18 February 2020

A gallery and library that
brought literature and arts
to the heart of the East End

Whitechapel Gallery … inviting the people of the East End to go straight in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

One of the many buildings I regret not visiting while I was walking around the East End last month is the Whitechapel Gallery on Whitechapel High Street, built around Aldgate East underground station.

The gallery was established by Canon Samuel Barnett (1844-1913), Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey, and his wife, the heiress and social reformer Henrietta Octavia Weston Rowland (1851-1936), ‘to bring great art to the people of the East End of London.’

The gallery was designed by the architect Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928) in 1897, it was built in 1898-1899 and it opened in 1901 as one of the first publicly funded galleries for temporary exhibitions in London.

Charles Harrison Townsend was born in Birkenhead on 13 May 1851. He attended Birkenhead School and was then articled to the Liverpool architect Walter Scott in 1870. He moved to London with his family in 1880 and entered partnership with the London architect Thomas Lewis Banks in 1884.

Townsend became a member of the Art Workers’ Guild in 1888 and in the same year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He remained an active member of both organisations throughout his career and was elected Master of the Art Workers’ Guild in 1903. He died on 26 December 1928.

The Whitechapel Art Gallery was designed by Townsend in his own highly personal and distinctive style of Art Nouveau, or his personal, late expression of Arts and Crafts ideals. The building has the same two-tower feature as his Bishopsgate Institute but with a wider frontage.

Townsend had the people very much in his mind when he designed the gallery, and the main doors invite people to go straight in at street level. These doors are placed asymmetrically to one side, and the large semi-circular light above them takes the eye upwards and outwards into a large, rounded, keyed arch.

Perhaps this is a defiant answer to the underground trains already running through the darkness here when the gallery was first opened. In contrast to a station’s, the gallery’s portal is bright and inviting, opening quickly into a space where the mind rather than the body might be transported, and its horizons widened.

An expanse of blank wall, originally intended to carry a mosaic by Walter Crane, leads up from the arch to a single run of small windows between two string courses, with some little blocks of foliage-patterning at each end.

The latter motif is picked up again in two wide bands at the base of the towers. The tree forms as planned for here can be seen clearly in the Studio drawing. Like the large rounded portal, they seem to spring from the earth, and are typical of Townsend.

The towers are topped with the curved mouldings that Townsend also loved to use, suggesting the domes that he had originally planned. The turrets on each side are capped with rather jaunty, even playful, ridge-tiling. The government listing describes the gallery’s frontage as ‘an imaginatively detailed and massed façade.’

The gallery has a long track record of education and outreach projects, focused on local people. It exhibits the work of contemporary artists, as well as organising retrospective exhibitions and shows that are of interest to the local community.

Next door, Whitechapel Library also opened on the initiative of Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, and was funded by John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911). It was the first free library in Whitechapel. It opened on Sundays to serve the Jewish community of the East End. Early readers included the poet and artist Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), who is commemorated as war poet from World War I in Westminster Abbey and commemorated here by a plaque.

Whitechapel gallery opened on Sunday afternoons to allow local Jewish residents to visit, and it gained a reputation for launching the careers of many 20th century artists. Those from the Jewish End, later known as the Whitechapel Boys – six men and one woman – included David Bomberg, John Rodker and Mark Gertler.

Mark Gertler (1891-1939) was born in Spitalfields. He was nurtured by Lady Ottoline Morrell and was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Set. Many of his paintings depict memories of East End life.

The Whitechapel Gallery exhibited Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in 1938 as part of a touring exhibition organised by Roland Penrose to protest against the Spanish Civil War.

The Whitechapel Gallery played an important part in the history of post-war British art, with several important exhibitions at the gallery, including the first British exhibition by Mark Rothko in 1961, and works by John Hoyland, Bridget Riley, David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield among others in 1964. That exhibition brought Pop Art to the general public and introduces some of the artists, concepts, designers and photographers that would define the ‘Swinging ’60s’.

However, these open shows became less relevant as emerging artists moved to other areas and newer venues, such as the Hayward Gallery.

The Whitechapel Gallery had a major refurbishment in 1986 and in 2009 completed a two-year programme incorporating the former Passmore Edwards Library building next door. This has doubled the size of the Gallery and almost tripled the available exhibition space, allowing the Whitechapel Gallery to remain open to the public all year round.

A plaque at Whitechapel Library commemorating the war poet Isaac Rosenberg (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A Whitechapel sign recalls
a Jewish newspaper and
artist before the Holocaust

Arthur Szyk’s medallion for the ‘Jewish Daily Post’ at No 88 Whitechapel High Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

As I walk around looking at buildings, one certain way of coming across an unusual story is to keep my head and my eyes open.

Walking along Whitechapel High Street in the East End one day last month, I could easily have missed the fading but ornate symbolism that decorates an upper floor at No 88 and that is a reminder of pioneering journalism and the many stories of the Jewish East End.

No 88 is an early 19th-century shop and office building, with an entryway to Gunthorpe Street, was once the offices of the Jewish Daily Post, the first Jewish daily newspaper in England. But the story of this building dates back further.

An early, substantial building was standing on this site in 1666. It had nine hearths, and the tenant was Hugh Best, who may have been the tenant of the Star Inn in Bishopsgate. Best leased Whitechapel property to John Sanford before 1677, and left Whitechapel by 1674.

By 1720, this was the London premises of Samuel Bellamy, coppersmith of Whitechapel and Erith. That year, he became a tenant of and subcontractor to the English Copper Company, leasing two copper mills and a house on the Wandle at Wimbledon.

Bellamy left all his properties in Whitechapel and Wimbledon to his widow, Elizabeth and she in turn left them in 1732 to William Thoyts (1708-1773), whose father was her husband’s executor and her cousin.

From 1732 to 1773, No 88 was run by Thoyts, described as ‘a great coppersmith in Whitechapel’ and ‘the King of the Tinkers.’ He died in 1773, leaving a substantial fortune, and his business and property were inherited by his son John Thoyts.

John Thoyts left the business, including his copper mills, to be run by his assistant, Peter Robinson, until his son, William Thoyts, became an adult. The firm continued as Thoyts, Miners and Co at 88 Whitechapel High Street until 1807, succeeded by Morgan & Ward. Thoyts, Morgan & Ward moved to 63 Whitechapel High Street in 1809, and by 1812 No 88 was the Coffee Mart, run by John Johnson, an agent for the West India Merchants.

This four-storey, three-bay building, was extensively rebuilt and extended in 1838 by the Scots distiller James Goldie, he took over the premises from Dudderidge & Co, drapers.

Two years earlier, Goldie had built a new distillery to the rear in George Yard (Gunthorpe Street). But Goldie over-extended himself and went was bankrupt by 1841. The premises were taken over by a new gin distillery, the British Hollands Company, with Goldie as manager. He was also the founding secretary of the Commercial Gas Light and Coke Company.

British Hollands went out of business by 1843, but Goldie’s gas company flourished, and was soon supplying most of East London. The gas company moved offices by 1845, Goldie left London, and from 1847, for almost 90 years, No 88 was an auctioneer and pawnbrokers, first run by George Bonham.

Ashridge Brothers, pawnbrokers, were at No 88 until No 88 became the offices in 1934-1935 for the short-lived Jewish Daily Post. The English-language Jewish newspaper began in 1926. It said its ‘primary object is to give an unbiassed account of daily happenings of interest in Jewish life.’

The building was refurbished by HP Sanders for the Jewish Daily Post in 1934-1935. The ground floor was reinforced by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts to take the presses, and the upper storey offices were refurbished. The most striking additions from the Post’s brief time at No 88 are the decorative metal reliefs by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951).

Szyk was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Lodz, and studied drawing and painting at the progressive Académie Julian in Paris. The Jewish Daily Post published his earliest anti-Hitler cartoons in February and March 1935. Two of his metal reliefs survive at No 88: one over the main door and one inside above the entrance to the lift.

The metal relief above the main door was once painted in gold and depicts a Magen David or Star of David supported by two Lions of Judah wielding sabres. Two medallions on the lions are decorated with menorot or seven-branched candelabra. The lions’ clawed feet rest on a thin turned base that is fixed to the wall.

I did not get inside the building this time, but I understand the relief by Szyk above the entrance to the lift on the first floor depicts traditional Jewish symbolism often found on Torah Arks: two Lions of Judah holding the Luhot or Tablets of the Law, inscribed with the first Hebrew letters of each of the Ten Commandments.

Originally, there were signs on each floor; all but these two were destroyed in a fire in the second half of the 20th century.

In the years leading up to World War II and the Holocaust, the Jewish Daily Post reported on the sufferings of Jewish communities around the world, from Germany to Afghanistan, and in 1935 the editor wrote of events in Germany and ‘the Jewish tragedy in all its full nakedness.’

However, the Jewish Daily Post struggled to compete with its long-established rival, Di Tsayt (The Jewish Times). It went into liquidation in August 1935 when it was sued for libel after it published a salacious story about a rabbi. It ceased publication shortly after the refurbishment of No 88, and Arthur Szyk moved to the US in 1940.

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), ‘Satan Leads the Ball’ (1942), New York

Albert’s menswear moved into the premises in 1942, after their premises nearby were damaged in an air raid. The ground floor shop was refurbished for Albert’s in the 1950s.

The shopfront of polished granite with brass-framed windows, along with shop panelling, dates from alterations made in the 1950s. The entry arch to Gunthorpe Street through No 88 has tiled decoration painted with a map of the area, inspired by Ogilby and Morgan’s 1676 map of London.

In recent years, businesses here have offered Jack the Ripper tours of Whitechapel and vaping accessories.

This building is listed, primarily because of the signs made by Szyk.

As for Arthur Szyk, he developed a line in political caricatures that earned him considerable fame after he emigrated to the US in 1940. His mother, Eugenia Szyk, was murdered by the Nazis in Poland during the Holocaust. He died in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1951.

Szyk was identified as the artist who made the medallions at No 88 Whitechapel High Street by Charles O’Brien in Pevsner City Guides: London East in 2005.

Arthur Szyk, ‘De Profundis’ (‘Out of the Depths’), published in the Chicago Sun in 1943 in an advertisement against anti-Semitism in US textbooks by the Textbook Commission