Tag Archives: History of Art

Hopscotch in the Archives: Reflections from the Ben Uri Researcher in Residence

This post was contributed by Dr Lily Ford, of Birkbeck University of London and researcher in residence at the Ben Uri Gallery. This article was originally posted on the Creativeworks London blog

Dr Lily Ford

Dr Lily Ford

In the summer of 1915, a group of Eastern European Londoners gathered around a charismatic newly arrived émigré and pledged their commitment to nurturing and disseminating Jewish art.

By the end of a July night at a Whitechapel restaurant, they had officially formed the ‘Jewish/Yiddish National Decorative Art Association Ben Ouri’. The Ben Uri has lasted a century, weathering changes of location, of emphasis, of context and indeed of name, yet always held together and steered by the passion and dedication of a small group of enthusiasts.

When it comes to finding out more about the society’s early years – my job as Researcher in Residence – the drawbacks of this endeavour are evident. Who archives a labour of love? All those involved in setting up the Ben Uri were already keeping their own small businesses going, and the society’s meetings were scheduled around busy lives, on Saturdays and Sundays, often at 9pm.

The minutes of these meetings were recorded at times conscientiously, and at times sporadically, with gaps going from a few months to a few years in duration. They were written in haste, and, between 1916 and 1924, in Yiddish. The society’s paperwork from this period – letters on headed paper, pamphlets and programmes, even major endeavours such as the inaugural Ben Uri album – survives in a haphazard manner. It is impossible to trace all the society’s activities in this period; instead, I play a game of hopscotch, leaping over the gaps to land on the primary and secondary evidence that is available, and inferring links and connections.

Judah Beach

The First World War cannot be blamed for this patchy record-keeping, though of course Ben Uri’s first three years of existence took place in a London deeply affected by events on the continent: not just the conflict with Germany, but the Russian Revolution and its implications for British attitudes towards the large minority of Eastern European Jews mostly resident in the capital.

It was I think, far more that Ben Uri committee members were always too tied up in the here and now – how to expand the art collection, who to appeal to for funds, where to find an institutional home – to bother with archival protocols. The one exception to this, and the reason that any work at all can be done on the society’s early years, is the Polish-born tailor and founder committee member Judah Beach.

It was Beach who penned the minutes that have, somewhat miraculously, come back to the Ben Uri after spending decades at YIVO in New York, where they were sent in the 1970s. Beach, too, was the only member in this period to collect cuttings about the society from London’s Yiddish press, which he pasted into an album, alongside scraps of correspondence and fragments of speeches. And it was Beach who offered the society’s growing collection of artworks a home, at his own residence in West Hampstead, during the many years between 1916 and 1929 when the Ben Uri had no base of its own.

Increasing access to the society’s history

Luckily for us, Beach had his counterparts as time went on, and the Ben Uri’s archive for the fascinating period of the 1930s, and for the second half of the twentieth century, is more complete. There is significant scholarship in existence already on these later periods, much of it the work of curator Rachel Dickson and head of collections Sarah MacDougall. The writer and historian David Mazower conducted his own investigations into the mysterious founder of the society, Lazar Berson, which took him across Europe to find the only known example of the Ben Uri’s first publication from 1916.

But recent developments have enabled increased access to the society’s history: over the last eighteen months the archive has been closely scrutinised and catalogued by a dedicated archivist, Claire Jackson, and the Yiddish material has been translated by a team of postdoctoral experts under Dr Helen Beer at UCL. This has provided a rich set of resources from which to reconstruct some of the stories and circumstances around the activities of these art-loving Londoners one hundred years ago.

The challenges

This is not to say that researching the Ben Uri is without its frustrations. From a documentary perspective, the founding members are difficult to profile. While some, notably the jeweller and Yiddish writer Moysheh Oved, published several books including an autobiography, in English, most of the active figures were less prolific, and less confessional.

Beach’s only published output, apart from contributions to Ben Uri catalogues, is a collection of Yiddish short stories (which had previously appeared in Yiddish literary journals), not available in English. Some of the names which appear most often in the minutes as keen contributors to the society’s activities between 1916 and 1926 – Miss Margolis, Madame Dr Zarchi, Mr Chechanover, Mr Lush – are absent from any other records I have been able to consult.

The challenges of transliteration from Yiddish add a layer of confusion: not only is the English spelling of a name decided by the translator or record keeper, and may vary each time it appears, but furthermore, Ben Uri members signed off with different versions of their names depending on the context. Judah Beach was the anglicised form of Yehudah Pshibish, which Beach sometimes used, but a third version of his name, Bietsch, is used in relation to his Yiddish literary work. Moysheh Oyved or Oved was a penname adopted in 1917 by Edward Good, who regretted having anglicised his name from Edouard Goodak when he set up his first business in London, but both Good and Oved are used interchangeably in Ben Uri’s minutes. Indeed one programme from 1922 lists him twice, as Edward Good, Ben Uri treasurer, and as Moysheh Oyved, poet.

Ben Uri’s brand of ‘national’ Jewish art

In a way, Good/Oved’s inhabiting of both roles tells us much about the complexion of the Ben Uri at this time, as an outlet for an immigrant community necessarily focused on establishing a secure living and a social and economic place in London. It was an outlet that permitted the expression of a deeply felt cultural and spiritual identity, one different to that of the more assimilated and non-Yiddish speaking Anglo-Jewish community of Central, North and West London.

Ben Uri’s brand of ‘national’ Jewish art was not straightforwardly Zionist, though the society maintained a relationship with the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, and considered at one low point in the 1920s sending the collection there for good. It was by nature not religious, and always in contention with the orthodox Jewish veto on figurative art. It was, rather, concerned with expressing, as Lisa Tickner has noted, ‘a secular Yiddish culture under diasporic conditions’[1].

It is this remit, of furnishing a diasporic community with the cultural resources necessary to formulate and reflect upon identity, that makes the Ben Uri such a relevant organisation today. The present situation, in which the Ben Uri celebrates its centenary with a six-month residency in Somerset House, was certainly beyond the expectations of the founding committee, though not beyond its ambitions.

I hope that my own research, to be presented in July, will help reveal some of the fascinating conditions under which this story began one hundred years ago.

Out of Chaos: Ben Uri: 100 Years in London, runs from 2 July – 13 December 2015 at Somerset House.


Dr Lily ford did her PhD, ‘Airminded: the cultural impact of flight and aerial photography in 1920s Britain’, in Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art, finishing in March 2015. As a Birkbeck postgrad student she was eligible to apply for a Researcher-in-Residence grant in December 2014.

This allows an early career researcher from any of Creativeworks London’s partner universities to team up with a cultural institution/SME and spend up to six months carrying out a research project together.

The Ben Uri gallery was seeking a researcher to look into some newly translated archival material and find out more about their foundation 100 years ago in Whitechapel, and since the period mapped well with that of Dr Ford’s PhD research it was an ideal opportunity to explore a totally different aspect of early twentieth century cultural life.

She has been working with the gallery’s archive part time since February and will finish in July, when she will deliver a paper with her findings in their exhibition space and, with them, look into publication possibilities for a long article. 

Creativeworks London brings new collaborative research opportunities to London’s creative businesses. Comprising thirty-eight London-based universities, colleges, museums, libraries and archives, together, the members have unrivalled skills and expertise that can be of benefit to businesses who are interested in exploring areas such as entrepreneurial development, emerging markets, new ways of engaging London’s diverse audiences, and the development of digital resources and media content.

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[1] Lisa Tickner. Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2000) p. 165.


Visit to Eton College Chapel

Students on Birkbeck’s BA History of Art visited Eton College Chapel in November with Lecturer in Renaissance Art Dr Joanne Anderson. Three students give their accounts of the visit.


Sheelagh Daley, part-time 3rd-year student – BA History of Art

The visit to Eton College was a unique opportunity to see an English mural cycle not just in its original location, but also still in the context for which it was painted – that of a working chapel. This made it much easier to think about the original context for the mural and to appreciate the complexity of the cycle as well as see how the mural cycle related to the rest of the building. This gave me an insight into how the mural paintings we have looked at on the course worked in practice. As an additional treat we were shown a secular wall painting in the Master’s study which gave an insight into medieval pedagogy as well as classroom discipline for naughty boys, which I’m glad that Birkbeck doesn’t emulate. Overall it was a truly memorable visit.

Kristina Dolgilevica, part-time 4th-year student – BA History of Art

I am a Year 4 student of art history at Birkbeck. When studying an academic subject it is important to venture out of the classroom – particularly if the subject contains a lot of visual material. At Birkbeck, on average, we have four trips/ gallery visits per year. Our recent trip to Eton College Chapel to see the 15th-century wall paintings was a real treat – I got to see the artwork in its original context, which without a doubt has contributed to my way of thinking about the subject, and is something you cannot get by looking at a photograph. Moreover, our group got to meet the people who work on site; they provided us with some valuable information and were very welcoming. I guess one of the most important aspects of venturing out of the classroom is that you get to spend more time with your group in an informal setting and discuss the subject you study in more detail, in a more relaxed environment. If I had to choose one word to describe our recent trip, it would be – stimulating!

Sue Prior, part-time student 3rd year – BA History of Art

Our trip to Eton was great; an excellent opportunity to get out of the lecture room and see some works of art in context. I enjoyed being able to sit in the chapel surrounded by the murals and with Joanne’s explanation of the scheme, imagine how they would have been viewed at the time. Seeing the predominantly grisaille frescoes in the flesh, we were able to really see the depth and contrast the artist managed to achieve with the limited colour palette.  It was an informative and fun afternoon.


Monsters and Phantoms

This post was contributed by Oyedepo Olukotun a student on Birkbeck’s MA History Of Art with Photography.

In Professor T.J. Clark’s talk Was Picasso a Woman? : Reflections on Nude, Green Leaves and Bust hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities on Friday June 7 to accompany the launch of his book Picasso And Truth: From Cubism To Guernica, it soon became clear that Picasso was not gender swapping but was casting himself as a woman artistically. Speaking even artistically, in light of statements Clark attributes to Picasso, the notion of the artist as a woman seemed far-fetched. “I would love to paint like a blind man who pictures an arse by the way it feels” or “Like any artist, I am primarily the painter of woman, and for me, woman is essentially a machine for suffering” did not lend credence to Picasso’s case.

Monsters and Phantoms

In light of the above statements Picasso’s terse “I am a woman” is soon sidelined. However, what proceeded to catch my attention in Professor Clark’s talk, which focused on Picasso’s Nude, Green leaves and Bust (1932) and Nude on a Black Sofa (1932), was Clark’s periodical refrain of “monsters and phantoms”. In Lecture 4 of his book, Clark embarks on an analysis of Picasso’s The Painter and His Model (1927) to explore the artist’s fixation with monsters. At a basic level Clark, in his capacity as a social art historian, aims to divorce Picasso’s art, one painting at a time, from a connoisseurial or biographical interpretation.

The transcendental truth that Clark reveals in Picasso’s paintings is the long tradition of art with the objectification of women. That Western art depicts women the way it does is a practice Picasso inherited from a deep-rooted tradition as the British Museum’s Ice Age art: Arrival of the modern mind exhibition has shown us. That this depiction is because he is artistically a woman and Picasso’s sexualised reasons for his stance made for fascinating and revelatory observation in Clark’s talk. Further on Picasso’s stance aligned with his depiction of women as monsters makes for an interesting juxtaposition in Clark’s book and talk.

Women as Monsters

The practice of depicting women as monsters may or may not have began with Picasso however it is not unique to him. In her article The MoMA’s Hot Mamas Carol Duncan points us in the direction of artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Willem de Kooning and Robert Heinecken who, among many, depict women as monstrous, grotesque, menacing and castrating. Duncan uses Picasso’s paintings as a prime example of this genre of women deprecating art; this would have met with the approval of the artist who, according to Clark, was concerned with posterity.

Clark, fascinatingly, traces for us the genealogy and journey of Picasso’s monstrous women and sets us up for the excitement of discovering the truth that transcends autobiography in art which would explain the root of the emotion that has led artists to depict women as monsters.