‘From Eastern Europe to the East End and back again,’ Alfred Aaron Wolmark declared, ‘I am very much a product of this country’. Born in Warsaw in the late 1870s, he came to England with his family in 1883 as part of the early wave of eastern-European Jewish migration. The family eventually settled in the more affluent neighbourhood of Tredegar Square, Bow, where Wolmark remained for three years before setting up his own studio in Kilburn. Wolmark’s years in the East End – then the heart of the immigrant Jewish community – and his two lengthy sojourns in Poland, between 1903 and 1906, had a huge visual (as well as spiritual) impact on his early work. For the first 10–15 years of his career he produced a remarkably consistent and mature body of paintings on Jewish subjects in the manner and spirit of Rembrandt, ‘the only painter,’ he later remarked, ‘who ever […] influenced him’. Then, in July 1911, after an artistic epiphany while on honeymoon in Concarneau, Brittany, Alfred Wolmark jettisoned his earlier methods in favour of the ‘New Art’, embarking upon a pioneering ‘colourist’ path for the next two decades of his working life.
Sabbath Afternoon is a key transitional work showing a new handling of paint and touches of a lighter palette as Wolmark began to move towards modernism. Familiar with the work of Samuel Hirszenberg’s from his time in Poland, he undoubtedly references the older artist’s Sabbath Rest (1894) in his own Sabbath painting, but transposes his subjects to a typical East End setting. To underline their Orthodoxy, Wolmark shows his couple absorbed in their Sabbath studies, including important details of Jewish religious observance, such as the Bessamim (ceremonial spice tower) on the table. Yet the focus has shifted from interior to exterior and from domestic to industrial, as the sun setting over the city’s smoking chimneys is glimpsed through the window behind. It is not the interior or its inhabitants but the brilliantly lit, urban townscape beyond which provides the focus for the composition, identifying Wolmark with a modernist motif typical of his Camden Town contemporaries.
A pioneer as a painter of both the Jewish community in London’s East End and as an early modernist, Wolmark has been called the ‘father’ of the Whitechapel Boys. He was the only artist to be included in both the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s 1906 Jewish Art and Antiquities Exhibition and in David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein’s ‘Jewish Section’ at the 1914 exhibition Twentieth-Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements. Closely associated with the Ben Uri for many years: he was Vice-President from 1923–56, and in 1925, together with Solomon J Solomon, presided over the official opening of the Ben Uri’s first gallery in Great Russell Street.
Wolmark is one of the best-represented artists in the Ben Uri Collection which holds 27 of his works, and curated the retrospective Alfred Wolmark: A Pioneer of British Modernism in 2004.