Dr Paul O’Brien explores the life of an extraordinary, internationally acclaimed artist whose family fled Russia and settled in Limerick, drawing parallels to the plight of Ukrainians forced to flee their homeland at the hands of Russians from These days
The Steyn family came to Ireland after fleeing the notorious and brutal Russian pogroms of the 1870s and 1880s. William Steyn and Bertha (née Jaffe) were from Kurland (between Latvia and Lithuania).
In Limerick they lived at 27 Colononey Street [Wolfe Tone Street] with their three children, Harry, Isaac and Mabel, all born in the town. A fourth child, Stella was born in Dublin in 1907.
William Steyn worked as a dentist and anesthesiologist. From the 1870s, Wolfe Tone Street was home to a large Jewish community that lived in relative harmony with its neighbors. Indeed, the community founded two synagogues at No. 18 from 1889-1903 and at No. 63 from 1903-1930.
However, on January 11, 1904, Father Creagh of the Order of Redemptorists delivered a sermon against the Jews, accusing them of ritual murder, blasphemy against Jesus, and theft from the people of Limerick. This led to a general boycott. It would seem that the main cause of complaint against the Jews concerned the “weekly installment plan” by which they frequently sold their wares. The boycott caused hardship among Jews in Limerick. The Steyn family left Limerick before 1907 and almost certainly due to growing anti-Semitic rhetoric in their adopted city.
It is therefore all the more poignant that the family was forced into a second exile, this time to their adopted country. They moved to Dublin and settled at 94 Ranelagh Road.
William and Bertha’s youngest daughter, Stella (pictured below circa 1930), was an accomplished artist who led an extraordinary life. She attended school at Alexandra College and later studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (1924-26). While in Paris (1926-1930), she met Samuel Beckett, as well as James Joyce who asked her to illustrate Finnegan’s Wake. Stella described her work as “really like a piece of music, made up of colors and shapes”. In 1929, she exhibited in Manhattan with other Irish artists including Paul Henry, Harry Clarke and Limerickman, Seán Keating.
In the 1930s, she traveled to Germany and enrolled at the Bauhaus in Dessau. The Bauhaus was an influential art and design movement that began in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. The movement encouraged teachers and students to pursue their craft together in design studios and workshops.
It had a profound influence on 20th century design. Stella’s teachers included Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee – giants of avant-garde art movements. Stella’s time at the Bauhaus greatly influenced her artistic style and it is believed that she was the only Irish artist to have studied at the school.
While in Germany, she witnessed the rise of the Nazi regime and its laws restricting the rights of the Jewish people and other so-called enemies of the state. The Bauhaus was also banned under these laws. In 1934, Stella’s work was featured in another exhibition in New York, alongside John Lavery and Jack B. Yeats.
In 1938, Stella married David John Athole Ross (1911-1991), professor of French at Birkbeck College. They lived near the British Museum in London and had no children.
Stella’s output for the 1940s was negligible, however, she resumed painting in the 1950s and was represented in several exhibitions in the UK, Paris and the USA. She has also worked in advertising, producing notable graphics for many major corporations and fashionable magazines.
Stella Steyn’s lasting legacy highlights the important contribution of migrants and refugees to society, particularly in the context of culture and the arts.
Stella Ross (née Steyn) died at 33 Tavistock Square, London on July 21, 1987.
Dr. Paul O’Brien lectures at Mary Immaculate College