Wednesday 7 October 2015

Henry Ospovat

Farewell sweet lass,Thy like ne'er was. For a sweet content, the cause of all my moan: Poor Corydon must live alone; Other help for him I see that there is none.

The artist and illustrator Henry Ospovat (1877-1909) was born to orthodox Jewish parents in Dvinsk, Russia (Daugavpils, Latvia), one of the most important centres of Jewish commerce and culture in the Russian Empire. The family moved to Manchester when Henry was 14 and he was apprenticed to a local commercial lithographer.  A wealthy member of the local Jewish community paid for Henry to attend evening classes in design and figure drawing at the Manchester Municipal School of Art.
With extreme enthusiasm he supplemented his class work with sketching in the street, tram and elsewhere, filling book after book with character studies, and making astonishing progress. Being of a retiring disposition, he mingled but little with his fellow students.
During the six years he studied in Manchester, Ospovat gained a local reputation for his book-plate and certificate designs. After completing his art exams with honours, he won a scholarship in 1897 to continue his studies at the National Art Training Schools (now the Royal College of Art) at South Kensington. At the Art Training School, Ospovat was `... subjected to unpleasant treatment by his fellow students'.

After about a year at the Art Training School, Ospovat left to work on a number of illustration commissions for publishers such as John Lane and J.M. Dent. Over the course of a few years he provided illustrations for volumes of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1899), Poems by Matthew Arnold (1900), Shakespeare's Songs (1901) and Robert Browning's  Men and Women (1903).  Later Ospovat became known in London for his caricatures of celebrities, including: Enrico Caruso; Harry Lauder; Kier Hardie and the strongman Georg Hackenschmidt. Ospovat also worked with Robert P. Gossop (1890-1922) who was studio manager for the publisher W.H. Smith. 

Henry Ospovat died of stomach cancer in 1909. On his death the writer Arnold Bennett wrote:
The death of that distinguished draughtsman and painter, Henry Ospovat, who was among the few who can illustrate a serious author without insulting him, ought not to pass unnoticed ... I never met Ospovat, but I was intimate with some of his friends while he was at South Kensington. In those days I used to hear `what Ospovat thought' about everything.
In 1911, a handsome limited edition portfolio of Ospovat's illustrations, caricatures, sketches and portraits were published with an appreciation written by his friend, the novelist Oliver Onions (1873-1961).  The volume included reproductions of many of his well known book illustrations and previously unpublished portraits and studies for portraits. This volume is the only substantial collection of Ospovat's work that is widely available. It is unburdened with even the most basic of Ospovat's biographical details. Onions wrote that:
There is no formal `Life' of him to be written. Any other record than this contemplated projection would be largely a record of inessentials, and a page would suffice for the unnecessary facts of his life.
Ospovat worked mainly in black & white, but Onions recounts that Ospovat;
... did, apparently miraculously, one day take a brush into the hand that cannot have been familiar with the feel of it, and produce a portrait that was an astonishment to those who had considered him to be a worker only in another medium.
A striking colour reproduction of this work, Portrait of a Musician, is included in the 1911 portfolio.


Bennett, A. (1917). Books and persons: being comments on a past epoch. 1908-1911 Chatto & Windus,  London.
Cadness, H. (1922). Some Modern Local Book Illustrations. Paper of The Manchester Literary Club. Vol. XLVIII. pp 154-155.
Onions, O. (1911). The Work of Henry Ospovat. Saint Catherine Press, London.
Rubinstein, W.D., Jolles, M.A. & Rubinstein, H.L. (Eds.) (2011) The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History.  London.