Leeds Artist Jacob Kramer by Chris Nickson

This month Chris Nickson writes about Leeds artist Jacob Kramer, a man with his soul on fire.

Roy & Mary Campbell (left), Jacob Kramer & Dolores (right). 1920s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Go upstairs to the East Gallery in the newly-reopened Leeds Art Gallery and you’ll see several works by Jacob Kramer, focusing on his early work, exploring the ‘spiritual’ in art. His paintings stop you in your tracks. They’re mysterious, enigmatic, yet also transparent. Lights in the darkness. They seem to be by a man who sees through to another, deeper world.

In front of them, on a pedestal, is a bust of the artist by Sir Jacob Epstein, embodying a man whose intensity seems to burn. In fact, Epstein said:
The Leeds painter, Kramer, was a model who seemed to be on fire. He was extraordinarily nervous. Energy seemed to leap into his hair as he sat, and sometimes he would be shaken by queer trembling like ague. I would try to calm him so as to get on with the work.

Leeds has produced several great artists, and Kramer was one of the greatest; indeed, for 25 years the Art College was named for him. But these days, sadly, he seems to be more of a footnote, rather than his name blazing in huge letters.

Jacob Kramer was an immigrant. Born in the Ukraine in 1892, he was the son of a court painter and an opera singer. The family fled the Russian pogroms and arrived in Leeds in 1900, settling eventually in Chapeltown, and Jacob went to Darley Street School. Sometimes, anyway. Often he wasn’t there, or even at home.

“I earned my first shilling after I had run away from my elementary school,’ Kramer told the Yorkshire Evening News in 1928. “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.”

Kramer won a scholarship to Leeds College of Art and stayed for two years, although his restlessness frequently got the better of him. Eventually he studied at the Slade in London, although his first exhibition was held much closer to home, during 1915 in Bradford, before he was conscripted and served in the army from 1917-18.

His heart remained in the north, in Leeds where he’d grown up, the city that helped to shape him. He made it his home, even as he produced the work that saw him hailed as one of the greats, he noted,“For myself, I find more stimulus in Leeds than in London and even in Paris”. He knew painters from many different circles, his fame grew, yet he always followed his own path, with his Jewishness as a constant inspiration. And in that, he found the depths of his soul and put them on the canvas.

“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.”

He was a member of the Leeds Fine Art Club and a founder of the Yorkshire Luncheon Club. Lauded, but far from rich, he taught at the Leeds School of Art, and painted many of the leading figures of his time – Gandhi, Delius, Priestley and more.

A major exhibition of his work was held in Leeds in 1960, just two years before he died. As a sign of his influence and stature, in 1968 Leeds College of Art was renamed Jacob Kramer College – a title that stayed until 1993.

Leeds has produced some of the great artists of this country. In Kramer, a man who preferred Leeds to London, who found a world here, we have one of the best of the 20th century. Visit his work at Leeds Art Gallery and the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at Leeds University – see the paintings and understand a man with his soul on fire.

Chris Nickson is the author of several historical crime novels set in Leeds. Free From All Danger is the long awaited eighth novel in the Richard Nottingham series.

Leeds, 1736. Lured out of retirement to serve as Constable once again, Richard Nottingham discovers that he’s dealing with a new kind of criminal: someone who believes he’s beyond the law; someone willing to brutally destroy anyone who opposes him. To stop him, Nottingham must seek help from some very unlikely sources.

Free From All Danger was published on 31 October by Severn House. You can order your copy here.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend. Fiona is its Coordinator and Marketing Director of the Northern Short Story Festival.

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