Rothenstein’s Relevance at The Ben Uri Gallery

RR poster

In January 2014 I visited the Ben Uri Gallery in north London and today I was back there again.  It’s very fortuitous that I happen to be dog-sitting again when another excellent show is on at the Gallery. Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) was born in Bradford and attended Bradford Grammar School and was a very significant figure in the art world in the first half of the 20th century.


Apart from him being an Old Bradfordian (as are both our sons) I came across his work during a Victorian Studies course where I chose portraits of women reading as an essay theme. The Browning Readers normally hangs in Cartwright Hall Gallery in Bradford but I was delighted to see it again today. I was also astonished to discover that I had missed another Rothenstein exhibition virtually on my doorstep at Cartwright Hall, Bradford: From Bradford to Benares : The Art of Sir William Rothenstein. Luckily, I’m on the Ben Uri mailing list. (I’ve now subscribed to Bradford Museums’ list) Many of the pictures are on loan from northern galleries and, in particular, Bradford Museums.

Browning Readers

The Browning Readers

Alice (Rothenstein’s wife) and her sister Grace (future wife of William Orpen) modelled for The Browning Readers in the living room of his cottage in Edwardes Square, Kensington. This was the third of his compositions expressing admiration for the poet Robert Browning. Rothenstein’s biographer (Robert Speaight) has noted how it also ‘had an uncovenanted influence on interior decoration. The brass plate, and blue and white vase, with branches of spring blossom, which were the only adornment of the mantelpiece, started a craze for simplicity’. [Adapted from gallery notes]

Anyway, back to the actual exhibition, which has been perfectly curated on the two floors of the gallery. On the ground floor [entrance] is an introduction to Rothenstein’s work and examples of his Jewish Rituals series painted between 1904 and 1907 and exhibited here alongside another work with which I’m very familiar, normally on display at Leeds City Art Gallery, Jacob Kramer’s Day of AtonementIn 1903 Rothenstein took a studio in Spital Square, Whitechapel and invited several older men from the local synagogue to sit for him.

grd floor ben uri

Entrance area to Ben Uri Gallery

Below stairs in the basement are the portraits and war paintings. The Browning Readers greets you at the bottom of the stairs in a room of Rothenstein’s Bradford and Gloucester portraits. His are less a celebration of celebrity or individual contemporary characters but rather they depict highly decorative costumes, social or religious characters and close familial relationships.

Miss Grant

Miss Grant [c1925]

Moritz R

Moritz Rothenstein (Father) [c1900]

Bertha R

Bertha Rothenstein (Mother) [c1900]

Coster Girls

Coster Girls [1894]

Coster Woman

The Coster Woman by Mark Gertler [1923]

Rothenstein’s three Gloucestershire portraits also appear here; the gardener and priest courtesy of Bradford Museums and the thatcher from Manchester City Galleries.

Ol Gardener

The Old Gardener [c1930]

village priest

The Village Priest [c1925]

Glos portraits

Eli the Thatcher [c1913]

The final room focusses on Rothenstein’s role as an official war artist in both the first and second world wars. In 1916 Lord Northcliffe decided that Britain should send distinguished artists to the front to record the fighting and its effects. His were desolate landscapes, shattered trees, ruined buildings with no human presence. He sketched whilst under fire, helped in hospitals and practiced his limited Hindi on Indian soldiers. He was later involved in the Canadian War Memorial scheme in France.

Blasted trees

Blasted Trees

Bourlon wood

Bourlon Wood, by Eric Kennington [1919]

It was an unusual distinction to be war artist in both world wars but due to his age and health he did not travel abroad during the Second World War. He produced a series of 40 drawings of RAF pilots published in 1942 by the Oxford University Press under the title ‘Men of the RAF’. His wartime pictures are accompanied by comparative works by Eric Kennington in the first war and Barnett Freedman in the second.

In addition to this show the Ben Uri Gallery is celebrating its centenary with an exhibition in a much larger space  – The Inigo Rooms at Somerset House. Out of Chaos explores a century of emigré history in London through the hidden treasures of the Ben Uri Collections. And some of Rothenstein’s work is owned by the Tate Gallery; notably, The Dolls House (currently on display) and Mother and Child (not currently on display).


2 comments on “Rothenstein’s Relevance at The Ben Uri Gallery

  1. nilly says:

    Thank you for this! We did see the excellent Cartwright Hall exhibition which included some of the above paintings, The Browning Readers for example. I look forward to your impressions of the newly-refurbished York Art Gallery should you visit – it is impressive and a very enjoyable experience. It was free with our Art Fund card too.

    • Oh, lucky you! Of course, I’ve seen the Browning Readers at Cartwright Hall and can’t believe I missed the Rothenstein show earlier this year. Ben Uri is free anyway but my Art Fund card is invaluable especially as it helps all sizes and types of museums and galleries to buy works for us to see. Must get to York this winter.

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