Over 100 JEECS members and Isaac Rosenberg aficionados gathered in St John’s Wood, north London, on Sunday May 26 to celebrate the great East End artist and poet’s artistic and literary legacy in an event organised by JEECS with the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, who hosted this fantastic evening.
We were given a warm, East End Jewish welcome by Vivi Lachs and her Klezmer Klub (Jon Petter on clarinet and Gabriel Ellenberg on accordion), who serenaded guests exuberantly with Yiddish songs such as Dray Shvester (The Three Sisters of Leicester Square). Of course, tea and an array of splendid homemade cakes from the synagogue members and Rinkoff’s bakers went down equally well with the audience.
No sooner than we were seated in the main synagogue than a superbly choreographed show began with a biographical presentation from well-known biographer, Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson. This ran through the evening and we learned, or were reminded, of how Rosenberg never had the advantages of fellow First World War poets such as Rupert Brooke or was fitted for the practicalities of life. And he aspired and achieved greatly as a writer and artist until his premature death before his 30th year on the battlefields of France in 1918.
It was fascinating to hear how his father, Barnett, brought the family to London from Bristol and was staggered to find that he could not just enrol his son at Jews’ Free School (JFS). Indeed, the door of the school was slammed in his face when he failed to argue the case with a formidable doorman. He settled the family, with five children including Isaac, in poor lodgings in Cable Street and peddled to pay the rent, while the sensitive Isaac faced the drunks, sailors and prostitutes of the area and discovered very quickly that London’s streets were not paved with gold.
It was Mr Usherwood, the head teacher of St. Paul’s Church of England Primary School in Wellclose Square, who saw Isaac’s budding artistic talents and arranged for him to study arts and crafts once a week in a Stepney Green school.
Interspersed in the recounting of Rosenberg’s life were readings of extracts of his poems and letters, alongside wonderful musical interludes by the tenor Phillip Bell and pianist Simon Haynes, including London, William Blake’s words to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music.
Returning to Rosenberg’s early years, we learned that family poverty meant that Isaac had to leave school at 14. The compromise to pursuing art was that he became an apprentice to a Fleet Street engraver, a career route that Blake himself had gone down paving the way for the latter’s magnificent designs. Rosenberg, though, lamented in a letter how he was “bound to this fiendish mangling machine”!
He produced self-portraits after enrolling in the School of Art at Birkbeck College, and we were shown a slide of his famous painting, looking to the right with a trilby hat aloft, that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. He also met Mark Gertler and David Bomberg, and his unrequited love, Clara Birmberg, who formed part of the ‘Whitechapel Boys (and Girl)’ group resident in the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Library. His writing was given a boost by the advocacy of Ezra Pound, despite considering the Londoner “horribly rough” (read Jewish), through the Chicago journal, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.
Rosenberg was awkward and stiffly independent, which made it hard to attract patrons. He was described by his friend, Sonia Cohen, as “in speech, low toned and unemphatic” compared with the more charismatic ‘Bomb’ (Bomberg). He also failed to attract Jewish Education Aid Committee funding to attend the Slade and had prematurely organised a release from his engraving apprenticeship. This led to an abortive attempt by the famous writer, Israel Zangwill, to press for his re-engagement; success was not made likely when Zangwill combatively added in an appeal to the master that Rosenberg was “dismissed for slackness... presumably yours”!
Greater help was obtained from his circle of friends, with tutoring work found, and Mrs Cohen funded his three year course at the Slade where he studied with many of the ‘Whitechapel Boys’ and Jacob Kramer, the latter protecting five foot two inch Rosenberg from the anti-Semitism of fellow students. His art undoubtedly gained from working with prominent peers such as Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts and C.R.W. Nevinson. Yet his poor health (in his lungs) precipitated his departure from the Slade and he went to visit his sister, Minnie and her husband in South Africa.
We saw slides of Rosenberg enjoying a productive artistic spell in Cape Town, with more paintings ensuing in eight months than in the previous two years, and falling in love with one subject – the actress Marda Vanne. Yet, lacking paid work and missing the cultural life of London town, he returned to England in February 1915 to conclude “that strange time in my life”, as he later wrote.
Financial pressure meant that eight months into World War One, on Pound’s suggestion, Rosenberg enlisted as a private in the army, and was posted to one of the Bantam battalions. He joked in a letter that when the King came to inspect them, “he must have waited for us to stand up for a while”!
Illustrious poets Michael Rosen and Elaine Feinstein lent immense prestige and passion to the evening. Michael Rosen read some of Rosenberg’s magnificent poems written in between his works division duties in the trenches, such as ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ and ‘Louse-Hunting’. Elaine Feinstein read her own poem, ‘April Fool’s Day’, dedicated to Rosenberg (see below).
Jean Moorcroft Wilson told us that, within a fortnight of his one, short leave period in 22 months of war service – just 10 days back in London –flu led to Rosenberg’s hospitalisation. During this time his battalion suffered huge losses. For the poet, mud was “where men sink and where their souls sink”.
On April 1,1918, Isaac Rosenberg was killed on night patrol by a German raiding party. His remains were not found.
His works are included in every significant war anthology and have earned him a place in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
As Elaine Feinstein’s poem reflects, ‘A nudge from Ezra Pound took him to War’ and, speaking to Isaac, who was only 27 when he died, ‘Yours was a life half lived, if even that, and the remains of it were never found. But we remember your iron honey gold. Your cosmopolitan rat.’
This was an event planned and performed to exacting standards, very moving and with musicians and authors of the highest calibre bringing Rosenberg’s story and works to life. Special mention must be made of Jean Moorcroft Wilson who wrote the script, the arrangement by the Liberal Jewish Synagogue’s musical director, Cathy Heller-Jones, and of course JEECS chairman, Clive Bettington.
Elaine Feinstein, ‘April Fools’ Day'
In Memory of Isaac Rosenberg
Does anybody know what it was all for?
Not Private Rosenberg, short as John Keats.
A nudge from Ezra Pound took him to War,
to sleep on boards, in France, with rotting feet,
writing his poetry by candle ends.
He knew his fellow soldiers found him odd.
Outsiders never easily make friends
if they are awkward – with a foreign God.
He should have stayed in Cape Town with his sister.
Did he miss Marsh's breakfasts at Gray's Inn,
or Café Royal? He longed for the centre
but he was always shy round Oxbridge toffs –
he lacked the sexy eyes of Mark Gertler –
and his Litvak underlip could put them off.
'From Stepney East!' as Pound wrote Harriet
'Ma che!' while sending poems to her.
You died on April Fools' Day on patrol,
beyond the corpses lying in the mud,
carrying up the line a barbed wire roll
– useless against gun fire – with the blood
and flesh of Death in the Spring air.
Yours was a life half lived, if even that,
and the remains of it were never found. But we remember
your iron honey gold. Your cosmopolitan rat.
This poem appears in Elaine Feinstein’s new collection, ‘Portraits’ (Carcanet Press, 2015). Paperback £8.99. ISBN: 978 1 847772 15 2
Award-winning poet Elaine Feinstein reads from one of Rosenberg's works while Michael Rosen (back) looks on and tenor Philip Bell prepares for the next, highly evocative song
Vivi Lachs and her two fellow musicians, Gabriel Ellenberg (accordion) and Jon Petter (clarinet), evoke the East End of Rosenberg's childhood. Jean Moocroft Wilson, at the podium, told the story of Rosenberg's life while pianist Simon Haynes provided a great accompaniment to tenor Philip Bell
Taking a bow – all the participants on stage: (from left) klezmerin Gabriel Ellenberg, Jon Petter and Vivi Lachs, pianist Simon Haynes, Rosenberg's biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson, poet Elaine Feinstein, poet and children's author Michael Rosen and tenor Philip Bell
Time for a chat before the entertainment: seated from left Michael Rosen, Bernard Kops and Bernard's wife Erica