Jenni Frazer meets the artist creating a unique artwork to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration
In a pretty north London mews, home to flower trenchers and sunbathing cats, sits the studio of the artist Beverley-Jane Stewart. And inside there is an Anglo-Jewish treasure — Stewart’s extraordinary painting of the story of the Balfour Declaration, which marks its centenary in November.
Arthur Balfour was the British Foreign Secretary whose historic acknowledgment, in a letter to Lord Rothschild, of the need for Jews to have their own home in Palestine, became the subject of arguments for the past 100 years. Present-day Palestinians and their supporters think Britain should apologise for the Declaration, though Theresa May says she has no intention of complying; but Israel and British Zionists are equally determined to celebrate Balfour and what the Declaration represents.
Stewart is one of Anglo-Jewry’s most engaging and most singular artists. A cheerful, slight woman, she is a former art teacher who is now a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Her immigrant grandparents settled in Hackney in 1890 and moved to Clapham where her mother was born. Her father was born in the East End, and she herself grew up in south London. She now lives in St John’s Wood with her husband; they have two grown-up daughters.
In 1986, Stewart began her artistic career in an odd way. She heard that her childhood synagogue, Brixton United, would be closing down, as fewer and fewer Jews felt it was safe to live in the area.
So she went to the once-imposing building to paint a meticulous record of Brixton Synagogue. Since then, she has painted many other synagogues. You might call her Britain’s foremost chronicler of Anglo-Jewry through art.
She describes herself as a “visual writer” because her art has evolved since that first representative painting of Brixton Synagogue. Now, each painting requires not just oil on canvas, but months of research to help set the subject in context and provide a feast of imaginative viewing.
Stewart has immortalised vanished synagogues no longer in use, and ancient synagogues still lovingly attended. 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 into the Institute of Contemporary Dance in the city. Hooded dancers echo the once be-tallited worshippers 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.
And now Stewart’s unique style has found full expression in Balfour Accomplished, her rendition of the past and present behind the Balfour Declaration. The painting has been commissioned as a centrepiece for this year’s Jerusalem Biennale, which begins in October.
Just a year ago, Stewart was in Israel, visiting the Museum of the Diaspora with a view to showing them some of her work, when she heard that the Jerusalem Biennale was looking for Anglo-Jewish artists to tell the story of the Balfour Declaration and the creation of the state of Israel.
“I heard in November that I had been shortlisted for the commission, but I had already decided that the subject was so interesting that I was going to do it anyway,” says Stewart. But Rami Ozeri, the Biennale director, looking at Stewart’s ideas and preliminary sketches for a Balfour painting, was bowled over, and she got the job.
“Beverley-Jane’s work is perfect for a Balfour painting”, he says. “Her art is very impressive and very relevant, and we are very excited to have her painting on show in Jerusalem”.
Stewart spent time in Israel researching for the picture. “My objective was to show how the past relates to today. I wanted to give Israel a positive image, and I wanted a message of ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay’ to come through to the viewer of the painting.
“I very much wanted to show a spiritual connection between Jews and Israel, and the fact that Jews had been displaced for centuries and then had come back and re-established their biblical roots, in a place where they wanted to be in control”.
So Stewart’s painting in some sense encapsulates the impossible: the fractured, anguished history of Jewish persecution before the establishment of the state — rendered in grey brush-strokes on the edges of the picture — and the vibrant re-connection of Jews with the land of Israel, depicted in vivid glowing colour.
On one side of the painting, at the side of a bold and uncompromising Star of David, stands Arthur Balfour himself, together with his Declaration, in the letter he sent to Lord Rothschild on November 2 1917. Balfour is on the bottom left of the picture. Stewart, unusually, has made a collage on the painting with a copy of the Declaration —“I felt it was important for people to see it”, she says.
But the story begins at the top left, with Victorian-era British troops defending the Suez Canal. During the First World War the Turks joined the Germans and attacked the British, and Stewart, in a few deft strokes, shows bloody scenes from the Great War.
Then the eye is drawn to a portrait of Chaim Weizmann working in his laboratory. Weizmann’s work on acetone during the First World War was vital to the British victory, and gained him access to Balfour and other government leaders. Weizmann convinced Balfour of the need for Jews to have a homeland.
Still on the left of the painting is Big Ben, which morphs into the gates of Jerusalem and General Allenby crossing through in 1917. We see the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem and Lord Balfour, as he became, opening the Hebrew University in 1925. The British Parliament, which bequeathed “democracy, justice and law” to the future Jewish state, foots the picture, and creamy Jerusalem stone features throughout as a running theme.
Right at the top of the picture is a bleak landscape through which are dotted tiny tanks, as Stewart sought to show “that Israel achieved much of what it did through war; it wasn’t just given.” And, to the right, is the globe, and Jews fleeing pogroms and the Holocaust.
Still in the past, she shows us the meeting at which Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed in 1948 — and a tiny panel showing the destruction of the Second Temple. We even see a miniature of the King David Hotel being bombed in 1946, and part of an early kibbutz.
The grand central panel shows aspects of modern Israel: Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion airport, Haifa docks and the Bahai temple, hi-tech, the artists’ town of Safed, Jerusalem with the Knesset, Yad Vashem, and even a tiny depiction of the Jerusalem light railway. Caesarea is there too, with its Roman aqueduct and gas production. And right in the middle are men praying, on Succot, in front of the Western Wall.
The artist says: “Balfour, in 1917, occurred at a time when Jewish people were experiencing massive pogroms and persecution in eastern Europe. The Declaration recognised the fact that people had a right over their own destiny. This was a bold and brave action for a British politician to initiate. I do believe that whatever a person’s religion or ethnicity, they have a right to be in control of their lives. This is still sadly relevant in today’s society where many people have lost their identity. This could be interpreted as a utopian wish but as an artist I aim for ideals.”
Stewart’s determination to shoehorn nearly every aspect of Israel’s chequered history into one painting might well have daunted other artists. But she had already evolved her way of telling one story through many tiny, different, details, so each one of her paintings offers more and more to the viewer, the more often one looks.
The Jerusalem Biennale runs from October 1 to November 16 and Balfour Accomplished will be on display in a new building in the city, built for the Israel Antiquities Authority.
On November 10, the painting will briefly be lent out for a special ceremony in the Knesset as the government marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
After the Biennale there are plans for the painting to go on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.