Emmanuel Levy was born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in Hightown, Manchester, England in 1900. Like Jacob Kramer, he was one of a small group of Jewish artists, whose families, fleeing persecution, restrictive legislation and economic hardship settled in the north of England as part of a wider wave of Jewish migration to Britain at the close of the nineteenth century. Hightown was immortalized by the Jewish writer Louis Golding in his best-selling novel Magnolia Street (1932), which Levy later adapted as a radio play. His father was the beadle at the Great Synagogue, Cheetham Hill and he attended the local Jews’ Free School, before studying at Manchester School of Art under Adolphe Valette (c. 1918) together with L. S. Lowry (whose portrait he drew), as well as at St Martin’s School of Art in London, and in Paris. He returned to Manchester for his first solo show in 1925. His early work included Jewish subject matter, such as The Mourners (Sitting Shiva) (1928, Ben Uri Collection), executed in a semi-Cubist manner. In 1928 Levy was appointed a special instructor in life drawing at Manchester University School of Architecture upon the recommendation of Valette, whom he succeeded. He also gave popular public demonstrations in portrait painting. From 1929, for several years, he was Art Critic for Manchester City News and the Evening News and his 60-year career was so closely associated with his native city that Lord Ardwick described him as ‘a Manchester man through and through. But’, he continued, ‘there is nothing provincial or even distinctly English in his work. He is a citizen of the world’.

Although he experimented with Cubism and Surrealism, Levy abandoned these styles in favour of naturalism, specializing in figurative work exploring the human condition. His wife, Ursula Leo (1915–1984), one of his pupils and a painter in her own right, was a German-Jewish refugee from Nazism and during the Second World, he painted ‘Crucifixion’ (1942), a cri-de-coeur against Jewish persecution under the Nazis in mainland Europe. He held six solo exhibitions in Manchester between 1925 and 1963, with further solo shows in London, including at Ben Uri (1953, 1978 and 1989), where his work was also shown from 1935 onwards in numerous group shows. Retrospectives were held at Salford City Art Gallery (1948), Fieldborne Galleries, London (1976) and Stockport Art Gallery (1982).

Emmanuel Levy died in London, England in 1986. His work is represented in UK Collections including the National Portrait Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Salford Museum and Art Gallery and the Whitworth. In 2014 Ben Uri Gallery curated a posthumous retrospective, Made in Manchester: Emmanuel Levy, at Manchester Jewish Museum.