916

These minutes only begin in January 1916 rather than when the Society was formed on 1st July 1915, and the reason become apparent in the very first sentence:

A discussion brought up the non attendance of the secretary Bezalel, with minutes and other issues. The committee was forced as a consequence, to appoint an assistant secretary to carry out this job.

The new secretary Judah Beach not only wrote these minutes but stayed committed to the Ben Uri until his death in 1964, at several times housing the Collection at his home.

Having disposed of the administrative problem of having no previous minutes, the Committee launch into a discussion of the more weighty issue of how to raise funds for the fledgling society. One idea is that subscriptions are sought to enable the publication of a booklet of drawings with individual substantive donors receiving in return an engraved brooch.

Discussions of the details and logistics of these proposals get ‘quite heated’ and it is agreed to postpone the discussion to a later meeting. Another suggestion which is enthusiastically agreed is to hold a Ben Uri concert and ball. 

A week later the minutes reported that the Crown Hall (at the Redman Road Talmud Torah) had been booked for 11 March and 500 tickets are being printed. It was decided to invite famous some Yiddish singers including the well known cantor recently arrived from Moscow, Jacques de Guzman, as well as other entertainers. The evening should have an ‘artistic character’. ‘The hall should be decorated and the participants should dress in fancy dress to portray the spirit of Ben Uri’.

soiree ball 1916
Soiree and Ball Programme 1916

Minutes 1 April 1916

‘A report was presented with regard to the concert and ball in which the moral tone was highlighted. We had a complete success and we can honestly say that this was perhaps, the only concert and ball in the East [End] which was that successfully managed. Also, financially speaking, we can say that our net profit up to now is between £25 – £30’.

This is the equivalent of £1800 today. One participant remembers poetry readings, liturgical performances, songs from the opera, violin and piano solos as well as a fancy dress competition. The event, apparently ended at 3am!

Chocolate and Bananas

Ben Uri dances and concerts became popular events generating much needed fundraising. The members were very keen to build up a substantive art collection and build a museum in which it could be appreciated. They wanted to create a centre to promote artistic endeavours and creativity both within their community and to a wider audience.

Here is a poster for a fancy dress ball in 1920 held at the Hampstead Conservatoire.

Ball 1920
Fancy Dress Ball 1920

Minutes 10 November 1921

For the following year’s ball in 1921 the minutes describe how, in order to save money, the Committee decided to provide the food themselves and we are given a list of donations including: ‘a bottle of brandy … milk, coffee and bread … 12 dozen [illegible] and 2 bottles of wine … 5lb sugar … 3 dozen bananas and 2lb chocolate … oranges … mineral (water) …, cheese and butter’.

This gives us an interesting idea of catering at dances at the time!

Ben Uri Greetings

ben uri greetings 1915
Ben Uri Greetings salutation by Lazar Berson

In my next blog I will be telling some more stories about the early days of the Ben Uri including a rather surprising visit to Hampstead but in the meantime I leave you, as Lazar Berson does, in this 1916 letter (above) with ‘Ben Uri Greetings’. Berson was the founder of the Ben Uri and wrote this letter shortly before he made his own transatlantic journey, but that’s a story for another time.