Ezekiel Abraham Ezekiel
I first came across the name of Ezekiel Abraham Ezekiel whilst going through the records of the Exeter Assay Office, picking out the names of Jewish silversmiths who had worked in the west country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The record was brief - a total of eight silver medals, all hallmarked in February 1801, and one seal hallmarked the following September. Hardly a large output, and I presumed his presence had been transient.
But then I found out that one Abraham Ezekiel had been amongst those responsible for the erection of Exeter Synagogue in 1763, and decided to delve deeper. I rummaged through the card index to the Exeter Flying Post in the Westcountry Studies Library, and noted down several pages of references, including a whole page of Ezekiels. I also skipped around the many drawers of the Burnet Morris Index in the same library, and found a few more. Burnet Morris was dangerous territory, for he opened up many more avenues for exploration, all of them madly tantalising. Chasing up all his references sent me scurrying round every library and learned institution in Exeter, and then off to London for the British Library and Museum, and the Mocatta Library at University College. Here I spent a busy two days flicking through the indexes of many books and journals, photocopying articles and items of interest to study at leisure later, and acquiring in the process an even longer list of references to chase. I also found the records of the synagogue for the early nineteenth century which had been forgotten about back in Exeter - another goldmine to quarry later. Librarians now knew me, and were getting used to my unorthodox working methods; because the time I have to spare for this work is very limited, I do not waste a single second, and descend on their collections in terrific hurries, scattering dust and dispelling tranquillity as I go, occasionally finding time to work more leisurely, and wind through endless rolls of microfilm following up the newspaper references. And I have the results - more information on Ezekiel Abraham Ezekiel's life and work than was ever known before. And armed with more precise information, I was able to return to my place of work, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, and discover with the help of my colleagues that we have the best collection of his work right there under my nose. If only it were all properly catalogued.
Ezekiel was one of the first Jews to be born in Exeter since the expulsion of 1290 drove the Jews from the city. Has father and uncle, Abraham and Benjamin Ezekiel, came as young men in their twenties from the Rhineland and settled in Exeter some time in the 1740s. Abraham was a silversmith and a watchmaker, and respected for his craftsmanship, and recognised and accepted by the Exeter gentry and bourgeoisie, as was his brother Benjamin whose untimely death in October 1785 earned him the unusual honour of a brief obituary in the Flying Post:
Ezekiel Abraham Ezekiel was born in Exeter in 1757, the eldest of at least six children. In 1772, at the age of fifteen, he was apprenticed to Alexander Jenkins, an Exeter goldsmith, and it was towards the end of this apprenticeship that he produced his first engraving, a happy co-incidence for me, for it was a view of Bideford, where I then lived. The advertisement on the 23 July 1779 read thus:
The print is listed in Somers Cocks catalogue of Devon topographical prints, along with another engraving by Ezekiel of Tapley House, but no copies of either are held by any of the local or national collections. Then I followed a hunch. The endpapers of Muriel Goaman's book 'Old Bideford and District' show an eighteenth century engraving of Bideford. A letter to her brought a very helpful reply, saying that it was reproduced from an original that formerly hung in Bideford Library. It vanished when local government was re-organised in 1973. I am still trying to discover whither, though meanwhile I had been put on the tracks of a painting in the Royal Hotel, Bideford, which appears to be John Jewell's original painting from which the engraving was made. A letter to the present owner of Tapley House confirmed Ezekiel's authorship, and the whereabouts of a copy. This turned out to be a photographic reproduction, but it established beyond doubt both the authorship and the quality of the work, and the fact that the view of Bideford and the view of Tapley occur on the same engraving.
In February 1784 he placed a large advertisement in the Flying Post listing his skills:
He engraved many bookplates, some fourteen of which are recorded in publications, but I have been able to trace only one, in the Jewish Museum [and seven more in the British Museum]. He also produced a great many trade cards, several of which have been described but cannot now be traced, though five are preserved in the British Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum has Ezekiel's own trade card, a fine example of the engraver's art, dating from c1797 and adorned with cherubs engaged in various branches of the arts and sciences.
His finest works are his portraits: Thomas Glass in 1788, John Patch in 1789, Major General Stringer Lawrence c1790, Micaiah Towgood 1794, William Holwell, John Marshall 1798. He also engraved the headline used for a while by the Flying Post, the title page and a map for Dunsford's 'Tiverton', and the breastplate of the Third Exeter Volunteer Corps. These engravings are amongst the best produced in the medium, and almost all are of local interest.
In 1795 he added to his already considerable repertoire of skills that of optician, claiming to have studied the science with an expert, and to be the first of the profession in the westcountry. He was no mere dispenser, rapidly adding telescopes, microscopes, fossils and mineralogy. The microscope with slides displayed in the museum in Exeter is a tribute to his skills.
In 1799 he advertised yet a further talent, that of miniaturist, and achieved quite a reputation in this field. I have been able to trace only one work by him, again in the Museum, though others are mentioned in family papers. His own portrait was exhibited at the end of the last century, but cannot now be traced.
In the manner of the time, and to his credit, Ezekiel passed on his skills to an apprentice. He first advertised for one in May 1790:
He advertised again in June 1805, but by now he was already a sick man, a fact noted by the Militia List, discharging him for reasons of health from any possible military service in the war with France. Just eighteen months later the Flying Post carried his obituary, a remarkable testimonial to his standing in the town, with a reputation achieved whilst constantly and proudly maintaining his Jewishness.
That this obituary was no mere ephemeral flattery can be seen from the fact that Ezekiel's name was listed as late as 1830 among 'A List of Persons of Eminence, Genius and Public Notoriety, Natives of Exeter', a series of biographies of distinguished Exonians written by George Oliver, Roman Catholic priest and scholar. The obituary also gives some clues to his private life: Ezekiel died unmarried, and in his will requested that the minister, the Rev. Moses Levy, say kaddish for him, normally a son's duty. His family life had not always been happy - it appears from his will and other evidence that his parents had separated some years before his death, the father going to live with his daughter Rosy in Portsmouth. For her pains Rosy was cut off by her brother with a shilling, whilst another sister, Anne, received five pounds in recognition of her 'great attention of duty to our dear mother and to me.' Ezekiel spent his adult life living with his unmarried brother Henry and maiden sisters Kitty and Amelia at their shop at 179 Fore Street, who continued the business after his death. He had passed on his artistic skills to his pupil, C. Frost. His artistic genius met with some financial success: at his death his estate was valued at just less than £600. He left eight pounds to the synagogue for the purchase of a clock with a commemorative inscription on the dial. As for his brother Henry, although a watchmaker, he lacked his elder brother's genius as an artist and craftsman, but was evidently more successful financially:
Henry was married just over three years later on Wednesday 14 March 1810 in Exeter to Betsy Levy, a marriage which appears to have brought him money. Henry was thirty eight at his marriage, his wife ten years his junior. She bore him three daughters, all of whom married. Henry died in 1835, leaving properties and investments. The portraits of himself and his wife Betsy show a wealthy, middle class couple in their prime. The two sisters, Kitty and Amelia, continued to run the business until the last of them died in 1837.
After Ezekiel's death, his brother Henry presented proof impressions of his brother's engravings to the Devon and Exeter Institution in the Cathedral Close, and there most of them still hang, in the entrance hall, a fitting reminder of one of Exeter's, and its Jewish community's, finest sons.
Frank J. Gent
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