May 2010 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

The pièce de résistance of the long-awaited reopening of London’s Jewish Museum is the mediaeval mikveh discovered in the home of the Crespin family in the City of London in 2001. Surrounded by pebbles, backed by glass, it has been lovingly restored, stone by ancient stone.

The Museum’s £10 million redevelopment scheme, with a £4.2m Heritage Lottery Fund grant and private donations, has tripled the Museum’s area into a welcome space for its impressive Judaica, temple ornaments and historical artefacts. Opened by Nigella Lawson and Alan Yentob, enhanced by the smell of fresh wood and coffee, there were earnest – if silent – audio-visuals of journalist Jonathan Freedland and survivor-luminary Ben Helfgott.

An interactive format will educate children in an ‘innovative and compelling way’. With 90 per cent non-Jewish visitors, Director Rickie Burman anticipates it will be a vibrant museum from the cultural and educational perspective. There are reconstructions of the East End Jewish rag trade and a dissertation on Shylock by Sir Anthony Sher. Synagogue treasures are arranged beneath a brass candelabra and an Italian walnut ark with Corinthian pillars and gilded and marbled paintwork, which was used as a steward’s wardrobe in Chillingham Castle until its discovery in 1932. Ketubot, Chanucah lamps, Torah decorations – the whole thing clinks with silver and brass and the collective Jewish memory down to the celebration of Shabbat – there’s even a mock challah to plait.

The writing on the wall includes the dates of the 4,000-year-old Jewish people, from birth to exile and return. But the stress is on Britain: the Holocaust is seen through the eyes of the only known Briton incarcerated in Auschwitz, the late Leon Greenman.

‘We don’t want the whole thing to end with the Holocaust,’ protested one guide. A valid point because Israel, the chameleon from the ashes, is less prominent. ‘This is to do with Anglo-Jewish history,’ she added. However, from the York massacre to the secret Jews of Tudor Britain, the state of Anglo-Jewry has not always been a happy one.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is one of the most devastating paintings in the National Gallery (NG). Created by eighteenth-century French artist Paul Delaroche, its poignancy is due not just to the luminous pallor of this 17-year-old queen of nine days. It’s not just because she is in pure white, her golden hair tumbling from a blindfold. It’s not even the fatherly gesture of the sergeant-at-arms who guides her towards the block. It is because Jane is like a little girl playing Blind Man’s Buff, groping, her pale arms, still with the fragile plumpness of childhood, outstretched in terror.

Similar themes by Delaroche in the NG’s new exhibition Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey (until 23 May) include Stafford on his Way to Execution, The Princes in the Tower, and a grim-faced Cromwell peering into the coffin of the executed Charles I. Delaroche’s interest in martyred English royals mirrors post-revolutionary French artists’ fascination with English literature and history, just years after their own regicide.


Gloria Tessler

previous article:AJR Annual Report 2009
next article:Family histories (review)