Self-Portrait in Steel Helmet
Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890 and raised in great poverty in Whitechapel. Despite an early talent for drawing and writing, by the age of fourteen he was unhappily apprenticed to a firm of Fleet Street engravers. He took evening art classes at Birkbeck College, where he won many prizes, before following Mark Gertler and David Bomberg to the Slade School of Art (1911 – 14). Afterwards Rosenberg visited his sister in South Africa where he painted, wrote and lectured about art, before returning to England in 1915. After enlisting in the army in October 1915, he was sent to the Front in 1916.
Rosenberg often unable to afford models and his oeuvre includes many self-portraits. The earliest are slight and delicate in the melancholic Romantic tradition of Benjamin Robert Haydon’s portrait sketches of the young Keats. Between 1912 and 1915, however, under the influence of the Slade, Rosenberg began to shed this persona in a series of leaner, bolder self-portraits which display a new bravura confidence and mark his transition to modernism. Unsentimental, yet poignant, Self‑Portrait in a Steel Helmet is Rosenberg’s final self-portrait and completes the series; it is also his final finished work as a painter. Drawn in the trenches in gouache and chalk on crumpled, poor quality brown paper, possibly salvaged from a parcel sent from home, its fragile state documents this important part of its history. The portrait appears to relate closely to a sketch made in a letter, entitled Self‑Portrait Sketch in Tin Helmet (c.1916, Imperial War Museum) of which Rosenberg joked to his family that it was ‘The New Fashion boiler hat – the trench hat’.
This is one of two portraits by Rosenberg in the Ben Uri collection. The second, a portrait of Sonia. According to their daughter Joan, who bequeathed this portrait, together with one of her father by David Bomberg to the collection, Rosenberg also worked on Sonia’s portrait during his final leave from the Front in 1917. He was killed while on patrol on 1st April 1918 at the age of 27. Despite publishing only two short collections of poetry during his lifetime, Rosenberg is now regarded as one of the finest War Poets of his generation. The exhibition, Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and his Contemporaries (Ben Uri, 2008), which included both Rosenberg portraits, was the first to examine his art in the context of his Whitechapel peers.