In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia led to the flight of some two million Jewish people from the Russian Empire. Around 150,000 Jewish refugees settled in Britain between 1881 and 1914.1Helena Wray, ‘The Aliens Act 1905 and the immigration dilemma’, Journal of Law and Society, vol. 33, no. 2, Jun. 2006, p. 308. Many of these refugees settled in East London, an area plagued by poverty and overcrowding, where over time the subsequent competition for employment and housing led to a rise in anti-Semitism and a call for restrictions upon future emigration from Eastern Europe. The Aliens Act of 1905 subjected immigrants to Great Britain to stricter inspection by customs officers and medical personnel, who were ‘directed to reject lunatics, idiots, and persons suffering from any disease or infirmity which is likely to make them a charge upon the rates’.2‘The Aliens Act’, The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 2356, 24 Feb. 1906, p. 435. Greeting the introduction of the Act with approval, the British Medical Journal argued that
alien immigration has been directed and controlled by the Government of every country but our own, and a selective power has been acquired by shipping companies catering for America, which results in the ear-marking of all that is good in the alien for America and leaves the bad for the only country without restrictions. Thus the class of aliens who have ousted sections of our native population and forced them into already overcrowded neighbourhoods has been a class selected as fit for shipment to England on account of their unfitness for any other country.3 ibid.
This was the climate in which William Rothenstein painted Aliens at prayer, 1905, one of a series of eight paintings depicting Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. Rothenstein recalled how in 1904:
Having business in the city with a solicitor, a brother of Solomon J. Solomon, and on his asking whether I chanced to know the [Machzike Hadath] Spitalfields Synagogue, in Brick Lane (a curious sight, he assured me, well worth seeing), I accompanied him there. My surprise was great to find the place crowded with Jews draped in praying shawls; while in a dark-panelled room sat old, bearded men with strange side-locks, bending over great books and rocking their bodies as they read; others stood, muttering Hebrew prayers, their faces to the wall enveloped from head to foot in black bordered shawls. Here were subjects Rembrandt would have painted – had, indeed, painted – the like of which I never thought to have seen in London. I was very much excited; why had no one told me of this wonderful place?4 William Rothenstein, Men and Memories. Recollections of William Rothenstein 1900–1922, Faber & Faber, London, 1932, p. 35.
At first greeted with suspicion by these immigrants, Rothenstein eventually persuaded a handful to sit for him, inspired by both their exotic appearance and their social plight:
The orthodox Jews from Russia and Galicia never shave, and some of the younger men put me in mind of portraits of Titian; for beards give breadth and radiance to a face. The old grey-bearded men, noble in mien if ignoble in dress, wear the pathetic look of Rembrandt’s rabbis. It was the time of the Russian pogroms and my heart went out to these men of a despised race, from which I too had sprung, though regarded as a stranger among them.5ibid. p. 36.
Commenting on the publicity surrounding these ‘alien’ immigrants at this time, as well as exploring his own Jewish heritage, Rothenstein exhibited his Spitalfields paintings at a number of galleries in London. Exposition of the law (date unknown) was shown with the New English Art Club in 1905.6‘The new English art club’, The Times, 14 Oct. 1905, p. 7. Another two paintings from this series, Jews mourning in a synagogue, 1906 (Tate, London), and An exposition of the Talmud, 1904 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), were included in the Exhibition of Jewish Art and Antiquities held at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1906.7‘Exhibition of Jewish art and antiquities’, The Times, 10 Nov. 1906, p. 17.
Aliens at Prayer, depicting three sorrowful Jewish elders wearing striped tallit gadol prayer shawls over their shoulders, was exhibited in Thomas Agnew’s exhibition in London Some Examples of Independent Art of Today, English, Scottish, and Irish in 1906, where it received a mostly positive reception by art critics. The Manchester press argued that:
Will Rothenstein is to be congratulated on a splendid achievement in ‘Aliens at Prayer’. Here there is no compromise. He has represented magnificent examples of the chosen race, and dealt with them with extraordinary insight and pathos.8‘Independent art. At Messrs. Agnew’s’, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 10 Feb. 1906, p. 6.
The Art Journal (1906) was explicit in its praise of the work:
Among the pictures of real importance were Mr Will Rothenstein’s deeply-sought ‘Aliens at Prayer’, the best thing he has given us.9‘London exhibitions’, The Art Journal, Apr. 1906, p. 118.
Also hailing it a ‘magnificent work’, Robert Ross in The Academy (1906) argued that:
For mere painting this is the picture of all others to study, not so much as a striking example of an artist, but as a type of art so misunderstood and neglected.10Robert Ross, ‘Non angeli sed angli’, The Academy, 1906, in Frank Rutter, Art in My Time, Rich & Cowan, London, 1933, pp. 128–9.
The Times (1906), however, felt that ‘it is a careful study of the Jewish character, but is somewhat prosaic in treatment – wanting, in fact, in … passion’.11‘Independent art’, The Times, 10 Feb. 1906, p. 6. While Bernhard Sickert expressed his slight disappointment in the Burlington Magazine (1906):
Mr Will Rothenstein’s Aliens at Prayer, fine as it is, does not quite reach the level of the picture dealing with the same subject at the Alpine Club last winter; or perhaps I am merely getting a little tired. I hope that Mr Rothenstein will soon work another vein with equal success.12Bernhard Sickert, ‘Independent art of to-day’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 8, no. 36, Mar. 1906, p. 384.
Some years later, The Studio (1910) dubbed the painting a ‘remarkable picture’.13James Bolivar Manson, ‘The paintings of Mr William Rothenstein’, The Studio, vol. 50, 1910, p. 42.
Aliens at prayer was recommended from the Agnew’s show for acquisition by the Royal Academy, London, under the terms of its Chantrey Bequest that required paintings and sculptures be made in Britain. Recent controversy about the selections made by the Bequest’s advisers, begun by the art critic D. S. MacColl in 1903, saw this selection overturned. Rothenstein recalled the events in this manner:
Owing to MacColl’s attack on the administration of the Chantrey Bequest, exhibitions other than the Academy were now visited, for the purpose of the Bequest, by members of the Royal Academy Council, and my canvas, a study of three Jews in a synagogue, was recommended by [George] Clausen for purchase. This was, I think, the first work thus proposed outside the Academy. Clausen was keen his selection should be accepted … But the picture was not accepted by the Council. One of my models had a maimed finger, and [President of the Royal Academy, Sir Edward] Poynter (so Clausen told me) pointed to the hand as a piece of bad drawing. Clausen was then buying for Australia, and under the terms of the Fenton [sic] Bequest he bought my painting for the National Gallery of Melbourne.14Rothenstein, p. 92.
The model with the maimed finger is the Jewish elder in the foreground of Aliens at prayer, who is missing the first digit of the index finger on his right hand. His whole hand is swollen and misshapen, perhaps from arthritis or edema.
Noting the acquisition of this painting for the NGV at the time, The Magazine of Fine Arts (1906) commented that ‘the National Gallery in Melbourne will soon contain a more representative collection of modern English art than any public gallery in London’.15Untitled news excerpt, The Magazine of Fine Arts, vol. 2, no. 9, Jul. 1906, p. 186. Citing Aliens at prayer as a work ‘which the Council of the Academy had the unwisdom to reject’, The Art Journal (1906) reminded its readers that ‘At the time of its exhibition in Bond Street we directed attention to the grave, authoritative beauty of Mr Rothenstein’s work, which should not have been allowed to go out of the country’.16‘National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne’, The Art Journal, Nov. 1906, p. 334.
In Melbourne, the local press greeted Clauson’s acquisition of Aliens at prayer by quoting excitedly from the British press. Victoria’s Jewish Herald (1906) cited an article by art critic Marion H. Spielmann, who in London’s Jewish World had noted how in Rothenstein’s painting
the three figures face the spectator – the white-bearded man on the front bench, the two others behind, the very personification of faith, piety and dignity, compelling respect not only for their devotion but for their poverty. There is here some of the conviction which Rembrandt threw into his pictures of this class.17‘Notes and news’, Jewish Herald (Melbourne), 24 Aug. 1906, p. 11.
While The Herald (1906) printed verbatim the following notice from the London’s Daily Mail:
Mr Will Rothenstein’s ‘Aliens at Prayer’ [is] a big, penetrative achievement, which justly attracted attention when it was exhibited in Bond Street a few months ago. The picture, of three grave-faced Israelites, in blue and white prayer shawls, is an earnest, single-minded effort to apprehend and express the dignity, the character, the potency of the alien Jew, in contact with the ancient tradition which, in whatever land of exile, is the source of his spiritual freedom. Mr Rothenstein was imaginatively moved and convinced, hence the searching integrity of his observation. We cannot but regret that the ‘Aliens at Prayer’ does not go to the Tate Gallery. England’s loss is Melbourne’s gain.18‘Aliens at prayer’, The Herald, 26 Jul. 1906, p. 2.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Helena Wray, ‘The Aliens Act 1905 and the immigration dilemma’, Journal of Law and Society, vol. 33, no. 2, Jun. 2006, p. 308.
‘The Aliens Act’, The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 2356, 24 Feb. 1906, p. 435.
William Rothenstein, Men and Memories. Recollections of William Rothenstein 1900–1922, Faber & Faber, London, 1932, p. 35.
ibid. p. 36.
‘The new English art club’, The Times, 14 Oct. 1905, p. 7.
‘Exhibition of Jewish art and antiquities’, The Times, 10 Nov. 1906, p. 17.
‘Independent art. At Messrs. Agnew’s’, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 10 Feb. 1906, p. 6.
‘London exhibitions’, The Art Journal, Apr. 1906, p. 118.
Robert Ross, ‘Non angeli sed angli’, The Academy, 1906, in Frank Rutter, Art in My Time, Rich & Cowan, London, 1933, pp. 128–9.
‘Independent art’, The Times, 10 Feb. 1906, p. 6.
Bernhard Sickert, ‘Independent art of to-day’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 8, no. 36, Mar. 1906, p. 384.
James Bolivar Manson, ‘The paintings of Mr William Rothenstein’, The Studio, vol. 50, 1910, p. 42.
Untitled news excerpt, The Magazine of Fine Arts, vol. 2, no. 9, Jul. 1906, p. 186.
‘National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne’, The Art Journal, Nov. 1906, p. 334.
‘Notes and news’, Jewish Herald (Melbourne), 24 Aug. 1906, p. 11.
‘Aliens at prayer’, The Herald, 26 Jul. 1906, p. 2.