Obituary: Sarah Roberts
Saturday 05 December 1992
SARAH ROBERTS, the widow of the painter William Roberts, was one of the last living links with the 'Vorticists', the rebel art movement led by Wyndham Lewis, with William Roberts as a leading member, that foreshadowed the events of the First World War.
The second of five children - there were also Jacob, Leah, Millie and Isaac - Sarah was the first to be born in England, in Leeds in 1900, the same year her parents had emigrated from Klincy, a small town in the Ukraine. Her family was one of countless thousands who, forced by political and economic pressures, came to England and the US to confer on the cultures of the countries that received them artistic inventiveness and a new vitality.
The world from which Sarah's family came was a Jewish one, rich in those traditions of Jewish culture and Talmudic spirituality that drew as much on its historic past as its Slavonic environment. The Kramer family was typical in this respect. Her father Max had studied under Repin at St Petersburg Fine Art Academy (in Leeds economic circumstances reduced him to a career as a retoucher and hand-colourer of photographs), her uncle, Cion, was also a painter and her mother, Cecilia, was an opera singer and an authority on Russian folk songs. Her older brother, Jacob, was eight when she was born and proved to be of great influence on her life: 'the Modigliani of Leeds', he was called later by Sir Barnett Stross, their local MP.
The family had made their home in the Jewish community which had grown up amongst the textile and clothing firms of that 'Athens of Yorkshire' with its black classic architecture and Gothic Revival churches. She saw her brother go to Leeds Art School and, with the help of William Rothenstein, Frank Rutter and Sir Michael Sadler, enter the Slade, then at the apogee of its history, with fellow students such as CRW Nevinson, Augustus John, David Bomberg, Mark Gertler and William Roberts. The latter, three years younger than Jacob, was born in Hackney and had won a scholarship to the Slade when he was introduced to his young sister, who later modelled for both of them.
With the 1914 war both served in the army and William Roberts became an official war artist. Sarah married William after the war and dedicated herself to a life as a loyal artist's wife and mother to their son, John. It can't have been easy, with very little money and the conditions of the day. Her husband kept to himself and was perhaps a loner. He was a shy man, recording and accurately observing his subject - largely cockney life, although later figures around the family home in Regent's Park figure strongly. Roberts's concern was human activity, treated formally, with strong draughtsmanship and composition. His paintings' subjects and his family's very private life did not change over 60 years. He was elected an RA in 1964 and died in 1980. All through their life together she supported, defended and helped him achieve his importance today as an artist.
Sarah Roberts had many good and loyal friends, although she could be fierce at times. Her life was often hard but she was always kept going by a continuing interest in meeting and talking to new people, especially the young. She enjoyed listening to and playing the guitar. In her eighties and even in her 90th year she travelled with her son all over Morocco and Spain, and in telling her adventures always conveyed the excitement of what she had done. She was a particular friend to my eldest daughter, also called Sarah, and I am proud to have known her.
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