Wednesday, 25 May 2016

A Very Peculiar Character

Wandering round Spitalfields last week we saw quite a few blue plaques, including this one. But who was Mark Gertler? Should I have heard of him?  I came home and checked him out.
He hung about with lots of painters at the Slade School Of Fine Art [part if University College London] in the early part if the twentieth century. He had an affair with Dora Carrington, the avant garde female artist who was on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group.
Through Dora, Mark came into contact with Virginia Woolf and others in the group. VW clearly found the young man quite insufferable. She said What an egoist! We have been talking about Gertler to Gertler for some 30 hours; it is like putting a microscope to your eye. One molehill is wonderfully clear; the surrounding world ceases to exist. But he is a forcible young man; as hard as a cricket ball; and as tightly rounded and stuffed in at the edges. We discussed — well, it always came back to Gertler. “I have a very peculiar character ... I am not like any other artist ... My picture would not have those blank spaces ... I don’t see that, because in my case I have a sense which other people don’t have  ...” and so on. And if you do slip a little away, he ...somehow tricks you back again. He hoards an insatiable vanity... However this is honestly outspoken, he will, one sees, paint good interesting pictures, though some rupture of the brain would have to take place before he could be a painter.”
 D H Lawrence used him as the basis for the artist Loerke, in 'Women in Love'. Aldous Huxley, similarly, in 'Crome Yellow' used him as the model for Gombauld, and Gilbert Cannan's novel 'Mendel' used as its foundation, the relationship between Mark and Dora C.

But what of his pictures? Here is "Gilbert Cannan at his Mill"  - not really my cup of tea. The only thing I found interesting was that J M Barrie used the black and white St Bernard 'Porthos' as the model for Nana in Peter Pan. [Helpful notes from the Ashmolean here]
I did quite like 'Merry Go Round' - I thought it was bright and cheerful. But only on a postcard or teatowel - I couldn't cope with it full size hanging on the living room wall! This is really the only painting he did which became famous. 

Sadly he suffered very poor health, including contracting tuberculosis, forcing him to spend time in a sanatorium. His relationships with women were not lasting - although he did marry and have a son. But depression was a constant problem for him. In 1939, after his wife left him, and Dora had committed suicide, fearful of the imminent outbreak of war, Gertler gassed himself. 14 years ago, a studious biography was written by Sarah McDougall - but as the review in the Observer says - even she struggles to render him a likeable fellow!

Oh well, he did at least get his blue plaque above a tailor's atelier in Spitalfields. And his son Luke became a great collector of cartoons  . I think he enjoyed life more than his father - and I am glad about that.


  1. He's a new one on me. I don't recognise his paintings but agree they'd make fun teatowels

  2. Very interesting - thank you. I think I've seen this at Tate Britain.

    1. Yes you have - they have a few of his works. Well remembered!


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