01 December 2015

Wartski jewellery shops: from Russia with love

I am totally invested in Swarovski crystals and can recognise them from 100 meters away, with my eyes blindfolded.  But I knew little about Wartski other than it was a family company specialising in the work of Carl Fabergé, elegant jewellery, silver and perhaps Russian art.

Now the book Wartski: The First Hundred and Fifty Years has come out, written by Geoffrey Mann and published by Antique Collectors' Club in 2015. From war-torn Poland to London’s Mayfair, this new book charts the success of one of the world’s greatest jewellers in its 150th year. Huon Mallalieu reviewed the book in Country Life (May 13th 2015) “in order to look at a sumptuous book that whirls us through the 150-year history of one of the world’s great jewellery businesses

According to family tradition, the business that grew to be Wartski, the Mayfair jeweller by appointment to The Queen and The Prince of Wales, had its beginnings in 1865, in Turek in Poland, then close to the border between Russia and Prussia.

It was not a good time for anyone, let alone a Jew, to set business offering jewellery and haberdashery in Poland. A nationalist uprising against the Russian occupiers had just been bloodily crushed and, throughout the Tsarist Empire, anti-Semitism was on the rise.

So it is not surprising that in 1876 Shemaya and Rosa Wartski, despite declaring themselves natural-born subjects of the Russian Empire, should send three of their sons, including Morris, westwards to Britain. What was less expected was that they established themselves in North Wales, not in the rapidly growing Jewish communities of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds.

Morris Wartski outside his first shop 
Bangor Wales c1895.
photo credit: Wartski London

Morris Wartski (1855-1946) began as a travelling salesman but soon, seemingly as a result of a chance meeting with the Marquess of Anglesey, was able to open a shop in Bangor. On his naturalisation papers in 1893 he is described as a jeweller and furniture dealer and by 1907, he had extended the business to the more prosperous and fashionable watering-place of Llandudno. His customers included the eccentric Lord Anglesey, not a reliable payer, and the family lawyer was David Lloyd George.

Morris was a man of great ability as well as charm and, as he spoke Russian, Polish, Yiddish, German and Welsh as well as Polish-accented English, he was able to aid the authorities in dealing with further waves of immigrants. He died at 91 after a long and full life, which he attributed to ‘plenty of whisky, good cigars and no exercise’.

It was his son-in-law Emanuel Snowman (1886–1970), son of similar immigrants, who opened a branch of Wartski in London  in 1911. And it was Snowman who made many of the acquisitions from imperial and aristocratic coll­ect­ions that were sold by the Soviets between 1927-33, thus making the enduring reputation of the firm. During the 1920s and after the Second World War everyone who was anyone came to Wartski to marvel and to buy: the moneyed classes old and new, royalty by families and Holly­wood by the galaxy. Even the 2nd Viscount Stansgate, later Tony Benn, was there; he consulted the Snowmans on the disposal of his peer’s coronet.

In the book beautiful photographs of beautiful people complement the jewels, the bibelots and of course the fancies of Faberge, including a whole clutch of eggs. Long departed from the subterranean premises in Regent St and settled comfortably yards from Bond St in Grafton St, Wartski continues to attract stars as well as putting on the most wonderful exhibitions”.


Wartski’s own page added vital information. In 1911 Morris Wartski's son-in-law Emanuel Snowman was among the first to negotiate with the new Soviet government in the 1920s; he purchased treasures that had been confiscated after the revolution of 1917. For over a decade he acquired many fine works of art, including a gold chalice commissioned by Catherine the Great (now in the Hillwood Museum).

Faberge bell push bought by the Tsar's sister Grand Duchess Xenia,
later owned by King George I of Greece,
silver with purple guilloche enamel and pearls.

Faberge egg, containing a Vacheron Constantin watch, 
sits on a jewelled gold stand,
given by Alexander III to his Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1887.

Emanuel's son Kenneth built on his father's work, adding an academic dimension to the business through his pioneering research and exhibitions. His first book, The Art of Carl Fabergé, was published in 1953. Then Carl Fabergé: Goldsmith to the Imperial Court of Russia and Eighteenth Century Gold Boxes of Europe in 1966. Kenneth Snowman was made famous by Ian Fleming, a Wartski customer, in the James Bond novella Property of a Lady; he was described as being in Wartski’s premises, then in Regent Street. In the next generation, Kenneth’s son Nicholas Snowman succeeded his father as Chairman and continues to support the firm's scholarly traditions. Appropriately Nicholas Snowman is the great-grandson of Morris Wartski.

Two exhibitions specialising in tiaras have been organised by Wartski’s. The first, One Hundred Tiaras - An Evolution of Style 1800-1900, was in 1997 in the Grafton Street premises of this firm. The Queen Victoria's Emerald and Diamond Tiara was one of the tiaras displayed at this exhibition. Queen Victoria's Sapphire and Diamond Tiara, worn in the famous Winterhalter portrait, survives intact in the hands of a descendant of Queen Victoria, who lent it to Wartski for the 1997 exhibition. The second exhibition of tiaras was held at the Victoria Albert Museum in 2002, also organised by Wartski's. The 2002 display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tiaras, included 200 pieces ranging from historic pieces loaned from European royal and aristocratic families.. to modern pieces. It included 20 tiaras of British Royal origin, out of which four were designed by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria.

28 November 2015

Agreements to protect prisoners of war in World War One

The early-middle 19th century was full of war eg1 the Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815) devastated Europe. Eg2 The Anglo-American War of 1812 involved a war against British shipping and repeated American invasions of Canada. Eg3 The Crimean War (1853–1856) led to 300,000 dead or imprisoned from the British-French-Turkish side and 220,000 dead or imprisoned Russians.

These wars devised cartel ships for the exchange of prisoners of war, even while the armies were still fighting. Cartels were ships employed on humanitarian trips, to safely carry prisoners for repatriation to their homes. While serving as a legitimate cartel, a ship could not be captured by enemy action.

During the later C19th, nations wanted to improve the treatment of prisoners of war in enemy countries, AND their safe return home after the war. Multi-national conferences were held, most notably the Brussels Conference of 1874. Although no agreements were immediately ratified by the participating nations, ongoing negotiations led to new conventions being recognised. In international law, prisoners of war were to be treated humanely.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, formally founded in 1863 in Geneva, had a special task within international humanitarian law. For this post, the ICRC's most important task was to establish the International Prisoners of War Agency in Geneva, in August 1914. Its role was to restore contact between people separated by war – prisoners of war, civilian internees and civilians in occupied territories. During WW1, the Agency kept information on almost two and a half million POWs. It also ensured prisoners of war had the right to send and receive family letters.

Tsar Nicholas II strongly encouraged international conferences that fixed the terms of the laws and customs of war, firstly at The Hague in 1899 (and later in 1907). The final principles were published by the Hague Convention of 1899 in Articles 3-20, including:

*In case of capture by the enemy, combatants and others have a right to be treated as prisoners of war. They must be humanely treated.
*All their personal belongings, except arms, horses and military papers remain their property.
*The State may utilise prisoner of war labour according to their rank and aptitude. Their tasks shall not be excessive, and shall have nothing to do with the military operations.
*The wages of the prisoners shall go towards improving their position, and the balance shall be paid them at the time of their release, after deducting the cost of their maintenance.
*Failing a special agreement between the belligerents, prisoners of war shall be treated on the same footing as local troops, as regards food, housing and clothing.
*Relief Societies for prisoners of war shall receive, from the belligerents for themselves and their duly accredited agents, every facility for the effective accomplishment of their humane task.

German prisoners lying and waiting in a field at Longueau 
on the Western Front, August 1916
Photo credit: The Telegraph 12th Nov 2015

But the only thing this 1899 Hague Convention said specifically about the exchange of POWs was as follows: “After the conclusion of peace, the repatriation of prisoners of war shall take place as speedily as possible”.

The Hague Conventions came into force in the German Empire and France in January 1910, but then World War One changed everything. Already by September 1914, 125,000 French soldiers and 94,000 Russian POWs were held captive in German camps. And not just in Germany itself. Very soon POW camps were opened for business in Germany’s occupied territories, especially in northern and eastern France. I wonder how many German POWs were captured and held in Allied prison camps at the same time.

German prisoners being readied for transport home,
20th November 1918
Photo credit: Central News Photo Service

Britain At War 1915 (p22) noted that by the early weeks of 1915, the British and German governments had to urgently consider the internment and/or exchange of wounded POWs. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs told the House of Commons in March 1915 that both the British and the German Governments “had agreed to the principle of an exchange of POWs permanently incap­ac­it­ated for further military service”. All negotiations for the exchange of prisoners were to be conducted through the Foreign Office, with the concurrence of the War Office.

One exchange under this agreement had already been effected, on 15th February 1915. It involved a number of disabled, seriously ill or badly wounded British and German POWs. Those participating Allied prisoners who were held in camps in central and southern Germany were transferred via neutral Switzerland, whilst those incarcerated in the east and north went via neutral Netherlands. The intention was that these prisoners would be held in camps in those neutral countries and nursed back to health before completing their repatriation.

The other neutral nation to get involved in 1915 was the USA. The American Ambassador to Berlin, James Gerard, acted as a mediator between the two warring nations. Gerard was delighted to see that the wounded and sick officers and men were sent to Switzerland, still as prisoners of war. From there, they were subject to return to Germany or Great Britain respectively.

There were over 8 million soldiers taken prisoner during WWI. Yet I can find no more formal agreements for the repatriation of POWs until the Treaty of Versailles (articles 214-226), signed in 1919.

24 November 2015

Immigrants, paintings and identity - Jewish artists in London

In July 1915, in an East End restaurant called Gradel’s, the Russian-Jewish artist Lazar Berson invited other artists to support each other culturally and artistically. They planned literary and musical evenings together, to be held in their shared language, Yiddish.

The resulting organisation was Ben Uri Art Gallery. Made up of both historical and contemporary works, the Ben Uri collection eventually spanned 120 years and now includes 380 artists from 35 countries. 67% of these artists were émigrés.

The 1915-2015 century of Ben Uri was always going to be celebrated, but based in a small and temporary space in St John’s Wood, Ben Uri’s treasures were mostly squished up in storage. Now the 70 selected works are being display­ed instead at King’s College London, in the Somerset House East Wing gallery. The exhibition is called Out of Chaos: 100 Years in London.

Rosenberg, Self portrait  
National Portrait Gallery, London

This exhibition is showcasing works that might be not well known. The selected art illustrates the immigrant experience via 19th century artists eg Solomon Hart, the first Jewish made a member of the Royal Academy in 1840, Simeon Solomon and Solomon Joseph Solomon. Then the visitor is invited to view the artists who worked in London in the early C20th, including the sculptor Jacob Epstein. As I have said in previous posts, the Whitechapel Boys were special artists. They were a group of young men that went on to become some of my favourite English writers and artists of the era. I discussed only three: Mark Gertler (1891–1939) was born and raised in Spital­fields, Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918) moved to Stepney as a school boy and David Bomberg (1890–1957) grew up in Whitechapel. Reviewers have suggested that their experimentation gave shape to British Modernism.

And there are examples of the Lon­doners’ intern­ational contemp­oraries, including Max Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Chaïm Soutine and Georg Grosz. Finally we will consider the intense, modern imagery of School of London painters Josef Herman, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and RB Kitaj.

You can see the entire online gallery, but I would like to focus on 3 works. The self portrait of Isaac Rosenberg (1915) was a surprise. It seems this immigrant teenager was training to be a painter before the Great War broke out. He fought in the war between 1915-18, dying in the battle of Arras; if anything, we know him now for his war poetry. Yet here we have a sensitive, confident self portrait, dated before he was faced with death and destruction.

Gertler, Merry-Go-Round 
189 × 142 cms1916
Tate Gallery, London

Thankfully the Tate Gallery made a loan of Mark Gertler’s most celebrated work, Merry-Go-Round (1916), his conscientious objector’s reaction to WW1. This very large painting depicted sixteen figures travelling on horseback around a colourful fairground carousel, arranged in five groups of civilians and soldiers. Were the participants screaming?

I particularly liked David Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre (1920). The Jewish audience had faces that cannot be seen clearly. Were they exhausted from a day’s work in the factories and shops? Were they embarrassed about not being as well dressed as the Top Hats below? Could they not understand the actors’ speeches well enough?

This exhibition explores a century of past, Jewish émigré history, but it is also creating future dialogue about the universal relationship between immigration, identity and art. Every émigré community in the world has probably faced the same social and political upheavals: loss of extended family, loss of a home, no knowledge of the new land’s language, financial struggle and perhaps distrust from the other citizens. In light of the intense anti-asylum seeker and anti-immigrant environment found today in Australia, Britain, France and everywhere else, it will be interesting to see what parallels visitors to the Ben Uri collection draw.

Bomberg, Ghetto Theatre 
Ben Uri Gallery, London

The exhibition closes in mid December 2015. As ever, if readers cannot get to London in time, I recommend the 2015 exhibition catalogue. It charts a fluid engagement with British and European art and the transition from traditionalism to modernism. The catalogue starts with early artists, including the pre-Raphaelites and the early colourist, Alfred Wolmark, the so-called father of the Whitechapel Boys. And the only Whitechapel Girl Clare Winsten, just one of  the artists who made a distinct contribution to early British modernism.