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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Click here to find out more about the Ben Uri centenary exhibition Out of Chaos: Ben Uri: 100 Years in London, from 2 July – 13 December 2015 at Somerset House.
Dr Lily Ford was awarded a Creativeworks London Researcher-In-Residence award to take up residency at the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum.
 Lisa Tickner. Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2000) p. 165.