Pictures of Lily, my grandmother

By Anne Sebba, T2, The Times, 12 March 2008

Pre-Raphaelite frescoes in Liverpool Town Hall include a beautiful girl who became the grandmother of Anne Sebba

I have just been introduced to my grandmother high on the walls of Liverpool Town Hall. Or at least, to a side of her that I never knew. She looks beautiful, clothed in a loose white robe, personifying peace and industry on one wall, education and progress on another. As a teenager, just before she met my grandfather, she worked as an occasional artist’s model and music hall actress. I had heard about some frescoes for which she modelled but only ever seen them reproduced in a book. I tried, in a half-hearted way, to find out more. But I knew I had to go to Liverpool and see them in situ and the story I discovered there helps explain why more information was not forthcoming. The commission and subsequent unveiling almost one hundred years ago was deeply unpopular in the city. My grandmother, although she may never have known it, was involved in a bitter controversy between local Liverpool artists and the art establishment in London.

In 1907 the City of Liverpool held a grand pageant to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the granting of the first charter by King John. Professional artists designed brilliantly coloured banners, trophies and heraldic devices which were revealed to great acclaim. The event made a profit – £366 – and a Pageant Surplus Committee was appointed. This Committee decided to spend the money on mural decorations for the Town Hall, a fine Palladian building, to mark the Sept-Centenary in a more permanent way. An apparently open competition was held but, when first prize was awarded to a young and unknown London artist called Amschewitz, and the ten submissions of the local artists ignored, there was vehement protest.

John Henry Amschewitz was born on December 19th, 1882 in Margate, South East England, the son of a rabbi. Fascinated by painting since childhood, John spent all his pocket money on brushes and paints. He became a student at the Birkbeck Institute and gained first class passes in all art subjects. But his father, with a large family to support, disapproved of his son’s desire to study art and insisted on an apprenticeship to a furniture designer. John left home to stay with a married sister in Edinburgh, and won a scholarship to the main Art Academy in that city.

On his return to London he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy Schools following a chance introduction to Sir Edward Poynter, President, who admired his work. He remained there for five years studying under Sargent, Sir Luke Fildes, Sir George Clausen, Solomon J. Solomon and other Academicians. In 1905 he not only won the £40 prize for Mural Decoration but had a picture hung at the RA and another, the following year, a portrait of his father, was hung. For a student to have two pictures chosen in two years was extraordinary and influential patrons now queued up to pay attention to his work. He was invited to illustrate Israel Zangwill’s 1907 classic, Ghetto Comedies.

Probably it was one of these new patrons who encouraged Amschewitz to enter the Liverpool competition. His two designs won first and second place and he was immediately commissioned to paint four frescoes, each 25 ft long and 6ft high for the entrance hall, depicting the history of the city and known as the Lunettes, because of their half moon shape. It was his first major work.

Meanwhile, my grandmother, some six years younger, was earning a living as a pantomime artiste, singing comic and sentimental ballads such as “Has your mother any more like you?” In the heyday of the Victorian music hall several songs were written especially for “Miss Lily Black”, her stage name. Lily had made her debut, aged 7, at Drury Lane Theatre with a six-line part in the pantomime, Babes in the Wood starring Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell. But after she left school, aged 14, she worked both on stage and as an artist’s model, usually closely chaperoned by her half-French mother. She sat for the Royal Academician, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, and the water colourist, Fred Rowe. Perhaps this is how “Am,” as he was known, heard of her. Or he might have spotted her on stage as he too was a keen theatre-goer. Many theatre critics commented on Lily’s golden red curls and these may have been the source of her attraction for Amschewitz. Several of the women in the Liverpool Lunettes – and she was possibly the model for them all – have thick, auburn-coloured pre-Raphaelite tresses.

By 1909 my grandmother was engaged by various theatres around London and had also developed a considerable reputation in Bradford. But Liverpool? Ever since I had heard about the murals I wondered what had taken my grandmother there. But a guide in the Town Hall explained: “The story here is that Amschewitz won the competition partly because he offered a new, French technique of attaching canvas on to walls under heavy pressure, not painting directly on to them, so that the pictures would survive several centuries. That is what attracted the judges.”

So, Amschewitz painted the “frescoes” in London, and my grandmother probably posed for him in his Fitrovia (Percy Street) studios, just off Tottenham Court Road. By 1908 artists’ models considered themselves professionals and Lily was probably paid a shilling an hour. But, even if earning a living in this way was no longer shameful, her activities were still quite daring.

Amschewitz, judging from various self portraits, was strikingly handsome, a painter with a “voluptuous vision,” said one critic. According to contemporary memoirs he was also a kind man who was keen to promote a young protege, Isaac Rosenberg, the brilliant but impoverished poet and artist later killed in the trenches. One day in 1908 Rosenberg took his friend, fellow artist David Bomberg, to see the Liverpool paintings in Amschewitz’s backyard. Bomberg, a modernist and rebel who scorned the work of traditionalists such as Amschewitz, was not impressed. But Rosenberg, whatever he may have thought of the works, remained loyal to his mentor.

The “frescoes” were finally unveiled on December 18th, 1909. Amschewitz had had a serious fall from a ladder while working on them, resulting in a broken thigh which delayed the unveiling. The local reaction was predictably bitter. From now on these were ‘the Londoner’s Lunettes.’ A satirical pamphlet – The Sport of Civic Life: price twopence – was produced which poured scorn on Amschewitz’s talent and spoke of the “deliberate insult” paid to local artists.

But the influential Art Journal commented: “Whatever may be the rights of the case as regards the placing of the commission, there can be little doubt as to the quality of the work… it is extremely effective without being obtrusive.” The Graphic described the designs as “remarkable for their style, excellence of composition and colour and fluency of draughtsmanship.” In the wake of his success, Amschewitz was given a commission to paint murals for the Royal Exchange in London.

When war broke out in 1914 he tried to join up. But the army declared him unfit because of his damaged thigh. Two years later, with commissions scarce and lured by the theatre, he went to South Africa to try his hand as an actor. He remained there, with one long gap, for the rest of his life. Much of his work is in South African public collections.

In 1910 my grandmother abandoned both her shaky careers for what she hoped would be, and indeed was, the security of marriage. My grandfather, a salesman for the leading firm of postcard manufacturers, Raphael Tuck, had wooed her ardently and persuaded her he could offer her a better life off the stage. Amschewitz was probably the first Jewish man she had met; my grandfather, I am guessing, the second. Aged 20, she took the giant step of converting to Judaism in order to marry him at the end of the end of the pantomime season in Bradford in 1910. From then on her early life was rarely, if ever, discussed.

And that might have been that if my sister had not married a man from a distinguished Liverpool family, which prompted my grandmother to ask him if he was familiar with these paintings. I was intrigued but always too busy with my own life to pursue the story. Until now, the year Liverpool became European City of Culture.

But in any case the Town Hall, one of the jewels in Liverpool’s architectural crown, was not always open to the public. Originally planned in 1748 by John Wood of Bath, then extended and altered by James Wyatt of London, it suffered a fire in 1794 and bomb damage in World War Two. In the early part of the century it was used for Mayoral and grand civic occasions but slowly fell into disrepair and was seen as something of a millstone that might have to be demolished. Then, between 1992 -96, it was closed completely for major refurbishment, including roof repairs and rewiring. It was partly thanks to the efforts of Derek Hatton, then Deputy Leader of the Council and one of those who insisted that the building had to pay for itself, that when it reopened it was licensed for weddings.

Today, it’s a popular wedding and conference venue and on average five hundred people a week now pass through the vestibule. But the day before my visit a record seven thousand people including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi, trooped past my grandmother on the wall as Liverpool Town Hall hosted the major event for Holocaust Memorial Day. One hundred and ten thousand pairs of spectacles were piled up on the floor of the major reception room, a memorial to those who had been forced to give theirs up by the Nazis. I hope some of the seven thousand admired the paintings in the vestibule on their way to ponder the horrors of the last century.

Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill : Winston’s American Mother (John Murray, £25)

Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and his circle, an exhibition which looks at Amschewitz’s influence on Rosenberg, opens at the Ben Uri Gallery
on April 2- June 8 2008.