Gilbert Cannan – Mendel; a story of youth,1916

The time came for Mendel to leave school and Issy said he had better be taken into the workshop. Harry wanted him in the timber-yard in which he loafed away his days. Abramovich was for getting Mr. Jacobson to take him into his office, for Mr. Jacobson never failed to ask after the boy who painted the pictures. Now it so happened that Mendel had found a bookshop, outside which he had discovered a life of W. P. Frith, R.A. In daily visits over a period of three weeks he had read it from cover to cover, the story of a poor boy who 
had become an artist, rising to such fame that he had painted the portrait of the Queen. There it was in print, and must be true. Mr. Jacobson’s boy was only in a story, but here it was set down in a book, with reproductions of the artist’s wonderful pictures “The Railway Station,” “Derby Day.” The book said they were wonderful. The book spoke with reverence and enthusiasm of pictures and the men who painted them. 

With tremulous excitement he secretly produced his box of paints again, and squeezed out the colours on to the plate he used for a palette. He adored the colours and amused himself with painting smooth strips of blue, yellow, green, red, orange, grey, for the sheer delight of handling the delicious stuff. It was a new pleasure, the joy of colours in themselves without reference to any object, or any feeling inside himself except this simple thrilling delight. He could forget everything in it, for it was his first taste of childish glee. Nothing would ever be the same again. Nothing could ever again so oppress and overwhelm him as distasteful and even pleasant things had done in the past. He would be an artist, a wonderful artist, like W. P. Frith, R.A.

So when he was called into the kitchen one night and they told him he was to go into Mr. Jacobson’s office, he looked as though their words had no meaning for him, and he said : 

”I want to be an artist.”

An artist? Nobody knew quite what that meant. Golda thought it meant painting pictures, but she could not imagine a man devoting all his time to it a child’s pastime. “He means the drawing!” said Abramovich. “I had a friend at home who used to paint the flowers on the cups.”

”I’m going to be an artist,” said Mendel. 

“But you’ve got to make your money like everybody else,” replied Issy. 

Mendel retorted with details of what he could remember of the career of his idol. Issy said that was a Christlicher kop. There weren’t such things as Jewish artists; whereon Harry threw in the word “Rubinstein.” Asked to explain what he meant, he did not know, but 
had just remembered the name. 

Abramovich said he thought Rubinstein was a conductor at the Opera, and there were Jewish singers and actors. 

“My father,” said Harry, “won’t hear of that. He won’t have a son of his making a public show of himself.”

Golda asked Abramovich to find out what an artist was and how much a week could be made at the trade. Abramovich came in one evening with a note-book full of facts and figures. He had read of a picture being sold for tens of thousands of pounds, and this had made a great impression on him. Mendel was called down from the room in which he had exiled himself. 

“Well?” said Abramovich kindly. “So you want to be an artist? But how?”

”I don’t know. I shall paint pictures.”

”But who will feed you? Who will buy you paints, brushes ?”

”I shall sell my pictures.”

”Where, then? How?” 

“To the shops.” 

“Where are the shops? Tell me of any shop near here, for I don’t know a single one.” for he knew that was how foreigners greeted a lady and then he sat heavily waiting for the situation to be explained to him. Mendel instinctively appealed to him. . . . Oh yes! he knew what an artist was, and some painters had made tidy fortunes, though they were not the best of them. There were Reynolds, and Lawrence, and Raeburn, and Landseer, and some young fellows at Glasgow, and Michael Angelo a tidy lot, indeed. Never by a Jew, that he had heard of. 

“I told you so!” said Abramovich. 

Golda showed Mr. Macalister the boy’s pictures, and he was genuinely impressed, especially by a picture of three oranges in a basket.

”It’s not,” he said, “that they make you want to eat them, as that they make you look at them as you look at oranges. I’ll look closer at every orange I see now. That’s talent. Yes. That’s talent. Aye.” 

Mendel was so grateful to him that he forgot the others and began to point out to him how well the oranges were painted, with all their fleshiness and rotundity brought out. And very soon they were all laughing at him, and that made the meeting happier.

Mr. Macalister explained that in old days artists used to take boys into their studios, but that now there were Schools of Art where only very talented people could survive. He certainly thought that Mendel ought to be given a chance, and if it were a question of money, he, poor though he was, would be only too glad to help. Golda would not hear of that, and Abramovich protested that, in an unhappy time like this, he regarded himself as the representative of his unfortunate friend. 

The corner was turned. Feeling was now all with Mendel, and he went to bed singing in head and heart:

Gilbert Cannan,1884-1955. Mendel; a story of youth,1916.  Book One: East. Chapter II, Prison

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, Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Blue Jersey (Dora Carrington), 1912, tempera and gouache on board

Mark Gertler. Dora Carrington, Drawing,1913

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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