Until recently, the life and work of artist Jussuf Abbo was relatively unknown to the museum. Due to a wealth of information recently given to us by Abbo’s son Jerome, we have been able to learn more about the interesting life of his late father, giving a strong context to the one piece we hold by Abbo, a bust of politician George Lansbury.
Jussuf was born in 1890 in Safed (Galilee) into a large poverty-stricken Jewish farming community then suffering under the heel of the Ottoman Empire. He began to show a talent for art during primary school and, being recognised as gifted and intelligent, gained a place in a French Alliance Israelite School in Jerusalem. At the end of his studies, as an outstanding student, he was offered but turned down a free place to study in South America and took work as a building labourer instead. He was known to be a lively, opinionated, and at times arrogant young man.
His career as a labourer was fairly short lived. Abbo was noticed by Hoffmann, an architect working for the German government and he soon graduated to the drawing office, before being offered a place at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin where he enrolled in 1911. By 1919 he had a master studio in the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts; throughout the 1920s he exhibited in major galleries in Germany and was an established portrait sculptor and an active member of the artistic community. He was also obviously and confidently non-political and utterly non-religious.
During this time, Jerome describes him as charismatic, charming and flamboyant with many rich and powerful patrons. By 1933/1934 he had met Ruth Schulz, a fine art student. He was in his early 40s, Ruth was a 20 year old from a Prussian Catholic family – and pregnant. He discovered that his Turkish passport had long been invalid and that he was, suddenly and dangerously, a stateless Jew in Nazi Germany. They could not marry and dared not even be seen together. They first fled to Worpswede (Bremen) to avoid surveillance but it soon became clear that they must abandon everything and flee the country. The first attempt was unsuccessful; Jussuf’s lack of papers denied him entry to Holland. He returned to Germany while Ruth went on to Amsterdam where their son was born. She then returned to Germany. Jussuf sought the help of the Egyptian ambassador and in 1935, armed with Egyptian citizenship, a once more pregnant future wife and a son, and little else, they arrived in England.
In what he had thought of as his homeland for the last 24 years, he was now on the list of ‘Degenerate Artists’; his artistic career in ruins. His studio, his tools, his friends and his artistic life had gone. He’d had to abandon a large body of work that had been prepared and packed for planned exhibitions in London and must have felt truly bereft.
As a portraitist, Abbo had enjoyed the patronage of cultivated and wealthy clients in Germany and France. Generally, he found the artistic climate in England unsympathetic; Jerome states that he remembered well his father’s angrily professed contempt for the ‘English gentry who he regarded as little better than the animals they hunted!’ Also remembering how much he disliked having to accept the support of organisations that were helping émigré artists at that time. According to his son, his resentment took the form of an apparent arrogance and lack of gratitude which did little to further his fortunes.
Nevertheless, in 1937, through the good offices of the then Director of the Tate Gallery, he won an important commission to make a portrait of George Lansbury MP for the Society of Friends (Quakers) who wished to mark their admiration and gratitude for the work of this leader of the peace movement. Jussuf took heart, rented a larger studio in Hampstead and the bronze, having been cast in Paris, was finally presented and installed in the Friends’ Meeting House in London in 1939. The bust now sits within the museum’s collection and can be viewed on appointment with the Collections Team.
During World War II, Abbo retained the studio in London in the hope of being able to work there eventually; meanwhile the family evacuated themselves to rural Sussex. Jerome remembers that during this time a very large crate of ruined sculptures was dumped at the bottom of their garden – the crate that had been left abandoned in Germany some years earlier. When Jussuf wasn’t away labouring or looking for work, he wanted to restore the damaged work and the crate was turned into a studio of sorts.
He is described at this time as ‘always very distraught, worried and more and more frequently ill’. He was waiting for the war to end so that he might once more use his London studio. However, at the end of the war the owners gave him notice to quit the studio as the property was once again saleable. Jerome recalls going with him to London to clear the place, the memory of the large heap of deliberately destroyed sculptures is still vivid in his memory. Jussuf died in 1953.
The museum is very thankful to Jussuf’s son Jerome for providing this insight into his father’s life. Information such as this brings objects in our collection to life. The struggle Jussuf as an artist and also as a human went though will now always be associated with the bust, bringing a richer context to it.
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