Isaac Rosenberg — a portrait as an artist

By Julia Weiner, March 28, 2008
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He is better known as a war poet, but Isaac Rosenberg, killed in action 90 years ago next week, was also a talented painter. As an exhibition celebrating his work opens in London,
Julia Weiner investigates his career as a visual artist

Isaac Rosenberg was killed on April 1 1918 while on night patrol in France during the First World War. He was 27 years old. The German sniper’s bullet that killed him snuffed out the life of a man who has since become regarded as one of the greatest of British war poets.

What is less well known about Rosenberg is that he was a talented artist, an important member of the modernist group known as the Whitechapel Boys, which included David Bomberg and Mark Gertler.

To mark the 90th anniversary of Rosenberg’s death, the Ben Uri Gallery in London has organised an exhibition exploring his work as a painter. It coincides with the launch of a new biography.

Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890, and brought up in Whitechapel in the East End of London. He showed a talent for drawing and writing at school, but by the age of 14 was apprenticed to a firm of engravers, a job he hated. Passionate about art and poetry, he read obsessively, scribbling verses during meal-times and spending his evenings at art classes at Birkbeck College in London. In 1911, he was sent to the Slade School of Art, paid for by wealthy Jewish benefactors. He joined the army in 1915 and was sent to the front in 1916.

Vivien Noakes, a Rosenberg scholar and editor of The Poems and Plays of Rosenberg, believes that he was one of the most important war poets. “Many critics now regard his poem Break of Day in the Trenches as the greatest poem of the First World War,” she says.

She laments the fact that he is not as celebrated as his contemporaries Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. “His background as a Jewish boy from a poor family in the East End certainly had something to do with it. Although his war poems were published in 1922, it was in a fairly small edition and so was not widely disseminated. Then, in the 1920s and 30s, when people first became interested in the war poets, the fact that he was not an officer affected the reception of his work. He also wrote much less than his contemporaries and is judged on just 10 or so war poems.”

Noakes regards him as an English poet rather than a Jewish poet. But he did explore his Jewish identity in some works, perhaps most notably The Jew, in which he examines his bewilderment at the antisemitism he experienced.

Bernard Wynick, Rosenberg’s nephew and literary executor, feels that he is an underrated figure even today. “On Armistice Day the national newspapers publish war poems, but they always choose Owen or Sassoon and never Rosenberg,” he says. It was Wynick’s mother Annie, one of Rosenberg’s sisters, who made great efforts to ensure that Rosenberg’s work should be better known by donating paintings, letters and other documents to public collections.

His work inspired the playwright Bernard Kops who, like him, came from a Jewish immigrant family that had settled in the East End. “As a young man I, like Rosenberg, used to visit the Whitechapel Library and I began to find out about more about him,” he says. “I then did a lot of research about him a few years ago for an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. And more recently he has featured in my own writing. I wrote a play set in the basement of Whitechapel Library in which the ghost of Isaac Rosenberg appears.”

Rosenberg’s reputation may be based on his writings, but, says Sarah MacDougall, the co-curator of the Ben Uri exhibition, his art deserves attention. “He began well. What he did is good work, and he definitely had talent. He was an important member of the Whitechapel Boys and he did make a contribution to early British modernism. In the end, partly because of the war, he decided to concentrate on the poetry. But of course we don’t know how he would have ended up. His was a life interrupted. He didn’t finish as a poet and he didn’t finish as a painter.”

The exhibition nevertheless charts Rosenberg’s development as an artist with around 50 works on show. These range from a watercolour he made while still at school at the age of 10 to drawings done in the trenches.

Self-portraits dominate, with 14 displayed. The main reason Rosenberg painted himself so many times was probably economic, says MacDougall. “He had very little money for sitters. But he was also introspective, and there are descriptions from his friends who record him sitting at the table looking in the mirror, trying to capture his image.”

Three of the self-portraits accompanied letters he sent home from the front. They are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London. “These are quite unique,” says museum curator Ulrike Smalley. “Most of our collection was commissioned from official war artists. In contrast, these were drawn by a serving soldier when it must have been so difficult to make art. They are so fragile and ephemeral.”

The last drawing by Rosenberg was also made in the trenches: a self-portrait drawn on wrapping paper showing him wearing his steel helmet. Richard Cork, an expert on First World War artists, says the piece is “very elegiac. His faint, almost ghost-like head emerges from the crumpled brown wrapping-paper. His old air of vigilance is still discernible, but softened now by a terminal sense of weakness. Rosenberg’s grasp of form here seems on the verge of dissolution, as though prophesying his death.”

Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and his Circle is at the Ben Uri Gallery, London NW8 from April 2-June 8

    Last updated: 3:41pm, June 3 2008