Ben Uri

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Art, identity and migration

Ben Uri Gallery, Boundary Road, St John’s Wood


Ben Uri gallery and museum
Ben Uri gallery and muse­um

The old­est Jew­ish cul­tur­al organ­i­sa­tion in the UK, the Ben Uri arts soci­ety was found­ed on 1 July 1915 at a meet­ing held in Gradel’s kosher restau­rant, near Aldgate East tube sta­tion in Whitechapel. The man who called the meet­ing was the Russ­ian-born artist Lazar Berson, a charis­mat­ic fig­ure whose Not­ting Hill stu­dio served as the soci­ety’s first home and as a work­shop and dis­play space for bud­ding artists.

The soci­ety aimed “to spread art among the Jew­ish mass­es” and was named in hon­our of Beza­lel Ben Uri, the mas­ter crafts­man said in Exo­dus to have been respon­si­ble for the con­struc­tion of the Taber­na­cle and the Ark of the Covenant.

In Sep­tem­ber 1916 Lazar Berson abrupt­ly left for Amer­i­ca after a dis­pute about his polit­i­cal activism, and he nev­er to returned to Lon­don. In the sud­den absence of a stu­dio the com­mit­tee decid­ed to focus on cul­tur­al activ­i­ties and on build­ing a col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish art. The soci­ety’s first acqui­si­tions were around a dozen pieces by the way­ward Pre-Raphaelite Sime­on Solomon, fol­lowed by four works from David Bomberg.

The col­lec­tion was stored – and lat­er dis­played – at a suc­ces­sion of loca­tions in the East and West Ends. The gallery’s longest last­ing base was the top floor of the West End Great syn­a­gogue in Dean Street, Soho, which it occu­pied from 1964 until the syn­a­gogue’s clo­sure 33 years lat­er. (The build­ing is now the home of the Soho The­atre.)

To stave off a finan­cial cri­sis in 1984 the collection’s most impor­tant paint­ing was con­tro­ver­sial­ly sold to the Tate for £150,000. The soci­ety was grant­ed full muse­um sta­tus in 1995, after pledg­ing in its revised con­sti­tu­tion nev­er to allow such a sale again. When David Glass­er was appoint­ed the muse­um’s exec­u­tive chair­man in 2000 he cham­pi­oned a new pol­i­cy focused on art, cre­ativ­i­ty and edu­ca­tion with­out reli­gious align­ment. Ben Uri became ‘the [Jew­ish] art muse­um for every­one’ – tak­ing a spe­cial inter­est in address­ing issues of migra­tion and iden­ti­ty.

In 2002 the Ben Uri gallery moved to Bound­ary Road, at the north­ern edge of St John’s Wood. This was sup­posed to be yet anoth­er inter­im res­i­dence, but no long-term home has yet been found – despite attempts to acquire var­i­ous premis­es, includ­ing an unsuc­cess­ful bid for the Design Muse­um’s for­mer ware­house in Shad Thames.

Amy Drucker, For He Had Great Possessions
Amy Druck­er, For He Had Great Pos­ses­sions (1932)

With assis­tance from the Nation­al Art Col­lec­tions Fund, Her­itage Lot­tery Fund and V&A Pur­chase Grant Fund, the gallery con­tin­ues to make new acqui­si­tions and now holds the world’s most dis­tin­guished body of work by artists of Euro­pean Jew­ish descent, with over 1300 pieces from 35 coun­tries, includ­ing around 850 works by émi­grés.

Many of the paint­ings por­tray the lives and expe­ri­ences of migrants, often in Lon­don – such as Amy Druck­er’s depic­tion of an impov­er­ished fam­i­ly, prob­a­bly new­ly arrived in the East End, shown on the right. While the search for a per­ma­nent dis­play space con­tin­ues, you can view the whole col­lec­tion online.

Mean­time, the Bound­ary Road gallery wel­comes a steady trick­le of vis­i­tors to its tem­po­rary, themed exhi­bi­tions – nowa­days with free admis­sion. Space is lim­it­ed on the ground floor of what is basi­cal­ly a con­vert­ed shop, but there’s more room in the full-length base­ment, shown in the pho­to­graph below.

Ben Uri also pro­vides a vari­ety of art-relat­ed edu­ca­tion­al pro­grammes for schools, fam­i­lies and adult learn­ers, as well as run­ning com­mu­ni­ty out­reach projects.

Ben Uri Gallery - basement

Ben Uri Gallery, 108a Boundary Road, London NW8 0RH
Phone: 020 7604 3991
Website: Ben Uri; also on Facebook, Twitter and other social media
Open: daily during exhibitions – Monday 1pm–5.30pm, Tuesday to Friday 10am–5.30pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am–5pm
Admission: Free
Facilities: none – but books, etc. are for sale at the counter
Nearest stations: Kilburn High Road (London Overground), Kilburn Park (Bakerloo line) and St John’s Wood (Jubilee line)
Further reading: Gillian Rathbone (editor), The Ben Uri Story: from Art Society to Museum, Ben Uri Gallery, 2001