Reuben Kramer’s Student Days in London, 1937-1938

As our world starts to open up again, activities we once may have taken for granted take on a special sheen of importance and excitement. Visiting Grandma! Eating in a restaurant! Going to the library! Travel! Two of the things I’ve missed the most over the past too-many months – browsing at the public library and spending time in art museums – are once again in reach, but the novelty has definitely not yet worn off. With that in mind, a few pieces from our collection caught my eye as I scanned for a topic for this blog post: Reuben Kramer’s admission tickets to several British museums and libraries, from his time there in 1937-38.

Strip of three tickets.
London admission tickets issued to Reuben Kramer, each commencing July 1937, for (left to right) the Victoria & Albert Museum Library Reading Rooms; sketching privileges in the Department of Antiquities, British Museum; the British Museum Reading Room.
Strip of two tickets.
(Left to right) The National Gallery’s Students’ Days; and the National Gallery, Millbank (now the Tate Gallery) Students’ Days. Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1994.89.60-.62, .64-.65.

Baltimore-born sculptor Reuben Kramer (1909-1999) spent much of the 1930s traveling abroad, including stints in Paris, Rome, and London. In fact, in mid-1937 Kramer moved to London for a year’s stay, planning to devote time to sketching, studying, and honing his craft. According to art historian Theodore L. Low, during his time in the city,

Kramer placed himself on a strict schedule. Mornings he would spend looking and looking again at works of art, analyzing their inner structure. … Afternoons he devoted to the creation of sketches in sculpture embodying the lessons he had learned in the museums. In the evenings he attended drawing classes at the St. Martin’s School of Art in Charing Cross Road, so that every minute of his working hours was occupied.

This year in London was a period of experimentation, with some glimpses of the eventual, inimitable Kramer style for which he later became known. (Theodore L. Low, The Art of Reuben Kramer, The Walters Art Gallery and the Rinehard School of Sculpture of the Peabody Institute and the Maryland Institute, Baltimore, 1963).

Unsent postcard showing the British Museum.
Unsent postcard showing the British Museum; on the back, Kramer wrote “It’s a lot of time spent at the museum”. Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1994.98.48.
Photo postcard showing the Tower Bridge, London.
Photo postcard showing the Tower Bridge, London, sent to Kramer’s family in Baltimore, September 1937. In his message he noted, “[I’ve] been terribly busy. I must get lots of work done in the museums before the winter sets in. I won’t be able to go out as often then. I hear the winters are mostly drizzly rainy fog and well just plain rotten.” Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1994.98.213.

Ephemera like this may not be as immediately, visually impactful as the art Kramer produced* during this period, but it helps ground that art in the reality of everyday life. At this point Kramer was not yet a renowned and experienced sculptor; he was a 20-something art student with a few prizes and scholarships under his belt, but a lot to learn and a lot to prove. His disciplined schedule – Low notes that Kramer restricted his social life and leisure activities during this year, due to limited time and limited funds – hints at the long hours he spent at each of these museums and libraries, and thus the importance of these admission cards that allowed this “Student of Sculpture” (as described on his UK Certificate of Registration) to practice his craft.

British “Certificate of Registration No. 629053”
British “Certificate of Registration No. 629053,” issued to Reuben R. Kramer on May 31, 1937. Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1994.89.56.

Pieces like these also help us literally visualize Kramer’s year in London. I’ve been to many of these institutions (albeit some 70-80 years later), and I too enjoy sketching in art museums and immersing myself in a good library; I can easily picture Kramer absorbed in his work in the V&A’s library [link: https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/caring-for-our-collections/national-libraries-day-researching-the-history-of-the-national-art-library], the British Museum’s Reading Room [link: https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/architecture/reading-room], or the Tate Gallery at Millbank [link: https://www.tate.org.uk/about-us/history-tate/history-tate-britain]. These cards even help place the artist in London quite specifically – Kramer gave his address on some of them as 47 Maple Street W.1, and a glimpse at Google Maps [link: https://www.google.com/maps/place/47+Maple+St,+London,+UK/@51.5219131,-0.1414048,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x48761b29b923bd53:0x7bd57bfad62f740!8m2!3d51.5219098!4d-0.1392161] shows that this was within easy walking distance to the British Museum. (Unfortunately, the odd-number side of the street is now a modern office building, but I presume his flat resembled the ones still standing on the even-number side.)

Back of the British Museum Reading Room admission ticket.
Back of the British Museum Reading Room admission ticket, which is EXTREMELY SERIOUS about potential misuse of the card: “This Ticket must be carefully preserved by the Reader; it must be produced when asked for at the Museum; and MUST BE RETURNED ON EXPIRY OR WHEN NO LONGER REQUIRED. It will be renewed, if sufficient reason be shown, on application by letter of the Director, ENCLOSING THE TICKET. The Reading Room is closed the first six week days of May. N.B. — Readers are not under any circumstances to take a Book, MS., or Map out of the Reading Room.” Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1994.89.60.

All but one of the admission tickets in our collection include a stern admonishment to return the card when it has expired. Deliberately or accidentally, Kramer failed to do so. (Who among us hasn’t occasionally kept something *cough* my Smithsonian summer intern ID from twenty years ago *cough* that was supposed to be returned?) I can only be grateful for this oversight, as without these tickets, Kramer’s early student career would be just a little more opaque. Also, now I really want to go back to an art museum with my sketchbook … even better, to London itself, though that will have to wait a while longer.

*Some of this work can be found in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art [link: https://collection.artbma.org/emuseum/view/objects/aslist/search$0040/0/displayDate-asc?t:state:flow=9919cf42-bf4b-4e0c-9ed0-6907284d7d32]

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