Pj Kavanagh

Fighting his corner

P.J. Kavanagh reviews Jean Moorcroft Wilson's biography of Isaac Rosenberg

This author said of her biography of the wealthy Siegfried Sassoon, ‘A study of his life is a study of an age’. So is this one, from another aspect, deep down among the poverty of Jewish immigrants at the end of the 19th century, and it is warming to learn how the more successful of these banded together to help the strugglers.

The eldest son of Orthodox Russian Jews, the painter and poet Isaac Rosenberg was born in 1890, in the Jewish quarter of Bristol (astonishingly, we are told that the Jewish population of Bristol in 1901 was 328,945).

His father was an itinerant salesman, away from home for half the year. He seems to have been a dreamy, sensitive man; painted and drawn by his son he has a rabbinical air. Isaac’s mother, left to look after the children, took in washing, and lodgers, and sold her careful sewing. The marriage was not a success.

When Isaac was seven the family moved to London, in order to get a ‘good Jewish education’ for him. There were now five children, and the father could only find them ‘a single cramped room behind a rag-and-bone shop in Cable Street, St-George’s-in-the-East.’ A contemporary, Charles Booth, sadly remarked, ‘St-George’s-in-the-East appears to stagnate in a squalor peculiar to itself.’

Not a promising beginning for the young Isaac; worse, their main reason for coming to London was to get him into the famous Jews’ Free School. The rather vague father knocked on the door of the school only to have it slammed in his face; it was full up. Isaac had to go to a Church of England school, aged seven, when he could neither write nor speak English. It went all right, they were kind, he caught up, showed a talent for drawing and, later, discovered the Whitechapel Library and Art Gallery.

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