New William Rothenstein exhibition shows the master of ‘low-life’ art

Coster Girls by Rothenstein

Coster Girls by Rothenstein - Credit: Archant

A trio of paintings of East End fruit and veg sellers is part of a Ben Uri exhibition on Rothenstein’s influence upon other artists, says Alison Oldham.

William Rothenstein’s painting Coster Girls has been described as one of the most significant renderings of low-life in British art of its day.

When it was shown at the New English Art Club in 1894, the year it was painted, a reviewer observed: “A pretty little doll, comparatively inexperienced, sensitive and shy, stands – with the Thames for Background – side by side with a creature at all events less winning, portrayed so realistically that she suggests to me that her claims to have had ‘a Past’ might fairly rival those of some disordered heroine of fashionable melodrama.”

The fruit and vegetable sellers of the East End had a reputation for flamboyant dress, stoic cheerfulness and something less wholesome.

Rothenstein’s depiction was pure and aesthetic compared to that of his younger brother, Albert Rutherston, whose 1907 painting Coster Girl shows a man lurking behind the female figure to make her louche purpose explicit.

By contrast, Mark Gertler’s 1923 painting The Coster Woman celebrates his subject’s decorative qualities by engaging viewers with his rendering of her patterned neckerchief, rich shawl, extravagantly-feathered hat and colourful jewellery, against a backdrop of Hampstead Heath.

This trio of paintings is among the many clever links made between Rothenstein’s works and those of younger contemporaries, including Jacob Kramer and Alfred Wolmark, for Rothenstein’s Relevance at the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum in St John’s Wood.

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It aims to re-examine the influence and continuing importance of his artistic achievements by focusing on major themes in his career including Jewish subjects and portraiture. The exhibition also explores Rothenstein’s role as Official War Artist in both world wars.

He was born in Bradford in 1872, studied at the Slade School of Art and the Académie Julian in Paris, then returned to Britain to live first in Oxford then in Hampstead from 1902 to 1912. There his social circle included H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad and Augustus John.

During this period he worked on a series of paintings on Jewish ritual observed in Whitechapel. Five open the exhibition and include Jews Mourning in a Synagogue, 1906, now in the Tate Collection. Rothenstein’s Reading from the Book of Esther, 1907, inspired Gertler’s Talmudic Discussion, 1911, and they are paired directly for the first time.

Rothenstein, who was knighted in 1931, played a vital role in kick-starting Gertler’s career when, as advisor to the Jewish Educational Aid Society, he supported Mark’s application for funding to study at the Slade and wrote to his parents expressing faith in their son’s ability.

A further pairing of paintings reveals the two artists’ affinity for depicting female sitters in regional dress. Gertler’s Russian Peasant Girl, for which the sitter was Catharine Alexander, the sister-in-law of his muse, Carrington, harks back to Rothenstein’s earlier portrait of a girl sporting Eastern European apparel.

But their personal relations came to grief when Rothenstein found a critical fictional portrait of himself in Mendel: A Story of Youth, Gilbert Cannan’s 1916 roman à clef based on Gertler’s struggles to become an artist, and Gertler chose to remain friends with the author. These backstories add a rich dimension to a stimulating exhibition.

Until January 17 2016 at 108a Boundary Road NW8.