Jacob Kramer (1892-1962)

Jacob Kramer (1892-1962)In 1921 when Leeds Art Gallery reopened after the First World War, some striking new works went on show. Two pictures in particular stood out and provoked controversy – ‘The Day of Atonement’ and ‘Hear Our Voice, O Lord Our God’, both by the young Jewish artist Jacob Kramer, born in Russia but brought up in Leeds. The Jewish community in Leeds had commissioned them as gifts to the Gallery, and almost a century later they remain among the most powerful images in the city’s collection, still resonant today and a reminder of the tragic story of this gifted and passionate Leeds artist.

Jacob Kramer was born in the Ukraine in 1892, the first child of Max and Cecilia Kramer. His father was a court painter, his mother was musical; they had a favoured, cultured life. But the violent anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1890s finally forced the family, like many others, to flee. Around 1900, when Jacob was eight, they arrived in Leeds where Max had a chance of work. After a brief period in the back streets of the Leylands they moved to a small house in Beecroft Grove, Leopold Street, Chapeltown, (demolished now), where over the next years more children arrived. Jacob, with his three sisters and young brother, led a crowded family life, with Yiddish and Russian as their language. Max worked as a photographer, but money was always tight.

Jacob went to Darley Street Elementary School in the Leylands, in the Jewish quarter. He did well, but was restless and unsettled, as he was to remain all his life. At 13 he ran away, taking odd photographic jobs and some art courses in other towns, but was encouraged finally to apply for a scholarship at the Leeds School of Art. He proved a brilliant but erratic student, often threatened with expulsion but producing some fine work, notably some outstanding portraits. During this period he joined the radical, avant-garde Leeds Arts Club and made some significant friends, including Herbert Read the poet and critic and Michael Sadler, the new Vice-Chancellor of the University, who was to become his foremost supporter and generous patron.

With support from the Jewish Education Aid Society, Jacob was accepted at the Slade School of Art in London in 1912. He did not fit in easily, with his Russian accent, his large frame (six foot six), Jewish identity, and challenging views on new forms of artistic expression. He began to achieve recognition for his sometimes startling work, while acquiring a taste for the bohemian life of the capital – feeding his wilder side, particularly his drinking. He divided his time between London and Leeds, exhibiting forceful works on religious themes, brilliant figure studies, and portraits. His family ties were close, and he suffered when first his young brother and then his beloved father died, in 1916. Jacob, always bad with money, became the family’s prop, a further strain on his volatile nature.

Nevertheless this was a time of inspiration and success. In 1919 he was commissioned to paint the two great Jewish pictures for the Gallery, and the next year he was invited by Michael Sadler to contribute to an ambitious scheme for frescoes in the Town Hall commissioned from young artists like Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. He submitted his design but failed (ever unreliable) to attend planning meetings. The project finally collapsed. Meanwhile he was busy with a major exhibition in Harrogate, and was in demand for talks and comments on art. He was becoming a Leeds celebrity.

After a further couple of years in London, he settled permanently in Leeds around 1924, living in lodgings in Little Woodhouse. He continued to exhibit, and to produce his striking, sometimes controversial, portraits of the famous and of friends and family. In the 30s he founded the Yorkshire Luncheon Group, to foster discussion of art and culture. But as the years went on his vibrant energies declined, although there were still some flashes of brilliance. Quick, sketchy portraits became his bread and butter. Drink and poverty took their toll – Alan Bennett recalls mistaking him in the 50s for a tramp, dirty and drunk.

However, he had many loyal friends. A major exhibition of his work was held in Leeds in 1960, with warm tributes to him. When he died in 1962 this ‘gentle giant’ was remembered by many with true affection and respect. Much of his work is here: the Art Gallery has a fine collection, and a powerful bust of him by his friend Jacob Epstein. Leeds University has many of his works and an important archive of his letters and memorabilia. What a pity the College of Art dropped the title Jacob Kramer College, adopted in 1968 – he surely deserved to be remembered.

Eveleigh Bradford
May 2015