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Born in the small Ukrainian (Russian Empire) town of Klincy in 1892, Kramer’s father Max, and his uncle Cion, were both painters. Indeed, Max Kramer became Imperial court painter to Baron Ginsberg having studied under Ilya Yfimovich Repin at the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Jacob's mother, Cecilia, was a well-known opera singer.
In the late 1890s however Tsar Nicholas II introduced anti-semitic policies forcing Russian Jews to either officially convert to Christianity or leave the Empire. As a consequence, in 1900, Kramer and his parents emigrated to Great Britain and settled in the city of Leeds, where Max worked as a poorly paid re-toucher and hand-colourer of photographs. In Leeds, Max and Cecilia had a further four children - including Sarah who married the painter William Roberts RA. Kramer gained a scholarship to Leeds School of Art where he became associated with the progressive Leeds Arts Club and was influenced by the spiritual qualities of Wassily Kandinsky’s growing abstraction.
Thanks to the Jewish Education Aid Society, Kramer went on to spend a year (1913-14) studying at the Slade School of Art in London. Here his friends included Augustus John, David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler, CRQ Nevinson and his future brother-in-law William Roberts. Kramer’s work was included in the ‘Jewish Section’ of the Whitechapel Gallery’s seminal 1914 exhibition Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements. During the First World War, he exhibited with the Allied Artist’s Association, the New English Art Club and the Glasgow Society of Painters and Sculptors. In 1915 Kramer famously exhibited with the Vorticists and founder Wyndham Lewis included his work in the short-lived Vorticist magazine Blast.
Resisting the impulse to associate himself with any art movement, Kramer returned to Leeds in the 1920s and developed a distinguished local reputation as a portraitist, warranting a 1960 retrospective at Leeds City Art Gallery. Considered one of the greatest artists of his time and a close friend of the critic Herbert Read, Kramer brought a robust energy and simplicity to the English art scene and is perhaps best known for his compelling portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Frederick Delius. A Yorkshireman by choice, the critic Frances Spalding has commented that there is nevertheless "a quality in his art that remains defiantly Eastern European”.
Represented in several private collections, his work is held in the public collections of Tate Britain, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Leeds City Art Gallery and the University of Leeds. Kramer’s personal collection of tribal sculptures is preserved at Kirkstall Museum in Leeds.