LONDON — Just over 30 years ago there were riots in the streets of Brixton, in south London. As fewer and fewer Jews felt it was safe to live in the area, young artist Beverley-Jane Stewart heard that her childhood synagogue, Brixton United, would be closing down.
So she took herself to the once-imposing building to paint a meticulous record of the Brixton synagogue. That painting, begun in 1986 when Stewart was “fresh out of university,” marked a seminal moment for Stewart, who has become Britain’s foremost chronicler of Anglo-Jewry through her art.
Stewart, now a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, works from a crowded studio in the pretty and upscale central London area of St John’s Wood. In the tiny ground floor ante-room of her studio, pictures hustle for space on the walls, the floor, and several easels. Gradually, like a flower unfolding, her paintings tell the story of British Jewish settlement. (Many of these artworks are featured in Stewart’s new book, “British Jews — The Story in Art,” due to be published next year.)
Stewart describes herself as a “visual writer” because her art has evolved since that first representative painting of Brixton’s synagogue. Now each painting requires not just oil on canvas. but months of research to help her set the subject in context, and provide a feast of imaginative viewing. Stewart has immortalized vanished synagogues no longer in use, and ancient synagogues still lovingly attended. Festivals are commemorated alongside rites of passage such as weddings and bar mitzvahs.
She goes beyond the buildings themselves, surrounding them with a rich cornucopia of local history and community, a tapestry of where the main subject sits in relation to its surroundings. So, for example, her two-part paintings of the (now closed) Chapeltown Synagogue in Leeds show the synagogue itself, together with its transformation in the Institute of Contemporary Dance in the city. Hooded dancers echo the once be-tallited worshipers in the synagogue. At the edges of the painting are echoes of some of the household business names such as Burton tailoring and Marks & Spencer, founded by Jews and started in Leeds.
In Bradford – Stewart’s favorite painting – the synagogue is surrounded by green Yorkshire hills and the grey looming cotton mills. In Lincoln, once the home of medieval Jews, the cramped area where 13th century Jews were forced to live and pray is juxtaposed with an image of a Jew being squashed between the monarchy and the Church. Down the side of the painting is the story of the “martyr” Little Hugh of Lincoln, whose death in 1255 caused major anti-Jewish riots over a blood libel.
In Plymouth, Stewart depicts the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world, built in 1762; but she also shows the ships coming in to Plymouth Harbor, and the Jews being rowed out to the ships to trade with the sailors, while on shore the Jews jostle with local prostitutes serving those who successfully got shore leave.
‘My work is a mixture of reality and imagination’
“My work is a mixture of reality and imagination,” says Stewart, who says that in many of her paintings the darker colors reflect the difficult times Jews suffered when they first lived in the UK, while lighter, brighter hues show them in “a more enlightened, tolerant period.”
Stewart’s eclectic, fascinating patchwork paintings now hang in several UK synagogues and she was commissioned to mark 125 years of the United Synagogue with a painting now hanging in the organization’s head office. But, she confides, her real ambition is to visit first America and then Israel, rendering into oil and canvas her unique vision of synagogue Jews.
Stewart herself — as is the case with most British Jews — is from an immigrant family. Her maternal grandparents came to live in Hackney, east London, around 1890. Her father was born in the East End of London and one of her paintings reflects the glory days of the old East End, which was almost entirely Jewish, set against the commercial hum of the East End of the city today and its dizzying mix of Muslim immigrants from a dozen different countries.
Her latest — and perhaps most ambitious work — is the story of the Victorian philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, who towered over the Jewish world in his day. The Montefiore painting is a riot of color and imagery and at first it’s difficult to know where to look.
Central to his life — and in the painting — was Ramsgate Synagogue, which was privately owned by Montefiore, and where he and his wife, Lady Judith, prayed. Before his death in 1885 aged 101, he befriended the future Queen Victoria when she was a child, while convalescing from an illness in Ramsgate.
Montefiore, recounts Stewart, gave the young princess a golden key to the gates between the gardens of her adjacent house, so that she could play in the grounds. Victoria, who never forgot his kindness and awarded him his knighthood, can be seen at the far top of the picture. Below is a view of the mausoleum where Montefiore and Judith are buried, and his coat of arms together with several images of him throughout his long life.
Montefiore famously made seven visits to the Holy Land, establishing the Jerusalem windmill to enable bread to be made outside the Crusader walls and to attract millers and bakers to the growing 19th century city. Stewart has delicately depicted the windmill at Yemin Moshe together with Montefiore’s carriage, a replica of which stands today in the Jerusalem windmill’s adjoining museum.
‘Moses Montefiore was a committed Jew and Englishman who served with both valor and determination’
The surrounding edges of the painting, in dark tones, show scenes of Victorian London, including trading in the city, the Stock Exchange, Montefiore’s London residential home and his London-based synagogue, Bevis Marks.
This painting, which took Stewart more than six months to complete, is due to hang in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London’s Maida Vale district.
“Moses Montefiore was a committed Jew and Englishman who served with both valor and determination. He made an outstanding contribution to British and Jewish communities in the 19th century and I felt compelled to paint a work that reflects his life and legacy,” said Stewart.