Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London

Art, Identity, Migration

Portraits in the Ben Uri Collection

I look around me and I see load of people – there are hundreds of them.

Where am I? Did I get lost in the centre of London? No.

I look at all those figures more carefully: there are old and young couples, children, families, beautiful girls, workers and aristocrats – and they seem to come from different nationalities and cultures. I can see a young woman in an elegant evening dress, and another one with a sari, a gypsy with earrings, Khirgiz girl, a Jewish girl…

Are they strangers? Not really. I know the names of most of them: I recognise Ariela, David, Michael, Julia, Jake, Lord Balfour, Dorothy Stone, Mrs Herbert Cohen, Leopold Gottlieb and many others.

Where am I? I’m looking at the 250 portraits in the Ben Uri Collection. Although temporarily stored in a warehouse in London, while the Ben Uri team are trying to find the perfect place where they could be permanently exhibited (together with more than 1,000 other paintings), they fascinate any observer and remind us of the existence of many people that would otherwise probably have been forgotten.

Even though I have studied History of Art for three years at university, I must say that I had never learned to appreciate portraits for anything else outside their historical relevance before. Sometimes, I could praise the incredible skills of the painter, but all in all, every portrait showed to me a figure in a perfectly calculated pose, most of the time looking directly to the artist or reading a book.

Portrait of a Kirghiz Girl

Portrait of a Kirghiz Girl by Abel Pann

I came across the portraits in the Ben Uri Collection working as a social media intern here, uploading hundreds of pictures onto the gallery’s website. In particular, I could mention Jacob Kramer’s Woman Knitting, Abel Pann’s Portrait of a Kirghiz Girl, Solomon’s The Field (picturing the artist’s daughter on a pony) and Joseph Ross’s Portrait of Lord Albermarle – four portraits showing different styles (realism, sketch, caricature), techniques (coloured pencil, pen, pastels, lithograph, oil), colour palettes, sizes and supports (paper, canvas). But what caught my eye most is the wide range of activities and the different clothes the figures are wearing that show their complementary lifestyles and wealth. Kramer’s woman is knitting, and her clothes are very modest, therefore we can suppose that she has been a worker her entire life; the Kirghiz girl exhibits the signs of another culture; the young girl on a pony wears an elegant red coat and looks down quite confidently from her pony’s back, so we can imagine her belonging to a wealthy family. As for Lord Albermarle’s portrait, smoking a cigarette, I would have said from his clothes that he was either a rich or a business man (or even both).

I found out that portraits can be much more than the passive representation of a boring figure: to me they’re intriguing because they can picture the naked truth as well as manipulating the reality in the way the customer wanted, by showing a false power and confidence, for example. When I look at a portrait now, I don’t see just a figure, but an entire (secret) personal story behind it.

Portrait of Lord Albermarle

Portrait of Lord Albermarle by Joseph Ross

By Sabina Lutiger

Cover painting is ‘Old Woman Knitting’ by Jacob Krammer

If you would like to see more of the Ben Uri Gallery collection visit us at http://www.benuri.org.uk/public/?collection

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