In the first week of October Mark Weiss would normally, as London’s pre-eminent exponent of early northern European portraiture, be showing Tudor, Stuart and Flemish masterpieces to deep-pocketed collectors at Frieze Masters. However, this year he is eschewing Regents Park to mount an exhibition of pictures by his late father, Ivor Weiss, many featuring a wealth of tallit, tefilin and Torah scrolls.
For a non-religious man, Weiss, who died in 1986, produced an impressive body of paintings of orthodox Jews at prayer. Many hang in private collections worldwide but the bulk have not been shown since 2005.
Powerful though these paintings - and the portraits of secular figures and landscapes which accompany them - are, it was lack of wall space as well as the desire to pay tribute which prompted the exhibition, the gallerist admits:
“Our mother passed away in January and finding 100 or so of our father’s paintings in the house it seemed an apposite moment to celebrate both their lives with a show,” he says, speaking for siblings Julian and Debra.
Although prolific, Weiss, born in 1919 to Romanian immigrants, reached middle age before taking inspiration from his early life in Stepney, says his eldest son: “The Jewish pictures started just after he’d had a triple bypass in 1970, a catalyst for him wanting to go back to his heritage.
“He was drawn to the faces captured by Vishniac, who photographed Jews in the ghettos before the Holocaust, but he was also inspired by memories of his early life within a deeply Orthodox environment.”
Weiss had started started painting 30 years earlier, managing to study while enlisted during World War II, when he attended art classes in Egypt and Malta. Later, at St Martins School of Art, he not only completed his education but met his future wife, Joan.
In 1950 the couple jetted off to Alabama to join Weiss’s brother, an RAF pilot seconded to the USA who promised a good life in Montgomery while Britain struggled under rationing. The couple started an art school, but their liberal practice of holding multi-racial classes was at odds with a segregated society, and by 1955 they were back home with two small boys.
Weiss taught first at Lancing public school, later in Brightlingsea, Essex, where the family set up home. Weiss made pottery, enamelwork and furniture as well as teaching and painting - his work has been exhibited at the RA and the Whitechapel Gallery as well as internationally and is held in the collections of Cambridge University and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art
The couple later diversified into restoring and exhibiting art, establishing a gallery in Colchester. But a few years after joining the business, Mark, a self-taught art historian, established a niche in 16th and 17th century portraiture, parlaying a great eye for a picture into more than one astonishing coup. In 2002 he spotted an original portrait of Louis XIII mistakenly catalogued as a copy, scooped it up for £40,000 and later sold it to an American art museum for £650,000. It helped his move to 59 Jermyn Street, one of the last truly grand gallery spaces in London, where the Ivor Weiss show opens on October 2.
Regardless of how many pictures sell for the five-figure sum Weiss expects, the community will benefit from donations to suitable institutions keen to put them on view: “The subject matter seems suitable for the Jewish Museum and Ben Uri Gallery, both of whom we have invited to come and take a look,” he says.
Ivor Weiss's paintings will be on show at 59 Jermyn Street October 2-20.