mark gertler: a family history
"as a family, we do love our things! a sense of putting down roots, isn’t it. making a nest. my uncle was also curious about the world." - jeannette gertler
on the 23 July 2021, florrie evans and patrick duffy paid a visit to jeannette gertler, the niece of the artist mark gertler, and her son mark paros, to talk to them about gertler and his legacy.
Mark Gertler was born at Spitalfields, London, in 1891, the youngest of five siblings - two brothers, and two sisters. Jeannette Gertler is the daughter of his brother Jacob, ‘Jack’ (b. 1886).
I first met Jeannette’s son, Mark Paros, mudlarking by the River Thames. He’s a quiet, reflective and gentle man, whose love of history has led to a life dealing in antiquities. Well known at the auction houses, Mark can often be found at Sotheby’s café, soaking up the atmosphere. Not many people know of their family’s link to the artist, and indeed it wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when I noticed on their wall a portrait of Jack, by Gertler, that Mark told me of their connection.
He has lived with his mother, Jeannette Gertler, in the same house since he was born, on a leafy road of 1920s villas in Edgware, north London. It was one of the hottest days in July when Patrick and I met with them both in their home, to talk about Gertler. Stepping inside to the cool of their sitting-room, it is like entering a time capsule, period swirling carpets, trinkets, antiques, curios and paintings hung cheek-by-jowl, on deep avocado walls. Jeannette sits in her armchair by a grand tour copy of Carlo Dolci’s La Poesia. Delicate like a bird, and with admirable posture in spite of her 92 years, Jeannette is glamorous: red rhinestone glasses, matching scarlet lipstick and shoes, a bold floral jumpsuit, carefully curated silver jewellery. She is also a sparkling conversationalist:
Florrie: The Merry-go-round is perhaps Gertler’s most famous painting, isn’t it Jeannette, and it even appeared on a postage stamp a few years ago. Do you have any insights into that painting?
Jeannette: It was very controversial, not popular. People were annoyed about it and it was slated so much because it was making fun of the war. Making fun of the soldiers going around and around, achieving nothing. They thought it was very naughty of him to do that. Dispiriting. But he was opening their eyes. Really he was.
Florrie: What did your family make of it?
Jeannette: They didn’t mind, Mark was their golden boy, their star, but other people were very annoyed about him making fun of the war. The boys were all pacifists you see. The family, they’d had enough trauma, as Jewish émigrés you know. It was a huge picture, did you ever see it?
Florrie: It’s at Tate Britain isn’t it. The painting we have at our gallery is a later work, from near the end of his life, a trompe l’oeil of another painting of fish, and it’s also very big. A very different subject, of course, but with a wonderful colourful blockiness which I associate with Gertler, as though he’d been looking at Fernand Léger. Then, I think of Mark Gertler’s other paintings that are famous today and often they were quite small, delicate portraits, and to see him painting on that big scale is…
Jeannette: I did see it once, your picture of fish, quite a few years ago.
Florrie: Perhaps when it was with The Fine Art Society before, some time ago now?
Jeannette: Yes, that’s right, that’s right, what a beautiful gallery. You know, he loved objects my uncle, he was a collector of ‘things’. Those compositions would have been straight from his home.
Florrie: The thing I love about the painting of fish is how, when you get your eye into it, you realise it’s a stack of paintings on a chair. There’s something very insouciant about the composition, even though it’s carefully constructed. And what really strikes me is his love of clutter, and the shapes and lines and colours he gathered from that, so artfully. Whether it’s a stack of pictures, a paperweight, figurines, a vase of tulips or a potted plant – I have to say, they could almost be scenes from your own home too, Jeannette!
Jeannette: As a family, we do love our things! A sense of putting down roots, isn’t it. Making a nest. My uncle was also curious about the world. He had a genuine Benin head, you know, a proper Benin head. It used to appear in his paintings. We have one too, over there, see?
Florrie: Wow, that’s very striking! [Your son] Mark mentioned to me that you have some objects that belonged to your uncle.
Mark: Yes – here – look at this carved brazil nut pod – give it a shake, see – and hear the rattling nuts inside? You can imagine him enjoying holding it, shaking it. It’s very tactile. I dug it out the other week, I was looking for something to prop up a small 18th century cannon I have acquired, and there it was, in a box. We’d forgotten about it!
Florrie: What a fabulous curio!
Jeannette: He had a quite a big collection of shells as well. I loved those as a little girl.
Mark: We had many of his books too, the books that he used to own, that he sketched in the fly-leaves. I think we even have his rubber upstairs!
Florrie: Something that really interested me when I was reading about Gertler, and looking at his paintings recently, was that he did a wonderful series of still-lifes with a jointed Victorian wooden doll which belonged to one of his older nieces - this would have been before you were born Jeannette, in 1914, I think. But he wrote that he had become completely obsessed with it - he described it as ‘a funny little doll’ - and I wondered, obviously you yourself are an antique doll and teddy bear specialist Jeanette...
Jeannette: …you wondered if I ever had a doll like that?
Jeannette: I did! Peg dolls they were called. Maybe even the same one! Everything was passed down in those days.
Florrie: Have you seen his paintings of the peg dolls?
Jeannette: I’ve seen one. Memory comes I did see it. A sense of the dolly playing at real life. Just like the merry-go-round. Child’s play again, Florrie. Real life, a dangerous game.
Florrie: You must’ve been very little when he died… Did you know he had committed suicide? Did your family, did your father ever talk about him to you?
Jeannette: I remember my father being heartbroken when he took his life. He couldn’t speak for grief.
Florrie: So, your memory really is of the grief?
Jeannette: The grief, yes definitely.
Florrie: And can you tell us any family stories about your uncle?
Jeannette: When he was about three or four, very young, my family lived on the borders, in Austrian Poland, they had an inn there. Soldiers used to go into the inn and they were called the Hussars, and they were huge chaps. Quite frightening, if you saw them they were terrifying to see, so vicious looking, my father used to say, terrifying drunks. They used to go to this pub and see Mark as a little child. I don’t know why, but they were really taken by him to such a degree that they had a little uniform made, in miniature, for him.
Patrick: Like a mascot?
Jeannette: Yes! They frightened everyone else, but not Mark. They’d sit him up upon the bar, and they were fascinated by Mark and they adored him. But eventually the family were worried about him being with these men because they got drunk and would wave their sabers around.
Florrie: And to think he grew up to become a pacifist who painted The Merry-go-round and that he’d had this childhood experience!
When the family returned to London, he can’t have been much older than what you describe, and your father must have been around ten. At that point, I gather they only spoke Yiddish and were near-destitute. They were plunged into a totally different world. I find it compelling that Mark Gertler came from a family in that position, that supported his elevation and ambition to train as an artist. I know that he worked very hard to make that happen, he worked for a time for a stained glass company and then had a scholarship to the Slade. Did that inspire your father too?
Jeannette: My father used to, what do they call it, carry his paintings, helped to carry his paintings to various exhibitions and clients, he used to do the carrying for it. He saw it all. My father, another thing he did like Mark [Gertler], was he went to France. Mark was painting, but my father, he was quite talented too – at playing the piano. He was in Paris and he played the piano to earn them money, and apparently, he got a job at a club playing the piano and was able to live in Paris on this money.
Patrick: Do you think that’s where you get your creativity as well, Jeannette?
Jeannette: I’ve always been absolutely obsessed with painting portraits. I used to copy portraits of the Pope and I was obsessed with Napoleon! I painted a copy of Rembrandt’s self-portrait too. I tried to paint with his special technique, a sort of sepia paint, very dense. Almost like it’s alive, on fire sort of. The special glazes.
Florrie: Goodness! Yes, I see them over there on the wall! What is it about portraits or these famous figures that fascinates you?
Jeannette: The eyes. Nothing else fascinates me as much as the eyes.
Florrie: Have you ever copied any of your uncle’s paintings? Did you have a strong desire to replicate his style too?
Jeanette: Oh yes, I did a picture of Mark Gertler, upstairs.
Florrie: Oh, you did! So, you copied his self-portrait?
Jeannette: No, from a little family photograph. I wanted to interpret it in my own way.
Florrie: You and [your son] Mark have very kindly dug out some family photographs for us. There’s such a strong family resemblance through the siblings! They were all of them so dapper. Perhaps a sign of the times, but they clearly all took an interest in how they dressed!
Jeannette: My father used to change his clothes three or four times a day! And he had his white gloves and they had to be spotless. Even though he was carrying pictures!
Florrie: Well, that’s definitely filtered down to you and Mark, because you are both always very elegantly turned out. Do you have a family history of tailoring or anything like that?
Jeannette: After the inn, they had a furrier’s business in London. In those days apparently, they used to not do very well. They gave young boys the job of delivering the furs – sable coats – and they would steal them! They just weren’t ever very good in business. Too trusting.
Florrie: So, Jeannette when did you become a dealer of antique dolls? What drew you to them?
Jeannette: Victorian dolls are very beautiful. Which would distract me from painting portraits!
Florrie: Miniature people!
Patrick: What you said about portraits and the eyes made me think of some of Mark Gertler’s portraits. In a lot of them the sitter isn’t looking at you, they are looking away. I think of a famous one called The Violinist, which our gallery actually sold years ago and then it went back to auction not long ago and sold for about a million. Quite a substantial thing. The sitter is looking down and away from the viewer.
Jeannette: Oh I see, the eyes weren’t stead on?
Patrick: Like you say, the eyes being the window to the soul, but here they are averted.
Jeannette: Looking away from life, Patrick.
Florrie: Do you have any other thoughts to add about your uncle and perhaps how his fame and subsequent suicide impacted your family or you?
Jeannette: The death affected my father, he was certainly devastated. He adored Mark, couldn’t accept that he killed himself.
Florrie: In the books about him, the story is of course that it was the cumulation of his unrequited love for Dora Carrington, and her own untimely death that tormented him. Is that, do you think, the main reason that he killed himself?
Jeannette: I had a think today whether it was, and I don’t think so. I think he was unhappy about a lot of things. He was married, and that was a very unhappy marriage. My father attributed it mainly to that relationship. There was more to it than just Dora Carrington.
Florrie: You think that there was more to it? Did he struggle with depression through his life?
Jeannette: Yes. And he had a friendship with a very famous person, with a writer and this made him very depressed. He had a relationship with this writer.
Florrie: Mark had a relationship with a writer?
Jeannette: Might not be a relationship, but a friendship. I’ve never quite been sure.
Florrie: I remember reading a quote, he met Virginia Woolf and she wrote about him in a slightly snippy way. She was a bit rude about him, a degree of snobbery there.
Jeannette: No, this was a man, a male. They both used to have long talks together, D.H Lawrence! The name comes back to me! They both thought of life as pain, it was depression. Both of them talked the same way, that life wasn’t worth living. The reason, the very strange reason, the reason being that they were both absolutely brilliant; and they were geniuses, both of them. He was writing, Mark was painting and both had nothing more to experience. Therefore, life was boring. You’ve done it all, you’ve done everything. They’re both geniuses, they’ve done everything you possibly can do. There’s nothing more to experience. So finish it. That’s why he killed himself. It wasn’t so much Dora Carrington, it was because he was with this person, they encouraged each other in their pain. Just imagine if you’d experienced everything, there’s nothing more to experience. What are you to live for? What was amazing, was the letters they wrote to each other. My father kept those letters tucked in a book. I was young, I was a young child when I found and read them. I didn’t understand. I put the book away… and tried to forget all about it.
Florrie: Oh wow, you saw and read these letters?
Jeannette: Yes. Don’t know what became of them. The letters they wrote to each other were all on how tired they were with life. I was moved by them, and I thought it strange. Strange that my father had hidden them in a book. They didn’t seem very happy, but I didn’t fully understand. I just saw pain. I didn’t dare ask my father what he thought. I don’t think I even admitted to reading them.
Florrie: How old would you have been when you found those letters Jeanette?
Jeannette: I think about twelve to fourteen. I don’t think people really knew about how they both felt in life. Yet D.H Lawrence he lived on didn’t he, normally. My poor uncle.
Florrie: I wonder, did you call [your son] Mark on account of your uncle? As a tribute?
Jeannette: Yes! My father, he said don’t do it, it’ll be bad luck! But look at Mark. He’s here, and he’s my angel.
We leave Jeannette to eat her lunch, and Mark steers us into the garden where we sit with tea beneath an apple tree. The flower beds are carefully bordered with ancient worked flints and unusual stones that Mark has collected from the Thames and local walks. In his way, he has created a composition his uncle would surely understand.
Mark Gertler's 'Fishes', 1937, is on view and for sale at The Fine Art Society in London.
To visit, please make an appointment here.
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