When, in the heady years that preceded the First World War, Mark Gertler (front row, fourth from left) attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London, his friend and fellow student C.R.W. Nevinson (who is on Gertler’s right) described him as ‘the genius of the place and the most serious, single-minded artist I have ever come across’. Gertler’s gift for painting might have been plain to see, but life for the artist was less straightforward, not least as regards his relationship with Dora Carrington (front row, far left).
Left: Mark Gertler (1891-1939), Carrington, 1912. Oil and tempera on canvas. Right: Augustus Edwin John, O.M., R.A. (1878-1961), Portrait of Dorelia, 1903. Black chalk. Sold for £146,500. These works and those below were offered in our Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 25 June 2015 at Christie’s in London
Born in Spitalfields to Polish Jewish immigrants, Gertler showed, writes his biographer Sarah MacDougall, ‘precocious talent’ from an early age, executing his first drawing at the age of three. When a first attempt to study art history at the Regent Street Polytechnic was cut short by poverty, Gertler was forced to take on an apprenticeship as a glass painter.
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His fortunes improved in 1908, however, when the artist William Rothenstein secured him a place and funding at the Slade. Here, he made friends with other artists, including Nevinson, Stanley Spencer and John S. Currie, and fell in love with Carrington, as did Nevinson. Carrington encouraged their friendships but was physically frightened by passion. The love triangle would eventually destroy the men’s friendship.
Gertler’s haunting portrait of Carrington from 1912 reflects his obsessive but largely unrequited love for her, as well as showing the influence of portraits by Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci — influences that are also evident in Gertler’s The Violinist. There are a number of beautiful drawings in this sale, including a Study for The Violinist and another, by Augustus John (the ‘elder statesman’ of the group), of his wife Dorelia whose bohemian style of dress — captured in John’s gypsy drawings — inspired a whole generation of the Slade’s female students to follow suit.
Left: Mark Gertler (1891-1939), Study for the Violinist, 1912. Pencil. Sold for £62,500. Right: Mark Gertler (1891-1939), The Violinist, 1912. Oil on panel. Sold for £542,500
After Gertler left the Slade in 1912, he was fortunate to have two patrons: Edward Marsh, a wealthy homosexual who was Winston Churchill’s private secretary at the time, and Lady Ottoline Morrell, a commanding figure in the Bloomsbury Group. Morrell had been introduced to Gertler by Gilbert Cannan, whose 1916 novel Mendel: A Story of Youth was based on the lives of Currie, Gertler and Carrington.
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Shortly after its publication, Carrington finally agreed to sleep with Gertler — and they continued to sleep together, despite Carrington’s relationships with the writer Lytton Strachey (which was unconsummated) and the soldier Ralph Patridge, whom she married to keep the ménage à trois together. When Strachey died from cancer in 1932, Carrington shot herself.
The 1920s were Gertler’s most successful period commercially, but overshadowed by tuberculosis. Admitted to a sanatorium on a number of occasions, the artist became depressed by the death of two close writer friends — first Katherine Mansfield in 1923, then D.H. Lawrence (who had described his 1916 painting, Merry-Go-Round, as ‘the best modern picture I have seen’) — in 1930.
A month later, Gertler married former Slade student Marjorie Greatorex Hodgkinson and received a wedding gift from Carrington — her last act after Strachey’s death. He had recently read her letters, he replied. ‘It certainly made most moving reading. It must have been a most extraordinary and painful time for both of us… it is over now, and nobody’s fault.’
In 1939, his tuberculosis and waning sales overwhelmed him, and he, too, committed suicide. His Spitalfields residence is now the atelier of tailor Timothy Everest, whose clients include David Cameron and David Beckham.
Main image at top: Slade School of Art picnic, circa 1912. Front row (left to right): Dora Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Richard Nevinson, Mark Gertler, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson (with dog), and then Stanley Spencer. Second row: Dorathy Brett sits behind Nevinson and Gertler. Kneeling to the left is Isaac Rosenberg. Back row: David Bomberg (shirtsleeves) and Professor Fred Brown. Murihead Bone, Henry Tonks, Howard Gilman, Augustus John and the Nashes also appear but positions unknown. Presented by Angelica Garnett, 1981 and 1988-92. Part of the Vanessa Bell Collection. © Tate, London 2015
© Vanessa Bell/Tate, London 2015
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