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Artist Spotlight: Philip Naviasky (1894-1936)

By Expert Author: Larry McGarry

Hailing from Leeds originally myself, my ears – or rather eyes, in this case, if such a thing were possible – always prick up on mention of a Leeds artist. Philip Naviasky is one such, a prolific yet modest painter in oils, with the surprising accolade of being the youngest ever student to be accepted into the Royal Academy Schools, aged just eighteen. Leeds can now of course claim Damien Hirst, Leeds bred (although not born), and many others can be poached via Leeds School of Art – Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, for example, being Yorkshire natives educated at the city’s art college. But Naviasky is perhaps especially intriguing because so little is written about him, and because he was part of Leeds’s sizable Jewish community. I wanted to look into the artist’s contemporaries and possible influences, as well as what makes his paintings unique.


Philip Naviasky was born in Leeds to Polish immigrant parents. What we know of his biography is that he won a scholarship to the Leeds School of Art in 1907 at the age of just 13, before being admitted to the Royal Academy Schools. He gained a Royal Exhibition Award from the Board of Education for three years at the Royal College of Art, and went on to take up a post as art teacher at Leeds College of Art. He married Millie Astrinsky, the tailoress daughter of Lithuanian immigrants to Leeds, at the city’s New Central Synagogue in 1933. The couple had a daughter, Sonia, in 1934, who sometimes features in Naviasky’s portraits, and who became an artist in her own right.


Two better-known Jewish artists working at the same time as Naviasky were Jacob Kramer (1892-1962) and Mark Gertler (1891-1939). Kramer was a Leeds man, his family having emigrated from Russia when Jacob was aged just 8. His father had been a Russian court painter and his mother was a trained singer of Slavic and Hebrew folk songs. Kramer attended the Leeds School of Art, and later the Slade, and became involved in the radical organisation the Leeds Art Club. Kramer produced many portraits like Naviasky, with both artists painting many local figures whose identity is now unknown. Naviasky painted some gypsy portraits, and Kramer, always hard up despite his artistic success, would paint local figures for a small fee. The artists share a simplicity and robustness of line and form, which could possibly be associated with the influence of Eastern European folk art. Frances Spalding commented about Kramer’s work: ‘There is a quality in his art that remains defiantly Eastern European.’ Mark Gertler, a London artist, the youngest son of Polish Jewish immigrants, similarly painted bold portraits and is said to have been influenced by folk art.


If we contrast Naviasky’s and Kramer’s treatment of the subject of a rabbi, however, it seems that Kramer engaged more with Jewishness as a theme. Naviasky’s portrait is of a real person, reportedly his father-in-law who was a rabbi in Leeds in the 1940s-50s, and his depiction naturalistic – albeit with characteristically simple colouration and a block colour background. In contrast Kramer produced some highly stylised rabbi paintings.


Kramer and Gertler, in contrast to Naviasky, show influence of the Vorticist movement, and the de-humanising effect of such a style. (Kramer having been acquainted with William Roberts and others in the movement at the Slade). In Kramer’s work we see the rabbi figures become relegated to repeated symbols within a rhythmic pattern, and the atmosphere is sombre and ominous. Kramer’s portraits are far darker than Naviasky’s, in colour and mood.


The joy of Naviasky’s work, indeed, is the colourfulness, the vibrant tones which leave an arresting impression of vitality and vogue. This treatment of colour extends into his landscape studies and still life oils. These paintings recall the shimmering vibrancy of the post-impressionists. Naviasky travelled widely, painting scenes, landscapes and portraits, in Spain, the south of France and Morocco. In a painting such as Street Scene, Seville, the warm luminosity of the planes of colour, despite their naturalism, evokes the atmosphere of the works of fauve artists Henri Matisse and Andre Derain.


This brings me to a final comparison that strikes me, between Naviasky’s work and that of the Scottish Colourists, a post-impressionist group of artists who worked with a highly developed sense of colour. FCB Cadell (1883-1937) produced elegant portraits of Edinburgh society, often co-ordinating the colour of the sitter’s clothing and with their backdrop to create a stylish composition. Compare one such portrait with Naviasky’s A la mode.


Or compare S.J. Peploe’s (1871-1935) Boy Reading, with Naviasky’s Girl Reading, both artists using black outlines to delineate areas of tone within their composition.


With little available information about Naviasky these comparisons are speculation and fancy, but nevertheless help illuminate the work of a artist only recently gaining the deserved recognition. It has been suggested that Naviasky’s decision to remain in Yorkshire was the reason for this slow emergence, his work unable to compete with the more established reputations of London artists. But to me Naviasky’s modest identity is his charm.


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