The William Roberts Society

Jacob Kramer


Illustrations and quotations by Jacob Kramer on this page are © The Estate of John David Roberts and reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society.

The artist's self-portrait (lithograph)

Jacob Kramer was born in the small Ukrainian town of Klincy in 1892. His father, Max, studied under Ilya Efimovich Repin at the St Petersburg Fine Art Academy and became a court painter; his mother, Cecilia, was an opera singer and an authority on Russian folk songs; an uncle, Cion, was also a painter.

In 1900 his parents and Jacob emigrated to England and settled in Leeds, where Max was forced to find work as a retoucher and hand-colourer of photographs. Four further children were born to the Kramers there, the oldest of whom, Sarah, later married the artist William Roberts.

In an interview in the Yorkshire Evening News on 29 June 1928, Jacob gave the following account of his early years:

I came to Leeds from Russia in 1900, when I was eight or nine years old, and I earned my first shilling after I had run away from my elementary school, the Darley-street Council School. I was at the Leeds Midland railway station when I saw a commercial traveller with some parcels of hats. I was rather strong and big for my age and offered – for the fun of the thing – to carry them for him. I took them for him to a place somewhere behind the General Post Office, and he rewarded me with a shilling. My parents were rather strict and would not have approved of the escapade. I spent the shilling at a music-hall. The music-halls, with their colour and rhythm, always attracted me. I was always restless and ran away to Middlesbrough, where I worked in a municipal garden as a boy assistant, earning a few odd shillings. Then I went to Manchester, where I got a job doing photographic enlargements. I was then about thirteen.

My next adventure was at Blackburn, which I just managed to reach without a penny in my pocket. There I saw a horrible-looking shop with one or two photographs stuck in the window. I asked the proprietor if I could be of service to him and told him my story.

He asked me if I knew how to do retouching work, and I said 'Yes', though I had never done any before. Rather surprisingly I did the work properly when he gave me some samples to try my hand on. I stayed there only a week, however, for my employer, who lived alone, fell ill and wanted me to do housework for him, and I found this disagreeable. After another brief stay at Manchester, I came back to Leeds, got a job with a printing firm and managed to do rather well with them.

At the Darley-street school my draughtsmanship had been thought rather well of and I had received much encouragement from one of the teachers, a Miss Poyser. In the belief, then, that I had some little talent I now put in my evenings at classes at the Leeds School of Art, where Mr Parsons, now Art Master at the Bradford Boys' Grammar School, suggested I should go in for a Junior Art Scholarship.

I promised to try for it, never for one moment expecting to win it. I did win it, however, and stayed for two years at the School of Art, having won another scholarship in the meantime. I must admit that I didn't conform altogether to the routine of the School, but my dear late headmaster, Mr Haywood Rider, who was really rather proud of me, was very tolerant. This did not prevent him from threatening me many times with expulsion.

Jacob Kramer aged fifteen

After a time I was again troubled with restlessness, and ran away again. It was then that I did my first real work. The late Weedon Grossmith was at the Leeds Grand Theatre at the time, and I did a portrait of him behind the stage. Grossmith's manager invited me to London, and I decided to accept the invitation. One of the first things I did when I got there was to seek out Mr George Clausen, R. A., whose work I much admired, and he kindly showed me his work and round his studio. That was my first experience of meeting a real artist, and it was a happy one. Whilst in London I did sketches of Sir Gerald du Maurier, and of Augustus van Beine, the 'cellist, who died suddenly on the stage at Blackpool a week later.

The first 'big' money I earned was when I sold a small Reynolds portrait of William Hazlitt, which I had found in Hunslet of all places, to a wealthy student, for £4, and with the proceeds I bought a huge canvas on which I painted one of my best and one of my first big pictures.

This picture was sent to the New English Art Club, where it attracted the attention and interest of Ambrose McEvoy, R. A., who became my teacher. He came round and told me that the picture had created a furore and that
Augustus John was furious at the suggestion made by some adverse critics on the committee that it should be rejected. In defiance of them, John had placed it upon a screen by itself.

Before that, I had become a student at the Slade School, a step which I might not have taken but for Sir Michael Sadler's interest in me. I held my first exhibition in Bradford in 1915.
Kramer was at the Slade from 1913 to 1914, financed by the Jewish Educational Aid Society. Although a cartoon by him was included in the war number of Wyndham Lewis's polemic Blast and he was courted by the Vorticists, he remained aesthetically independent. His work drew heavily upon his racial and religious background.

Returning to Leeds, he established himself at the centre of local cultural life, not only for art but for music and poetry as well. He became a major portraitist (from interest as well as necessity), painting many notables passing through the city, and taught at the branch art college, which in 1968 was renamed Jacob Kramer College. His collection of tribal sculptures is now in Kirkstall Museum.

In 1960 he was given a retrospective at Leeds City Art Gallery, and later a centenary exhibition was mounted at Leeds University Art Gallery. A bust of him by Jacob Epstein is in the Tate, which, along with the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum, holds examples of his work.

In the words of the catalogue of the 1984 Ben Uri Gallery exhibition of his work, 'He bought a robust energy, largeness and simplicity of design to an art world of politeness and good taste . . . a quality that remains defiantly Eastern European.'

Selected works by Jacob Kramer

Mother and Child (oil on canvas, 1915) The Jew (oil on canvas, 1916)

Herbert Read (charcoal, 1914)
Vorticist Figure
(lithograph, c. 1920)

Day of Atonement (oil on canvas, 1919)

Some comments by Jacob Kramer

From a press cutting (newspaper unknown) about a 1919 meeting of the Bradford Arts Club, quoted in [John David Roberts, ed.], The Kramer Documents, p. 41:
The degree of expression in a work of art is the measure of its greatness. A spiritual discernment is more essential than the reproduction of the obvious. If the expression is guided by very deep emotion, I have invariably noticed that I produce a replica of the subject of reality. In fact the extreme development of this tendency imperceptibly merges into an expression of palpabilities.

From a press cutting (newspaper unknown) about the opening of an exhibition of work by W. B. Pearson at Leeds Art Club on 8 May 1920, quoted in [John David Roberts, ed.], The Kramer Documents, p. 65:
It is commonly believed that to reach the Royal Academy means the final achievement of artistic development. But as to what has been in the past let us harbour no illusions. It has meant the degradation of the dignity of art, and the ruination of the spirit of creativeness.

From a cutting from the Daily Chronicle, 1929, quoted in [John David Roberts, ed.], The Kramer Documents, p. 102:
For the young struggling artist it is hell in Yorkshire . . . If an artist is weak enough to paint simply to sell then it is spiritual prostitution for him. If he is strong enough to resist the commercialism then he has to run away from Yorkshire.

From a cutting from the Jewish Daily Post, 1929, quoted in [John David Roberts, ed.], The Kramer Documents, p. 103:
The Jewish artist has to live, and if he is unable to find a market for his wares among his own people, in what direction should he turn? The establishment of a body for procuring intelligent patronage for the Jewish artist ought to preserve Jewish art for the Jewish people. In my own case, since I began to paint in Leeds, I have only had two commissions from the Jewish community.

From a cutting from the Yorkshire Post (or Evening Post? ), 3 June 1931, quoted in [John David Roberts, ed.], The Kramer Documents, p. 109:
There are plenty of vital people in Leeds. I believe [a new art] club would succeed here better than anywhere else. For myself, I find more stimulus in Leeds than in London and even in Paris.

From a cutting from the Yorkshire Observer, 1935, quoted in [John David Roberts, ed.], The Kramer Documents, p. 136:
London is not really the place for creative artists. I prefer anywhere in the provinces. There is too much excitement in London, too much distraction, not sufficient isolation. It is a hysterical place. there are too many cliques and coteries and groups. I don't think there is any artist who has done really great work in London. They have always had to go away to do it. It is a nerve-wracking place. These new revolutions in art are nearly all due to the hectic rivalry of the coteries.


Ruth Artmonsky, Slade Alumni 1900–1914: William Roberts and Others (London: Artmonsky Arts, 2001)

Rachel Dickson, 'Jacob Kramer – the Hare', in exhibition catalogue: William Roberts and Jacob Kramer: The Tortoise and the Hare (London: Ben Uri Gallery, 2003)

Jacob Kramer: A Memorial Volume (Leeds: privately published, 1969)

Michael Parkin, 'Sarah Roberts' (obituary), The Independent, 5 December 1992

[John David Roberts, ed.], The Kramer Documents (Valencia: privately published, 1983)

The standard work on the artist is now David Manson, Jacob Kramer: Creativity and Loss (Bristol: Sansom, 2006)

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