Kass 1913 - 2005

I regretfully have to inform you of the death of Wolfe Kassemoff, known affectionately to all of as Kass. Kass died age 92 at his flat in Beckenham Kent in April 2005. His sister and nephew from New York together with several of his former students and friends attended his funeral at the Jewish Cemetery in Edgware North London. Eric Thomas and Trevor Preston, two of Kass’s former students spoke to the congregation with much warmth and affection about him and the immense impression he had on all of us for he was truly part of our formative years.

It was of course a sad occasion and yet a happy one as it was an opportunity for us to reminisce about the wonderful times we had with Kass and our days at the ‘old art school’. Kass was a great teacher and a great character; we will never see the like of him again. The following speech by Eric Thomas captures all that we felt about this unique and gifted person:

Kass. Wolfie. Maybe some know him by another name but I call him Kass. Many could not be here today due to other commitments so. With their agreement, I stand and speak for them and equally for hundreds of past students of both Beckenham and Ravensbourne Schools of Art. Kass would say ‘ Say it briefly’ I hope you all will agree that this is the case.

One more important preliminary is to show, in the presence of Kass’s sister, our gratitude and thanks to Len (Len Scrutton). He, being nearby, has kept a close and caring watch and has done much to bring us all here today.

Where to begin for such a long life? If I occasionally mention myself it is in the context of Wolfie’s life and work. He was a very special man as our gathering here shows. Kass was an artist of many hues – Painter, Sculptor. Printmaker. Illustrator. Designer.

As a teacher he was multi-faceted. His skill was to find and encourage the dominant part of one’s talent and, by persuasion and persistence, make oneself aware also. He could be firm and a disciplinarian when required. I can recall many times, ‘Come on, young Thomas’ and later ‘Eric’ whilst standing behind my right shoulder ‘A little bit less effect. A bit more substance. Start again.’

My first contact, during Art periods on Day Release from Beckenham Junior Technical School, three doors away in 1943, when I was 13. Over the next five years, before the army claimed me, he introduced me to yoghurt, The Marx Brothers, ‘Classic’ films, the contemporary novel and all the art under the sun from the French poster artist Savignac through Matisse and Picasso to all of the great illustrators.

I speak only of Beckenham School of Art, not much larger than a village hall and presided over by the Principal, John Cole. Kass was an abiding part of a core of artists who created a powerhouse of talent and work. This was a period when the war was very much on, and immediately afterwards, when I became a very young full-time art student, at 15 in 1945, the school took an intake of fighter pilots, torpedoed sailors, first-wave assault troops on D day beaches and many more, all mixed up with we young adult boys and girls. It was a magical time. The only way was up. I hope to be forgiven for mentioning only a few colleagues of that time along with Wolfie – Robin Day, Peter Werner, Helmuth Weissenborn, Cecil Collins, Thomas Freeth and so many more, all very fine artists and teachers.

In the 1948 batch of entrants for the much coveted holy of holies (to art students that is) the Royal College of Art, Beckenham achieved 11 successful passes (I being one). This was quite unprecedented from any art school.

One final thing, for I said I would be brief:

It was in that year, 1948. Due to much recent intensive work for my R.C.A. entrance, I could only commit myself to a small part in the art school annual end of term winter play. For a change, we did not do one of our usual, and always hilarious, much attended dramas like Maria in the Red Barn or ‘Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber ‘, all re-written, by and nearly always acted in by Kass, but a Chinese drama ‘Lady Precious Stream’. Kass, in his costume, made a wonderful Emperor Wang. We had borrowed the Beckenham and Penge Grammar School for Boys hall, with stage, for our three performances. After the last night, and putting everything ship-shape, we loaded a traditional London market street trader’s barrow with all our props.

Only Kass and I were left. It was gone midnight and was cold, frosty and moonlit. Wolfie and I, dressed in long overcoats, hats and woollen gloves against the cold, proceeded to push this well loaded market barrow back to Beckenham School of Art, a distance of about a mile. Kass suddenly had a fit of the giggles and then bursts of laughter, enough to stop him pushing. Thinking that the cold night air and a small nip of whisky had gone to his head I asked him ‘What’s up?’ He said ‘We look like a couple of schnorrers’, explaining that ‘Schnorrer’ was Yiddish for street market trader. Therefore, I remember a sunny, laughing, young Kass.

I am so glad that I was able to see him very recently, only three weeks before his death. I drove from my home on the Welsh Border in Herefordshire in time for lunch at his place with Jeff White and Anna Nyburg, who is researching the life of Helmuth Weissenborn. Kass was the link between us in our knowledge of Helmuth. We had a long, happy and leisurely lunch together in the studio flat.

Wolfie, go well. Go well, dearest Kass.

Eric Thomas
29 April 2005

Wolfe Kassemoff 1913 – 2005

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