Frame and fortune: 18 decades of celebrating Jewish art

Since its first publication, the JC has ensured that the achievements of Jewish artists, designers, curators and collectors have been recorded for posterity


From celebrating the achievements of Solomon Alexander Hart, who became the first Jewish Royal Academician in 1840, to interviews with leading contemporary artists of Jewish heritage including sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor and ceramicist Edmund de Waal, the JC has been covering major art stories almost since its inception.

You could almost call the paper a patron of the Jewish arts — and over the years I have been privileged to be one of those introducing some of its major figures to readers.

Among others, I have interviewed American feminist artist Judy Chicago and leading Israeli artists such as Michal Rovner.

The JC first mentioned the fine arts in 1843, praising the work of a new young talent, Abraham Solomon, whose painting, now sadly lost, was of “a synagogue reader on the steps of the ark, with the Sepher in his hands, and in the act of proclaiming Shema Yisrael”.

The correspondent encouraged the community to commission work from Solomon so that the artist could become a “credit of our national capabilities in the fine arts”.

With Hart and Solomon showing regularly at the Royal Academy (RA), it was not surprising that in 1845 the first exhibition review appeared, with the correspondent quick to emphasise that “without assuming either qualifications or the responsibilities of criticism, we undertake a pleasing and not inappropriate task, in enumerating the productions which the exhibition contains, honourable to artists of the Jewish nation”.

Whilst the reviews appeared only intermittently, they are very useful ways of tracking Jewish artists of the 19th century. They include sisters Julia and Kate Salaman, who showed at the RA from the 1840s onwards and were among the earliest British Jewish women artists.

In 1858, the JC praised the work of Abraham Solomon’s younger siblings, Rebecca and Simeon, both of whom were involved with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Simeon, whose early work was often of Jewish subjects, was regularly discussed in its pages. Simeon famously fell from favour and polite society after being arrested for homosexual offences in 1873.

In February 1905, the JC reported on his death finishing the short obituary with the lines: “Simeon Solomon gave way to debauchery, suffered from mental disease, and became a charge on the benevolence of his family.” Unfortunately for the paper, Simeon was not actually dead and a week later the paper published an apology for “statements which we greatly regret to have made”.

When Simeon did die a few months later, the same obituary was republished with the offending lines removed.

The second Jewish RA was Solomon J Solomon, whose many successes were chronicled in the JC, as were those of his sister, Lily Delissa Joseph. Her Self Portrait, in which she shows herself with head covered and Shabbat candles, now in the Ben Uri Collection, was described in the JC. In March 1912, a review of her exhibition at the Baillie Gallery ended with an apology from her husband for her absence at the private view because she was “detained at Holloway Gaol on a charge in connection with the Women’s Suffrage Movement”.

In 1906, the JC published an 11-page illustrated supplement covering the major exhibition of Jewish Art and Antiquities at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which included paintings by European Jewish artists, including Camille Pissarro, Jozef Israëls and Max Liebermann, alongside those of British artists.

Interestingly, the catalogue stressed that the aim of participating artists was the “continual assimilation with the single object in this country of advancing the honour and the glory of the British school” and in the year after the Aliens Act, most works by British artists showed the successes of British Jewry. It was left to Eastern European Jewish artists to record the horrors of the pogroms.

A new group of young Jewish artists from immigrant backgrounds, including David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Jacob Kramer and Bernard Meninsky, funded by loans from the Jewish Education Aid Society which allowed them to train at the Slade School of Art, soon attracted the attention of the JC.

In 1914, as part of the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s major exhibition Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements, Bomberg curated a “Jewish Section” with sculptor Jacob Epstein where the works of these Whitechapel Boys (and one girl, Clara Birnberg) were displayed alongside those of modernist Paris-based Jewish artists including Amedeo Modigliani and Jules Pascin.

Bomberg spoke of his decision to paint in the Futurist style in an interview in 1914 explaining that modern life “should find its expression in a new art, which has been stimulated by new perceptions”. A JC review of the exhibition was not at all complimentary, with the reviewer noting, “We have no desire to be thought uncharitable, but if [Bomberg’s] In the Hold is a work of art, we never wish to pen another criticism.” The painting is now in the Tate collection.

European refugees from Nazism made a considerable impact on many aspects of British society. Nowhere was this better represented than in the contribution made by Jewish artists, designers and architects who had fled Europe to the 1951 Festival of Britain.

The JC pointed out in its coverage of the opening that many of those involved were refugees and commented: “Each has doubtless added something of his own to a trend of design that is having a great influence on future work in England.”

FHK Henrion designed two pavilions for the festival and later produced some of the best-known trademarks in Britain, including for Tate & Lyle and the National Theatre. Designer Jacqueline Groag’s sculptural screen in the Dome of Discovery later inspired her some of her famous textile designs, which also included moquettes for London Transport.

The festival emblem itself was designed by East End-born Abram Games, who had already made a name for himself as the only official war poster designer of the Second World War. He went on to design a series of inventive and witty covers for the JC’s Rosh Hashanah editions from 1967 onwards and a fifth of his work was made for Jewish organisations, usually free of charge.

Émigré artists whose works were exhibited at the festival included Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund, who had fled Berlin as a child; Josef Herman, whose Warsaw family had all perished in the Holocaust; and Hans Feibusch, whose work was included in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition, put on by the Nazis in 1937.

Freud, fellow refugee from Nazism Frank Auerbach, East Ender Leon Kossoff and American RB Kitaj were close friends, a group Kitaj described as the School of London. Kitaj himself wrote an article for the JC in 1984 pondering on the nature of Jewish art and whether his own paintings could be considered as such.

I started writing for the JC in 1993 and a year later was interviewing the renowned sculptor Sir Anthony Caro on the occasion of his 70th birthday; he told me of his wish to make a Holocaust memorial.

Other memorable interviews were with the heads of our leading art galleries, including Sir Nicholas Serota, then director of the Tate, as he launched the campaign to turn a disused power station into Tate Modern, which in 2019 became Britain’s most visited attraction. I also interviewed Norman Rosenthal about the 1997 Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition of works from the collection of Charles Saatchi as well as other leading Jewish collectors Frank Cohen and Anita Zabludowicz.

In the 180 years since its first publication, the JC has ensured that the achievements of Jewish artists, designers, curators and collectors have been recorded for posterity with many having the opportunity to recoin interviews their thoughts on their Jewish identity.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive