Teenager’s lockdown project displayed at the Royal Academy

I never met zayde, but I brought him back — and into the Royal Academy


A teenager’s lockdown project to paint a portrait of his grandfather based on a pre-war school photograph has won a competition to be displayed at the Royal Academy – and triggered a poignant search to find out what became of his zayde’s classmates.

Sixteen-year-old Jacob Venit, an amateur artist, was looking through old pictures of his grandfather, Maurice, when one that leapt out at him.

The photograph, taken in July 1930, shows Maurice — second row from the back, wearing a smart, navy jacket — standing solemnly among 40 nine-year-old boys at Stepney Jewish Primary School in London.

In his painting, Jacob meticulously rendered each face in black and white to match their photographic image, but colourised the boys’ clothes to striking effect.

He submitted it to the Royal Academy’s Young Artists’ Summer Show. Now in its third year, it is a free, open submission exhibition for students aged five to 19. The 33,000 artworks are judged by artists and arts professionals, with selected pieces displayed online and at the gallery from July 13 until August 8.

By painting his grandfather in his youth, with life stretching out ahead of him, Jacob could establish a personal link to the man he never met, who would have been 100 in May this year.

But there was more to his fascination with the picture. “I wondered what the other boys would be doing now,” he said. “I wanted to know how many of them fought in the Second World War, and who survived.”

Jacob is hoping that people will get in touch if they recognise members of their own families among the group of nine-year-olds. “They all look so familiar. I feel as though I have met their children or grandchildren”, said Jacob’s mother, Caroline Bourne.

Stepney Jewish Primary School closed in 1969 when it moved to Redbridge. But the class of 1930 will be returning to Jacob’s home after going on show at the Royal Academy.

“There was the option to sell the painting, but I didn’t want that,” says Jacob. “It’s sentimental.”

Maurice joined the RAF at the outbreak of war in 1939 and went on to be a cloth trader, selling at Harlow market.

Jacob, whose family are members of Brondesbury Park Synagogue, said: “I started painting just faces with no bodies, but then I wanted to give them some life.”

He didn’t begin the painting with his grandfather, preferring to leave the most meaningful part for last.

“I started at the front and worked my way up,” he said. “I began it last May with about five or six faces, and then stopped until December. It took me about an hour to paint each face, and then maybe a bit more than that for each of the bodies.”

Jacob only succeeded in entering the painting just before the Royal Academy deadline.

There was a wait of about a month until he and his family heard that his painting had won. Ms Bourne said: “We are thrilled and we are all really proud of him.”

Jacob added that he was “quite excited” to find the Stepney boys were going on display, something he had never imagined when beginning the project.

“I just wanted to challenge myself with a lockdown project,” he said. Although he used to paint and draw cartoons and animations when he was younger, has now been “bitten by the painting bug” and is taking commissions for portraits.

Jacob is not sure whether he wants to become a full-time artist — but he is doing art A-level.

Art runs in the family on his mother’s side. “My grandfather did a lot of painting, making puppets, sculpture, and I used to do a lot of art,” she said.

“But he’s better than me.”

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