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Morris Goldstein, The Lost Whitechapel Boy

November 22, 2023
by the gentle author

Jonathan Pryce will read my short story ‘On Christmas Day’ at the launch at Burley Fisher Books in Haggerston this Thursday 23rd November at 6:30pm.




Morris Goldstein, self-portrait


There is a lecture to celebrate the publication of a new book about Goldstein’s life and the rediscovery of a significant artist of the East End. The talk will be introduced by Professor Rebecca Beasley, an expert in Modernist Studies at Oxford University, and presented by Morris Goldstein’s son Raymond Francis who has been researching his story for the last ten years.

Click here to book for the lecture at the Hanbury Hall on Tuesday December 5th


When Raymond Francis showed me these pictures by his father Morris Goldstein – seeking to bring them to a wider audience and reinstate his father’s position among the Whitechapel Boys – I was touched by the tender human observation apparent in Morris’ sympathetic portraits of his fellow East Enders.

The Whitechapel Boys were a group of young Jewish artists from the East End, including the poet Isaac Rosenberg, who showed together at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1914 and made a distinctive contribution to British Modernism in the early twentieth century. Yet when the list of those who comprise this group is made – including Mark Gertler, David Bomberg and others – the name of Morris Goldstein is rarely mentioned.

It was the death of Morris Goldstein’s father that forced him to leave the Slade early, in order to earn money to support his family rather than pursue his art, with the outcome that – although he exhibited a significant number of works in the 1914 Whitechapel show – his work has subsequently become unjustly neglected.

More than century later, it is is time for a re-evaluation of the group that became known as the Whitechapel Boys and a re-examination the life and work of those artists who became marginalised. And, thanks to Raymond Francis, we are to learn Morris Goldstein’s story at long last.

Born in Poland in 1892 in Pinczow, a small town midway between Krakow and Warsaw, Morris Kugal emigrated to London at the age of six in 1898 with his parents David and Sarah, and his two younger sisters Annie and Jeannie.

Adopting the name Goldstein, the family lived in Redman’s Row, Stepney, where the poet Isaac Rosenberg was a neighbour. Growing up in poverty, Morris quickly came to understand the conflict between his dreams and reality. Although his talent led him to Stepney Green Art School, he knew that the need to leave and earn a living at fourteen years old would prevent him pursuing a career as an artist.

Like Rosenberg, he was obliged to take up an apprenticeship in marquetry but for three years they went together to evening classes in art close to their employment in Bolt Court, Fleet St, where Morris received the gold medal for best work and found himself alongside fellow students including Paul Nash. Determined to become a respected painter, Morris soon fund himself in the company of other aspiring young artists, including Mark Gertler whom he first met at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1908.

Through tenacity and determination, Morris managed to overcome the obstacle of his financial disadvantage by winning a scholarship to the Slade School of Art which he attended alongside other Whitechapel Boys – Isaac Rosenberg, David Bomberg and Mark Gertler in 1912. He applied to the Jewish Education Aid Society in 1908, 1909 and 1911, before being granted twelve shillings and sixpence a week. While at the Slade, Morris and Isaac Rosenberg walked from Mile End to Gower St every day to save money and they often went to study at the Whitechapel Library, doing their homework which entailed sketching and studying the history of art, thus escaping the distractions of home life in the evening.

As this group of young East End artists acquired confidence, they discovered the Cafe Royal in Regent St where they encountered luminaries of the day, including members of the Bloomsbury Group and socialites such as Nancy Cunard and Lady Diana Manners. Morris hailed it as Mecca and recalled making his sixpenny coffee and cake last all day.

Often Morris and Isaac Rosenberg were joined on their walks by David Bomberg and they met Sonia Cohen, a Whitechapel girl brought up in an orphanage, whom they all fell in love with. Meanwhile, Isaac Rosenberg grew increasingly conscious of the burden imposed on his family by his long preparation for a career as a painter. Morris’ mother Sarah Goldstein was a close friend of Hacha Rosenberg, Isaac’s mother, and they commiserated that they knew of young tailors in the neighbourhood earning  fifteen or twenty pounds a week, while their sons brought in nothing. In 1913, Morris’ father’s unexpected death placed the responsibility of becoming the breadwinner upon him and he had to give up his study to replace the income of two pounds a week that David Goldstein had earned as a shoemaker.

He had five works in the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s Twentieth Century Art Review of Modern Movements in May 1914, along with the other Whitechapel Boys (Rosenberg, Bomberg etc), the only time that this group ever exhibited together. When the First World War broke out in August of that year, Morris sought to enlist but was rejected because he was not yet a naturalised British citizen. David Bomberg was also rejected but Isaac Rosenberg was sent to the Somme where he was killed in April 1918.

During the war, Morris was Art Master at the Toynbee Art Club at Toynbee Hall and the Annual report of 1914 -1915 notes, “classes were well attended, the members being greatly assisted by the guidance and criticism of Mr Morris Goldstein, the art master.”

When the Jewish Education Aid Society wrote to Morris asking for their money back in 1917, he replied on Boxing Day in the following defiant terms –“I am alive and that is a great deal in these days. To be alive is a great benediction – to live through these turbulent times until peace reigns once more upon earth would be the greatest joy of all. My present hope and wish is to live through these times so that after the cessation of hostilities I could put my body and soul into my spiritual work. I am not yet in the army but of course I’m liable to be called up any day now. Let us hope the war will end soon, Believe me to remain, Morris Goldstein”

Morris continued to exhibit at the Whitechapel Gallery’s annual East End Academy until 1960.

Sarah & David Goldstein stand outside the East End boot shop that was the family business, c. 1912

Sarah and David Goldstein with their daughters Annie and Jeannie, and Morris on the right.

Morris Goldstein aged twenty when he went to the Slade in 1912

Morris Goldstein paints the portrait of the Mayor of Stoke Newington in 1960

Sketch of Morris Goldstein’s son, Raymond Francis, sleeping in 1955

Raymond Francis standing at the gates of Stepney Green School where his father was educated

Raymond Francis outside 13 Vallance Rd where his father lived and wrote the letter below.

In 1940, Morris Goldstein wrote to relatives in America seeking help to send his two daughters across the Atlantic to escape the war.

A local landmark, this unusual and attractive nineteenth century terrace 3-11 Vallance Rd in Whitechapel is currently under threat of demolition.

Artwork copyright © Estate of Morris Goldstein

Photograph of Vallance Rd terrace © Alex Pink

One Response leave one →
  1. Juliet shipman permalink
    November 22, 2023

    Very interesting. I hope those Victorian shops and buildings are saved.

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