'The Whitechapel Boys' is the collective name of a number of Anglo-Jewish artists and writers who flourished immediately prior to and during World War I, and then into the middle of the twentieth century. The term itself was only coined retrospectively, by one of the group's members, the writer Joseph Leftwich (originally Lefkowitz) (1892-1983). The core of the group were Leftwich, two other writers, John Rodker (1894-1955) and Samuel Winsten (1893-1991), and the artist and writer Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). These young men would meet at the Whitechapel Art Gallery or the library next to it and discuss art, literature and politics. Later, other artists began to attend these sessions, most notably David Bomberg (1890-1957) and Mark Gertler (1891-1939), and they in turn attracted fellow Slade School artists Jacob Kramer (1892-1962), Bernard Meninsky (1891-1950), and the Boys' only female associate, Clara Birnberg (1894-1989), who later married Leftwich.
The group began to meet in 1911, and were always a loose association. Never an established art movement with common objectives, the Whitechapel Boys were instead united by their economic situations (mostly dire), their Jewish backgrounds, and a determination to succeed in their chosen art forms. All were the children of families who had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and Russia. Eventually settling in the Whitechapel area of London, these immigrants formed a strong community that was mutually supportive and continued many of the traditions of Yiddish-speaking life. In such circumstances the Whitechapel Boys grew up within a rich Jewish cultural environment, but were also open to the influences of early twentieth-century mainstream English culture. Their work expresses the conflicts that they felt between these two backgrounds, tensions that were particularly acute during the First World War, when England's alliance with the Tsarist state that most of their families had escaped a generation earlier made the war an intensely personal issue for these men. Although all the Whitechapel Boys have interesting stories to tell of their wartime experiences, it is necessary to limit ourselves to a consideration of how the four most influential and significant members -Rosenberg, Bomberg, Gertler, and Rodker—reacted to the war.
In view of this edition's other articles on the recent Rosenberg exhibition and biography, it seems appropriate to begin with him. At the time of his enlistment, just before the passing of the Conscription Act in the autumn of 1915, he was finding work hard to come by and his attempts to make a living through painting seemed doomed to failure. He believed that his impoverished mother would be entitled to a separation allowance while he was in uniform, but this allowance did not materialise for some time. It is notable that Rosenberg, almost alone of those whom we now regard as our finest war poets, was not one of the officer elite like Owen, Sassoon, or Brooke. While officers enjoyed some degree of comfort, life for a private was hard from the outset. Rosenberg suffered enormously from severe pains in his feet and the cold and wet of life in the trenches. Despite this—or perhaps because of it— he was able to capture in his poetry not only the immediate experience of the horrors that soldiers like him faced on a daily basis, but also those universal themes that war can evoke but which are so difficult to put into comprehensible language. In one of his best-known poems, "Dead Man's Dump," he describes his own experience of moving 'limber' carts at night, taking barbed wire and metal stakes to repair barriers in no-man's land. In a letter to Edward Marsh he describes "running over dead bodies lying about," but the poem is much more than a simple recounting of this horrifying incident: it builds on it to make us see the dehumanising effect of the war. The second verse, for example, is haunting with its imagery of crushed bones and silent corpses, yet powerfully human with its reminder that all soldiers share the same birthright:
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman, Man born of man, and woman; And shells go crying over them From night till night and now.
It was during another night-time wire patrol that Rosenberg himself was killed, on All Fools' Day 1918. Rosenberg's last letter, again to Edward Marsh, includes these poignant words: "It's really my being lucky enough to bag an inch of candle that incites me to this pitch of punctual epistolary. I must measure my letter by the light." Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Rosenberg's biographer, remarks movingly that "By the time Marsh received the letter on 2 April, Rosenberg's own light had gone out." She quotes from a document found amongst Rosenberg's belongings after his death that must rank amongst the most extraordinary statements of an artist's purpose ever made within the context of a life-threatening situation. Rosenberg wrote:
"How small a thing is art. A little pain; disappointment, and any man feels a depth -a boundlessness of emotion, inarticulate thoughts no poet has ever succeeded in imag[in]ing. Death does not conquer me, I conquer death, I am the master." The loss of Rosenberg was keenly felt amongst his Whitechapel colleagues. Bomberg, who had already lost a brother earlier the same year, was particularly affected. For him, the war arguably represents both the high and low points of his artistic career. Just before the outbreak of war in August 1914, he showed works at the Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition Twentieth Century Art where, with Epstein, he organised a Jewish section including works by Rosenberg and Gertler. Also during that summer, he displayed fifty-seven works in a one-man show at Chelsea's Chenil Gallery. Included were The Mud Bath and Ju-Jitsu, justifiably regarded as two of the finest English paintings of the period, pushing the boundaries of modernism closer to abstraction. However, though he had reached this position at the forefront of modern English art, Bomberg was to find both his artistic confidence and his personal ambition shattered by the war. His wartime art consists of some naturalistic drawings significantly removed from his pre-war Vorticist experiments in colour and form. He did write some poetry, but, unlike Rosenberg, he was not able to rise above the merely descriptive.
Bomberg and Rosenberg both volunteered at the same time, but from that point on there is little similarity between their experiences except their shared revulsion at the realities of war. Bomberg found the army experience intolerable. Deeply depressed by the death, early in 1917, of T. E. Hulme, a friend and critic who had championed his art, Bomberg made his protest by shooting his own foot. Self-wounding could have had fatal consequences in two ways: he could have bled to death, or he could have been court-martialled and sentenced to execution by firing squad. That neither happened was simply one of the flukes of war. Bomberg's soldier comrades heard the shot and bandaged the wound, and after he had spent two weeks in hospital, his Adjutant stopped his pay for three weeks and put him on light duties until his foot healed.
Early in 1917 Lord Beaverbrook set up the Canadian War Memorials Fund, commissioning works from leading artists to commemorate the activities of Canadian servicemen, and Bomberg quickly made his application. P.G. Konody, a vehement critic of anything which hinted at abstraction, was the artistic adviser to the Fund and created difficulties for Bomberg, although the latter's paintings for the Fund now rank among the finest produced in this period. Bomberg was commissioned to paint Canadian sappers at work, a subject he would have known well since he himself had seen active service as a sapper, a soldier engaged in tunnelling and mine-laying. This commission had a double attraction, taking him away from the front line while enabling him to paint something that he had personally experienced. He completed the first version of the picture early in 1919, but humiliation followed. When he presented the completed work to Konody it was indignantly rejected, on the grounds that there were "cubist abortions" in the picture. This incident had a profound impact on Bomberg's artistic development. In an interview in 1970, his second wife Lilian commented that "the committee's rejection of his first version came as an awful shock to David, a shattering personal blow, and he didn't really recover his earlier strength ever again." The second, much more naturalistic version was accepted, although most critics agree that it lacks the artistic power and range of the earlier picture.
The English art world of 1912-1914 was buzzing with young artists influenced by Fry's Post-Impressionist exhibitions. Boldly experimenting with form and colour, they rejected the nineteenth-century call to accurately represent the world around them. Modernity was everywhere —in the metropolis, in new, faster modes of transport, and in the growing dominance of machine over man— and it was exciting. The war shattered this optimism, as for many artists, Bomberg included, the very modernity that they had worshipped before 1914 became the means by which millions of young men were annihilated in the mud of Europe. The machine age had changed from a glorious sunrise into an Armageddon of unimaginable ferocity, and artists responded by abandoning abstraction and reviving the more direct representational approach. In 1923 Bomberg took a trip to Palestine, and the pictures he made there are topographical, realistic representations of the landscapes he visited. For the next twenty years he would continue to struggle in his search for a style that would provide a vehicle for his artistic vision.
Mark Gertler, the third of the Whitechapel Boys considered here, was deeply opposed to the war from the very outset, in one of his letters, to Carrington, calling it "wretched, sordid Butchery." He steadfastly refused to consider joining the army, but after the passing of the Conscription Act he was forced to submit himself for active service. To his surprise, he was rejected on the grounds that his parents were Austrians (albeit refugees from the anti-Semitic policies of the Habsburg Empire). In another letter, this time to Dorothy Brett, he concluded that for wartime artists, the "best way we can help is to paint." His pacifism grew stronger, culminating in this clear statement in a letter to Edward Marsh: "I am I believe a 'Passivist.' I don't know exactly what that means, but I just hate this war and should really loathe to help in it."
Throughout 1915 and into 1916 Gertler was working on what was to be his only significant wartime painting, but one which still has power to arrest the viewer. The Merry-Go-Round (1916) was originally inspired by a fairground ride on Hampstead Heath in 1915, but the image Gertler developed is about as far removed from an innocent afternoon's enjoyment as can be imagined. A Futurist-influenced construction, it shows inanimate horses swirling within an orange-and-red carousel. Seated on the horses are human figures, the male figures all in uniforms of some kind, while their female companions are dressed in clothes suitable for a day at the fair. However, all the figures' mouths are open, screaming silently and permanently into the unseen distance. The image's symbolism is complex, and the reference to medieval depictions of the Dance of Death is one of the more obvious devices present. Although the subject implies movement, Gertler gives us no hint of this; the moment is captured with little suggestion of past or future, so that the figures appear frozen in time. Like a medieval representation of Hell, it is easy to see them screaming on the fairground ride for all eternity. Gertler's masterpiece embodies his pacifist beliefs, portraying those acting out the drama of the war as automatons locked into a nightmare world from which there was no escape, and where the fear and horror were unrelenting. The picture has quite rightly taken its place amongst the finest anti-war statements of the twentieth century, as this letter from D. H. Lawrence to Gertler confirms: "Your terrible and beautiful picture [in reproduction] has just come. This is the first picture you have ever painted: it is the best modern picture I have ever seen: I think it is great and true. But it is horrible and terrifying. I'm not sure I wouldn't be too frightened to come and look at the original."
Like Bomberg, Gertler finished the war with a commission—from the War Artists Scheme— and he likewise found the experience profoundly disturbing. Asked to paint an 'Air Raid Night in the Tube,' he became overwhelmed by the restrictions he faced. The discovery that he had to submit preparatory sketches and have the canvas dimensions dictated to him sent him into severe depression, and the commission was eventually cancelled.
The final member of the Whitechapel Boys discussed here is John Rodker, a poet who became in later life a publisher and translator, publishing, among others, the second edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, and a complete edition of the works of Freud, which he finished in 1952. At the outbreak of World War I he was an outspoken pacifist, and was forced to go into hiding. Eventually caught and imprisoned, he almost certainly went on hunger strike in protest at his treatment. Writing twenty years later, in Julian Bell's 1935 anthology of war resisters' memories We Did Not Fight, Rodker still cannot fully explain the reasons for his reluctance to join the fighting. At one moment it is self-preservation ("I was determined to keep myself alive"), at another his abhorrence of what he would be expected to do ("I was determined not to kill"), and finally it is the realisation that society itself has mutated into something inhuman ("what alarms me most is the way in which we have become part of a machine, in which men's lives, the only good they have, is spilt like water"). Unlike the other three, Rodker produced no work of note during the war: there were few poems, and little writing of any other kind. His artistic temperament seems to have been paralysed by the turmoil he was feeling over the war, partly a product of the conflict it was causing between his English and Jewish backgrounds.
A striking consistency emerges from the Whitechapel Boys' responses to the war. All four of the writers and artists examined here reacted with varying degrees of scepticism and revulsion to its advent, and none of them passed through the initial phase of euphoria associated with 1914; in fact, it could be argued that they anticipated the general verdict on the war. All four shared a common cultural background, the Jewish East End of London, and when the war started all of them were making tentative advances towards success, not just within the confines of their Jewish environment, but further afield, into the English cultural establishment. These forays raised certain issues: Were they English, Jewish, or both? To which cultural heritage did they owe first allegiance? The war further complicated matters by demanding that their Jewish allegiance be subordinated to their English one, and thereby making it extremely difficult for the reconciliation of these two identities to be achieved painlessly. For the Whitechapel Boys, it appears that it was only possible to find an inner peace when neither allegiance could assume primacy, allowing them to see themselves as equally English and Jewish.
The Whitechapel Boys were not able to make as deep an impression on English culture as they might have wished, or envisaged, when they first met in 1911. Rosenberg was killed in the war, and Bomberg and Gertler were so badly shaken by their wartime experiences that their artistic confidence barely recovered, leaving them on the fringes of English art, struggling to survive as working painters. Despite his translation and publishing career, Rodker was eventually declared bankrupt. He never returned to the poetry of his youth. The young, modern Slade circle were broken by their various experiences of the Great War, and their art can now be read in terms of their responses to the suffering and personal tragedy it brought them -expressions by fine English artists of extraordinary circumstances.
The wartime achievements of this small group of artists and poets merit more detailed consideration, since the work they produced is amongst the finest of that terrible time. That it was partly the product of cultural tensions imposed on them by outside forces gives it an enduring resonance today, when nationalism and religious allegiance are still used to justify all kinds of intolerance on both personal and institutional levels. Let Rosenberg have the last word, as he evokes the poet's search for meaning amidst the horrors of war in his poem "Returning, We Hear the Larks":
Death could drop from the dark As easily as song - But song only dropped, Like a blind man's dreams on the sand By dangerous tides, Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there, Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
Paul Flux comes from Somerset. He holds four degrees (in a range of subjects including drama and English literature, history, art history, and education) and has written twenty-five books for schools on art, art history, and history, including the How Artists Use...series and books on Matisse, Seurat and Gauguin. His reviews of the recent Rosenberg exhibition and biography, and of the Tate Camden Town Group exhibition, appear elsewhere in this edition.--The Editor
Bell, Julian, ed. We Did Not Fight, 1914 - 1918: Experiences of War Resisters. London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1935.
Cork, Richard. David Bomberg. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1987.
Dickson, Rachel and Sarah Macdougall. Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and his Circle. London: Ben Uri Gallery, 2008.
Flux, Paul. Repositioning David Bomberg: A critical re-assessment of the artist and his place within the canon of twentieth century British art. Bristol University, Unpublished MA Dissertation, 2007. Gardner, Brian, ed. Up the Line to Death: The War Poets 1914 - 1918, London: Methuen & Co, 1964.
Liddiard, Jean, ed. Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry Out of My Head and Heart: Unpublished letters. London: Enitharmon Press, 2007.
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Stallworthy, Jon, ed., Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War. London: Constable & Robinson, 2002.
Wilson, Jean Moorcroft. Isaac Rosenberg: The Making of a Great War Poet: A New Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008.