Gilbert Cannan – Mendel; a story of youth,1916

One day in Bishopsgate, that lordly and splendid thoroughfare which led from the dark streets to the glittering world, he came on a man kneeling on the pavement with coloured chalks. First of all the man dusted the stones with his cap, and then he laid another cap full of little pieces of chalk by his side, and then he drew and smudged and smudged and drew until a slice of salmon appeared. By the side of the salmon he drew a glass of beer with a curl of froth on it and a little bunch of flowers. On another stone he drew a ship at sea in a storm, a black and green sea, and a brown and black sky. Mendel watched him enthralled. What a life! What a career ! To go out into the streets and make the dull stones lovely with colour! He saw the man look up and down and then lay a penny on the salmon. A fine gentleman passed by and threw down another penny. . . . Oh, certainly, a career ! To make the streets lovely, and immediately to be rewarded! 

From school Mendel stole some chalk and decorated the stones in the yard at Gun Street. He drew a bottle and an onion and a fish, though this he rather despised, because it was so easy. Always he had amused himself with drawing. As a tiny child, the first time his father went to America he drew a picture of a watch to ask for that to be sent him, and this picture had been kept by his mother. And after that he often drew, but chiefly because it made his father and mother proud of him, and they laughed happily at everything he did. The pavement artist filled him with pride and pleasure in the doing of it : and every minute out of school and away from the Rabbi he devoted to drawing. His brothers bought him a box of colours, and he painted imaginary landscapes of rivers and swans and cows and castles. Every picture he made was treasured by his mother. They seemed to her, as they did to himself, perfectly beautiful. He used his water-colours as though they were oils, and laid them on thick, to get as near the pavement artist’s colours as possible. At school there were drawing-lessons, but they seemed to have no relation to this keen private pleasure of his. 

In the evenings he would lie on the ground in the kitchen and paint until his eyes and his head ached. Sometimes his perpetual, silent absorption would so exasperate his brothers that they would kick his paints away and make him get up and talk to them. Then he would curse them with all the rich curses of the Yiddish language, and rush away and hide himself; for days he would live in a state of gloom and dark oppression, feeling dimly aware of a difference between him and them which it was beyond his power to explain. He would try to tell his mother what was the matter with him, but she could not understand. His happiness in painting, the keen delight that used to fill him, were to her compensation enough for her anxiety and the stress and strain of her poverty.

Gilbert Cannan,1884-1955. Mendel; a story of youth,1916. Book I. EAST. Chapter II. Poverty

Gilbert Cannan was part of a London literary circle including J.M Barrie, D.H Lawrence, Ottoline Morrell, John Middleton Murray and Katherine Mansfield.

Mendel: a story of youth, 1916, is about the artist Mendel Kühler closely based on the early life of Mark Gertler,1891-1939. Mendel was Gertler’s Yiddish name, and the narrative follows Mendel from the poor Jewish immigrant community in Whitechapel to the Slade School of Art. He is described as a talented instinctive genius of a painter as well as being naïve, arrogant, histrionic and impetuous. The novel includes descriptions of Greta Morrison (Dora Carrington, 1893-1932), and Mitchell (John S Currie, 1883-1914. Fellow students at the Slade included artists of the ‘Neo-Primitive’ group, C.R.W. Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Stanley Spencer, Adrian Allinson, Dora Carrington, John S. Currrie.

The novel was described by D H. Lawrence, “Gertler… has told every detail of his life to Gilbert… who has a lawyer’s memory and he has put it all down, and so ridiculously when it comes to the love affair… it is a bad book – statement without creation – really journalism.” Dora Carrington commented, “How angry I am over Gilbert’s book. Everywhere this confounded gossip, and servant-like curiously. It’s ugly and so damned vulgar.”

Images: Mark Gertler. The Violinist, 1912

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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