William Rothenstein became an eminent painter of portraits and landscapes in oils. Although he left the Bradford at 16 and never lived there again, he frequently returned to see his family and in 1932 wrote an article, Bradford Revisited, in which he reflected on the important cultural influence the city had had on his life.
William was born at Spring Bank Place, Manningham in Bradford to a middle-class German/Jewish immigrant family – his father, Moritz, was a successful wool merchant, who had moved to Bradford n the 1860s. The German business community became influential in Bradford – then a fast developing centre for the woollen textile industry, and Moritz had quickly established his own business in the city. His wife, Bertha, had joined him in 1865, and six children were born; William was the fifth of these.
The famly moved to Walmer Villas, Manningham, and William attended the nearby Bradford Grammar School, but transferred in 1888, aged 16, to the Slade School of Art, in London, under the leadership of Alphonse Legros, who was to become a key influence on William’s art. On the advice of a prominent Royal Academician, Soloman J. Soloman, William left the Slade after one year to study in Paris at the Académie Julian, Paris. In Paris he met and befriended the rising artists of the time, including Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec and Sickert. In 1892 an exhibition of William’s Parisian work attracted favourable reviews and attracted the attention of Camille Pisarro and Edgar Degas.
William left Paris to take up a commission producing lithographic portraits of Oxford worthies, published in 1896 as Oxford Characters. This led to other similar work, particularly English Portraits (1898), and did much to establish his reputation as a portrait painter. The artistic and literary personalities he encountered for English Portraits helped him to establish a network of friends in London, where he was now living, and established him as a member of the New English Art Club – English artists, influenced by their time in Paris and wanting to challenge the authority of the Royal Academy.
In 1899, William married Alice Knewstub, a former actress and daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Walter Knewstub. They moved to Hampstead in North London and two sons were born – Michael and John, who both became successful artists; John became director of the Tate Gallery from 1938 to 1964; and Michael established his reputation as an experimental and eminent printmaker. Alice often featured in William’s work at this time.
By the end of first decade of the 20th century Rothenstein was the founder of the now defunct Carfax Gallery which lasted a little over 10 years, during which time it exhibited a wide range of artists, but is perhaps best remembered as the first place to exhibit the work of the Camden Town Group of artists.
Although not an orthodox Jew, William was briefly but significantly influenced by time he spent in the East End of London (1903-8) observing and painting the Jewish community in the Brick Lane area.
He became increasingly concerned about the marginal role art appeared to be playing in British society, and how it pandered to the purses and tastes of the rich. He wanted art to appeal to a wider audience and became an advocate for art in public spaces, and particularly the value of wall paintings in publicly accessible buildings. To this end he completed one major mural: Sir Thomas Roe at the Court of Jehangir, Ajmir, 1614, completed in 1927 and which hangs in St Stephen’s Hall, The Palace of Westminster.
William also spent some time in India in 1910, which had a profound impact on his work; he played an integral role in the establishment of the India Society on his return to England.
Between 1912-1919 the Rothenstein’s lived in Gloucestershire, near Stroud, and the villagers and the surrounding countryside became the subject of many of his paintings at that time.
In 1917 William was appointed an Official War Artist and became known for his scenes of the blasted landscape of Flanders. He declined to change his name during the First World War as his brothers had done, fearing an anti-German backlash.
He was also an Official war Artist during World War Two, and painted aerodromes and airmen in the vicinity of his Gloucestershire home, culminating in the 1942 book, Men of the RAF featuring his portraits.
William was elected a member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters & Gravers and also exhibited with the Society of Twelve and at the Chenil Gallery, with which he had a family connection.
In 1920 he was appointed Principal of Royal College of Art (RCA). During his time at the RCA he transformed it into a major artistic educational force, which has remained so into the 21st Century. He was knighted for his services to art in 1931.
Examples of his work are in the collections of several major galleries in the UK. These include the National Portrait Gallery, the Imperial War Museum, the Tate Gallery, Cheltenham Art Gallery, Hull University, RAF Museum, Hendon, Manchester City Galleries and at Cartwright Hall, Bradford, who held a centenary retrospective of his work in 1972, and again in 2015: ‘From Bradford to Benares: The Art of Sir William Rothenstein’.
Men and Memories: The recollections of William Rothenstein, 1872-1938. Originally published in 3 volumes in 1931, 1932 & 1939 by Faber, London. Published by Chatto and Windus, London, 1978. ISBN 0701122978.
William Rothenstein: The portrait of an artist in his time. Published by Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1962.