Mark Gertler, prodigiously talented yet never quite accepted by the artistic establishment of his day, was born in 1891 to a family of Polish Jews who lived in great poverty in London's East End. As a child, he showed such talent that by the time he was 14 his family was persuaded that he should study art at the Regent Street Polytechnic. He paid his fees by working in a stained-glass factory. Three years later, he won a scholarship from the Jewish Education Aid Society to attend the Slade School of Art, the most prestigious of its day. Gertler was the first working-class Jew of his generation to attend.
At the Slade, he made friends with C. R. W. Nevinson, the celebrated first world war artist, and Dora Carrington, Gertler's greatest love until her suicide in 1932. She neither reciprocated his devotion nor was prepared to let him go, and this relationship came close to destroying him.
Gertler's unsatisfactory relationships with the Bloomsbury group are at the core of this painful but absorbing book. His work did not always find favour with Bloomsbury's inner circle. Clive Bell wrote of him: "Though a first-rate craftsman who paints admirably, he lacks sensibility."
Sarah MacDougall, an art historian at Reading University, is deeply sympathetic to her subject, treating him as a great artist first and a Jew second. But Gertler spoke Yiddish at home until he began school at five, and at the Slade he was still conscious that he did not talk like the other pupils. He resolved this by remaining silent until he had mastered their language. His Jewishness ensured that he never completely fitted in, and Gertler must have stumbled against much more anti-Semitic prejudice than MacDougall describes. At the same time, his curly-haired, dark good looks also lent him a whiff of exoticism that enchanted many of those he encountered.
MacDougall tells a story full of sadness in an unemotional tone. Gertler suffered for the last two decades of his life not only from tuberculosis but also from social isolation. He once wrote to Carrington: "By my own ambitions I am cut off from my family and class and by them I have been raised to equal a class I hate! They do not understand me nor I them, so I am an outcast."
The bitterest blow was rejection of his work. He was determined to be not simply an imitator of Matisse and Picasso, although he admired them.
Believing that art must come from the heart, not the head, and that it defied being taught - a view at odds with the Bloomsbury aesthetic - he resisted taking up teaching for as long as he could. He finally succumbed to two evenings a week at the Westminster School of Art, once he was married, surviving on an overdraft and desperate for income.
His wife, Marjorie Greatorex Hodgkinson, another Slade student, found the strain unbearable. The couple had a son, but in 1939 she left him. Later that year, appalled at the prospect of another war, he gassed himself. He was 47. His greatest work, The Merry-go-round , a powerful, disturbing anti-war critique, was found rolled up in his studio.
Anne Sebba is an author and freelance journalist.
Author - Sarah MacDougall
ISBN - 0 7195 5799 2
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 398