Jelka Rosen

Jelka Rosen, Jelka Delius, Jelka Rosen Delius
Jelka Rosen in later life. Held by the Delius Trust. Used with permission.


Jelka Rosen was an accomplished painter, influenced by Impressionism and Pointillism. The wife of the composer Frederick Delius, she provided numerous German translations of texts for his works, and acted as amanuensis when paralysis prevented him from composing unaided.

Who was Jelka Rosen?

Helena [‘Jelka’] Sophie Emilie Rosen (1868–1935) was born in Belgrade where her father was Prussian Consul General. She had a proud line of descent on both her paternal and maternal sides: her father, like her brother Friedrich (briefly, German Foreign Minister in 1921), being a noted orientalist and diplomat, and her mother Serena a grandchild of the composer Ignaz Moscheles. The family home was in Detmold, North Rhine-Westphalia, where after 1875 she was educated. She was trilingual from an early age, speaking German, English (always spoken at home by her mother to the children) and French; and from her childhood proved to have a gift for drawing and painting, which she exercised with considerable skill throughout her life. Her desire to enter art school was ultimately fulfilled in 1892, when, following the death of her father the previous year, she and her mother moved to Paris. Here she enrolled at the private and highly regarded Académie Colarossi, where women as well as men were admitted for courses of study at a time when the state-run art schools in France accepted male students only.

How did Jelka Rosen meet Frederick Delius?

It was while she was living in Paris that she was introduced in 1896 to the composer Frederick Delius, who was taken with her intelligence and her love of art and music. She possessed a quite attractive singing voice and would soon learn to sing some of his songs. In 1897 she bought with her mother a house in Grez sur Loing, not far from Fontainebleau, in whose garden she and her painter friend Ida Gerhardi had been able to paint for several summers; when Delius joined her there her life’s pattern would be set. They married in 1903.

What influenced Jelka Rosen?

As a painter Jelka Rosen (or Jelka-Rosen as she frequently signed her canvases) was primarily influenced by her Impressionist contemporaries, as well as by Pointillism. Her work is often light and airy in her favourite pastel shades; and her principal subjects were her garden and local landscapes and people, though she would occasionally take her brushes and palette with her when she and her husband travelled, for example, to Norway and to England. Her art extended to her garden, which with her painter’s eye and her horticultural sensibility became a riot of colour and tranquil haven in one.

Artistic output

For a number of years, Jelka Rosen exhibited her work at the annual Salon des Indépendants in Paris, and occasionally in other contexts, for example in joint exhibitions with Ida Gerhardi in Germany. Many of her paintings were sold at a Paris auction house after her death and have subsequently disappeared, but twenty or so are today known to have been preserved. She furthermore became a friend and disciple of the sculptor August Rodin and although little is known about this area of her artistic activity, there exists a portrait head in plaster, modelled in the early 1900s, that she made of her husband.

Jelka Delius painted less as she became absorbed in her husband’s music, acting virtually as his secretary as she committed herself to helping him promote his art, which she considered to be far greater than her own. She proved too, with her linguistic gifts, to be a highly competent translator of many of his texts and librettos. From the early 1920s her musical gifts were to be further utilised as her husband’s physical condition weakened and he was no longer able to write. It was only with the arrival in 1928 of Eric Fenby as Delius’s amanuensis that she no longer needed to interpret and to transcribe, with some difficulty, his seemingly final musical thoughts.

When did Jelka Rosen die?

Following the death of Delius in 1934, Jelka Rosen devoted herself, in spite of her own increasing illness, to setting all in order. Her final act of devotion was to ensure that her husband’s remains were conveyed to England where he had wished ultimately to be buried. Just a few days after his reinterment in May 1935, she died in London and was subsequently buried beside him.

By Lionel Carley

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