Whitechapel At War - Isaac Rosenberg And His Circle At The Ben Uri Gallery

By Rebecca Duncan | 11 April 2008
a portrait in chalks on brown paper of a man in a british steel helmet and uniform

Isaac Rosenberg, Self-Portrait in a Steel Helmet, 1916. Private Collection

Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg And His Circle at the Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art until June 8 2008.

A new exhibition celebrating war poet and painter Isaac Rosenberg has opened at The London Jewish Museum of Art.

The exhibition is the sixth part in the series The Whitechapel Boys exploring the lives and works of the group of London-based Jewish artists, all born, raised or working in and around the East End in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

It is the first time in over 15 years that an exhibition has been dedicated to the work of Rosenberg. It is also the first to fully explore Rosenberg’s art in the context of his Whitechapel Peers including David Bomberg and John Rocker. More than 50 paintings, drawings, manuscripts, and portraits are on display amongst other artefacts.

Now regarded as one of the finest war poets of his generation, Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890. Despite his poverty stricken background of Whitechapel, he began to take pride in writing and drawing as a young boy.

At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a firm of Fleet Street engravers and, passionate about art and poetry, he spent many meal times scribbling verses. He read extensively and took up studying art at Birkbeck College in the evenings where he won many prizes for drawing and life studies.

From 1911-1914 he studied at the Slade School of Art along with many of his contemporaries which he had formed strong bonds with in Whitechapel. In his first year at college he won a prize for head painting.

a portrait of a woman with short dark hair

Isaac Rosenberg, Portrait of Sonia, c. 1915. © Miss Joan Rodker

He then visited South Africa where he stayed until 1915 when he returned to England to join the army. He was sent to the Front in 1916 where he remained until his early death on April 1 1918.

Rosenberg published only two collections, Night And Day (1912) and Youth (1915) together with the play Moses (1916), during his lifetime. His small collection of poetry and painting, which reveals his talent for portraiture, has since amazed artists and audiences. His young death is often regarded as a loss of a fine talent.

Laurence Binyon wrote: “His true vocation was poetry, and he thought of himself as a poet rather than as a painter.” However, throughout his poetry and his painting, Rosenberg endeavoured to reflect the ongoing struggle between modernism and tradition, which was an ongoing debate at the time.

The exhibition contains many donated works from both private and public collections including self-portraits, and some little-known portraits of Rosenberg by his Slade contemporaries.

The exhibition also coincides with the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

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