Killed in 1918, now Isaac Rosenberg rises

A memorial statue to the war poet and artist Isaac Rosenberg is to be commissioned at last

Dalya Alberge
Sunday 02 September 2012 09:50 BST

Almost 100 years have passed since the First World War, but no statue yet exists to honour one of the greatest of the war poets, whose work bore witness to the horrors of the conflict. Only now is a memorial statue planned for Isaac Rosenberg, one of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country in a war that he despised.

Rosenberg was just 27 when he was killed at dawn, near Arras, on 1 April 1918, after returning from a night patrol. It is not clear whether he was the victim of a sniper, or if he fell in close combat. His Poems from the Trenches are among the most outstanding poems from the war, and he is ranked alongside Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke.

Few other nations neglect their great poets as Britain has done those of the 1914-18 war. Brooke is an exception, with one statue in Rugby, his birthplace, and another in Grantchester, near Cambridge, which he commemorated in his poem "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester". This statue is a private commission by author Jeffrey Archer and his wife, Mary, who live in the eponymous house, once Brooke's home. Rosenberg, however, until now, has been remembered only through his work, as both poet and artist.

Plans for the statue of Rosenberg will be unveiled at a celebration of his life and work late this afternoon at the East London Central Synagogue in Nelson Street. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, scholar of war poets and Rosenberg's biographer, will give a talk, and poetry will be read by the actor Ben Caplan.

So far, Rosenberg's only memorial has been a military gravestone in Pas de Calais, France, recording his name and profession: "Artist and Poet". It was only in 1926 that his remains were identified and transferred from a mass grave.

After much work by campaigners, his statue will stand in Torrington Square, by Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury, central London. Its proximity to the two great learning centres in Rosenberg's life, Birkbeck and the Slade School of Fine Art, makes it a fitting site.

Rosenberg was the son of poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in the East End. Although he left school at 14, he continued his studies at night at Birkbeck, and later won a place at the Slade.

His poems vividly convey the fragility of life. In "Dead Man's Dump", he wrote of "A man's brains splattered on/A stretcher-bearer's face", and that he and his companions could so easily be among the dead. In "Break of Day in the Trenches" he wrote of "Poppies whose roots are in men's veins".

"It's important we have this statue." Dr Moorcroft Wilson told The Independent on Sunday. Rosenberg's nephew and co-literary executor, Bernard Wynick, said the memorial would be as much for his mother, Annie, Rosenberg's younger sister. "My mother was the driving force to obtain his recognition," he said. "She used to type his poems which he [sent] back from the trenches." After Rosenberg's death she gave all his papers to the Imperial War Museum.

Mr Wynick would have liked the statue to portray Rosenberg in uniform, but there are fears that this would incite vandals. Instead, he will be depicted in his great-coat, wearing an Austrian hat that he particularly liked, and holding a book.

The sculpture will be by Etienne Millner, president of the Society of Portrait Sculptors. His previous commissions include portraits of politicians, writers and musicians. There are few photographs of Rosenberg, and the sculptor, who plans a monumental figure, is relying primarily on Rosenberg's self-portraits, including examples in the Tate and the NPG.

The actor Sir Antony Sher is patron of the campaign, which needs to raise £75,000 to fund the statue.

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