London Museum Challenge #22: Ben Uri Gallery

November 10, 2013 § 4 Comments

The Ben Uri Gallery

The Ben Uri Gallery

I saved the Ben Uri Gallery for the end of the year for a particular reason – I was waiting for their new exhibition, Uproar!: The First Fifty Years of the London Group. The trouble with the Ben Uri – London’s museum of Jewish art – is that in its venerable 98-year history it has yet to find a permanent home. It has a collection of some 1300 works but nowhere to display them, so for now it is, essentially, a Kunsthalle, hosting temporary exhibitions that relate to its collection or its objectives (which, as stated in its subtitle, are ‘art, identity and migration’).

The Ben Uri also holds the dubious distinction of being the hardest to find of all the museums I’ve visited on my voyage through London museums this year. Admittedly, this is partly my fault. I looked up the address on their website, found that it didn’t appear in my A-Z, and decided to chance it – after all, every time I’ve gone to visit a museum in the outer reaches of London (like Osterley, or Eltham, or Bexleyheath) it’s been clearly signposted from the nearest Tube or train station. So I got off the Tube this afternoon at St John’s Wood and… no sign to be seen. I had a look at the map just outside the station and it wasn’t indicated. I was now slightly nervous, but I knew which street it was on so I headed off down Finchley Road in its direction.

When I got to Boundary Road, there was still nothing to indicate its presence. Boundary Road also turned out to be a. a lot longer than it looked in my A-Z and b. apparently entirely residential. There didn’t appear to be any museums hiding among the houses or the council estates on either side of the street. After about ten minutes I began to wonder whether I’d have to give up, go home and write a post about how Museum #22 had eluded me (oh, the shame!).

When I crossed Abbey Road the street’s character changed – it was now lined with shops and restaurants. And there, in the middle of a block of shops, was the gallery. I was… a little surprised. But I pushed the door open and just like that, I was surrounded by the work of the likes of Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

The space (two rooms – ground floor and basement) was cramped and oddly configured (and my inner curator agonised over its probably not being brilliant in terms of environmental conditions for the art), but the curators had obviously made the best of it. The selection of works was very strong indeed and there’s certainly something to be said for being brought face to face with it in such close quarters.

David Bomberg, Ghetto Theatre (1920)

David Bomberg, Ghetto Theatre (1920)

There was one painting in the show from the Ben Uri’s permanent collection – David Bomberg’s savage and brilliant Ghetto Theatre (1920). If it is representative of the quality of the collection as a whole, then I sincerely hope the Ben Uri Gallery is able to find a permanent – and larger – home soon, so that justice can be done the rest of it.

Tally: 22 down, 1 (!) to go


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§ 4 Responses to London Museum Challenge #22: Ben Uri Gallery

  • I feel I have a good knowledge of London museums but I had never heard of this collection. Very interesting and let’s hope it can find a permanent site. With such strong and long-established Jewish communities in London it seems a shame it has not. The Bomberg painting is excellent and again I know nothing about this artist although a quick look on the internet reveals he has paintings at the Tate so might have seen his work before without taking in the name.

    I always loved that sense of the unknown when tracking down galleries and shows in unfamiliar outer London suburbs.

    • Yes, it is a great shame – especially when you think that some of the best modern artists Britain produced came from these very communities (Gertler, Epstein, Bomberg et al.)

      The Ben Uri’s Bomberg was a surprise to me too because I only knew his earlier work, which is much less figurative, more Cubist/Futurist/Vorticist (The Mud Bath and Vision of Ezekiel, both at Tate, being the best examples). Definitely an artist worth getting better acquainted with!

  • […] Ben Uri Gallery (depending on exhibitions) […]

  • […] Museum on my original list last year is that… up until a few months ago, I thought it and the Ben Uri Gallery were one and the same. Even more shameful – it took one of my colleagues getting a job at the […]

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