Harry Aaron Kernoff was born in London but came to Dublin at the age of fourteen. His father was Isaac Karnov, a cabinet maker from Vitebsk, Russia and his mother, Katherine Abarbanel was descended from Sephardic Jews. Kernoff spent his early days as an apprentice in his father’s furniture business, taking night classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art under Sean Keating, Patrick Tuohy and Harry Clarke. He was the first night student and the first Jew to win the Taylor Art Scholarship in 1923 when Jack B Yeats was the judge for the prestigious award.
He first exhibited at the RHA just three years later and continued to do so until the year of his death, becoming a full member of the academy in 1935. In that same year he held the first of three solo shows at the Victor Waddington Galleries (the others being in 1937 and 1940). International attention came in 1939 when he represented Ireland at the New York World’s Fair. His work was shown in Britain, mainland Europe, Canada and the U.S.A.
Kernoff was active in many facets of the visual arts scene, designing set and costumes for Dublin theatre productions, and executing portraits of literary figures and actors. The affection he held for his beloved city of Dublin is portrayed in his paintings, illustrations and woodcuts, the literary pubs and their characters. One of his paintings – A bird never flew on one wing – depicts two drunken betting men with pints raised and, in the background, the name of every pub in Dublin carefully and lovingly written out.
His work chronicled both Irish urban and rural life. He is best known through his many woodcuts and graphics some of which have Jewish themes.
He worked tirelessly as an artist throughout his life having his studio in the attic of the family home at 13 Stamer St. where many of the major literary figures of the day came to be painted. In 2013, the museum held an event in his honour and a plaque of remembrance was placed at the site.
He visited the USSR and was so influenced by the Artists of Revolutionary Russia that he lectured about his trip when he returned to Dublin and organised a Soviet Poster exhibition.
Although prolific in his work output, Kernoff died a poor man. His stature as a painter is gaining in international reputation as the range and versatility of his style is being discovered.