A brush with greatness

As the Ben Uri Gallery gifts a portrait of Sir Sydney Waterlow to the NPG, Dan Carrier talks to curator Sarah MacDougall about its painter, Mark Gertler

Thursday, 10th March — By Dan Carrier

Sir Sydney Waterlow

Mark Gertler’s portrait of Sir Sydney Waterlow

ARTIST Mark Gertler was not short of subjects. The painter, who hailed from an East End Jewish family, had become friends with members of the Bloomsbury Group. It gave him the chance to produce studies of – and for – some of the period’s cultural trendsetters.

In 1921, his friend the diplomat Sir Sydney Waterlow sat for him – and now, 101 years later, the image created has been given to the National Portrait Gallery. It is a fitting place – Sir Sydney joins a collection of other members of the Bloomsbury Group.

Gertler’s study was in the collection of the Ben Uri gallery in St John’s Wood, and curator Sarah MacDougall wrote the biography of the painter.

“Sir Sydney is the grandson of the philanthropist who gave us Waterlow Park,” she says. “Our records do not reveal who gave the gallery the work. We came to the decision that the work deserved to be seen by as many people as possible, and fitted well with the National Portrait Gallery’s existing Bloomsbury collection.”

The artist met the Knight of the Realm through their mutual friend, Lady Dorothy Brett. Brett was a student at the Slade – where Gertler studied – and was a bona fide aristo, a Bloomsbury-ite who would later move to the USA to live with DH Lawrence.

Brett was the hostess of a weekly salon at her Hampstead home.

“Sir Sydney knew Gertler through an all-male group who met every Thursday,” said Sarah. “The group would meet at Lady Dorothy’s house, and the membership was strictly for men only. Lady Dorothy’s gender did not matter to the men – they said she was allowed to be part of the Thursday group as they used her house and she was too deaf to hear the discussions taking place. It was made up of artists and writers, museum people and collectors.

Gertler’s famous Merry-Go-Round. Painted in 1916, it was described by DH Lawrence as ‘the best modern picture I have seen’

“They would meet to discuss ideas and Gertler found it a relief from the life of an artist in a secluded and lonely studio.”

Gertler was to become a key figure in the interwar art world, a member of the Whitechapel Boys, the cultural blossoming in the Jewish East End.

His parents had moved to London from Galicia – then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire – and settled in the Spitalfields area in the 1870s.

His father Louis was a master furrier, working in the rag trade. Gertler, born in 1891, was the youngest of five siblings.

As Sarah says, Mark showed early promise.

“He loved watching scriveners chalk reproductions of Old Masters on the pavements and began copying them,” she says.

Gertler was an artist who was not afraid to experiment, change styles, and approach his work in an open manner.

“I visited the Tate, where there were five pieces on view,” recalls Sarah. “Each was from a different era of his work, and each, at first glance, seemed to be disparate. I wondered what connected them, and why he changed his style. His work and his story resonated powerfully.”

Gertler’s development was helped by a family who recognised his talent.

“He was raised in poverty, but also with a strong sense of community,” says Sarah. He would draw on his background for material throughout his life, choosing his mother as a subject matter. His father’s furrier business would be a success, and provided employment for his two older brothers. This allowed Mark the opportunity to pursue his artistic talent, which was apparent from an early age.

A self-portrait of Gertler

“He had a very vivid imagination and he loved to draw,” says Sarah. “He was encouraged by his mother. She indulged him – she bought him fruit and vegetables he could practise painting and his talent was recognised at school.

“In 1906, he enrolled at the Regent Street Polytechnic to study art and it was here he first visited the National Gallery.

“It was an incredible for him and really fired his imagination.”

Despite mixing intellectual flair and talent with hard work and motivation, Mark was unable to stay at the Poly. When funds ran low, he was forced to take up an apprenticeship at a stained glass window-maker.

But Mark had caught the eye of artist William Rothenstein, and with his help, the artist’s financial predicament was picked up by the Jewish Education Aid Society. They offered a loan to help him go to the Slade School of Art.

He would study for four years, a period that saw his style develop in style, with a focus on a the Jewish East End as a preferred subject matter.

He made a deep impression at the Slade, and as a member of the art group the Whitechapel Boys and the London Group, he was feted by collectors. Winston Churchill’s private secretary Edward Marsh became a keen patron. His support helped Gertler – he paid him £10 a month in return for first refusal on any work he produced.

Sarah MacDougall

Marsh introduced Gertler to Lady Ottoline Morrell at her Bedford Square home, who in return introduced him to Walter Sickert, among others. She became his conduit into the Bloomsbury set. At the Morrells’ Oxfordshire pile, Garsington Manor, Gertler met Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, John Maynard Keynes, EM Forster, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, Frieda Lawrence, TS Eliot and Lytton Strachey.

It was here, too, he met and fell for Katherine Mansfield, who also had eyes for him. They had a passionate affair.

Now Gertler’s beautiful study of his friend Sir Sydney is due to be displayed, reminding us of the son of immigrants whose paintings earned him a place in a key cultural movement of his life time.

“We want all our works to be shared, to be shown and enjoyed as much as possible rather than kept in a vault,” said Sarah.

“The painting of Sir Sydney is beautiful and could be shown in context by the NPG. They have been building up their Bloomsbury circle collection and this fits into that story.

“Previously, they only had a photograph of Sir Sydney. It seemed a good result for the painting and for the context it would be shown in.”

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