Three Intimate Portraits at the NPG

Last Thursday I gave my Whitechapel Boys their first public outing. It felt strangely liberating and exciting to talk in public about what I’ve been working on for the past six, maybe even seven, years. It was like bringing a secret out into the open, and being able to do it in the Lecture Hall at the National Portrait Gallery was a real privelege, and also just the right place to talk about them. To bring the three men right to the heart of the establishment – a place they struggled to be part of.

I also used Power Point for the first time – and loved it! The talk is here below, but without the slideshow – I hope it works without it, too.

Three Intimate Portraits: Mark Gertler, David Bomberg, Isaac Rosenberg

I’m going to be talking about a project I’ve been working on for the past six years. It’s strange to work on a book for so long, because you see someone in 2002 and then, because of the way our lives are in London, you see them again in 2006, and you’re still on the same book. Ian McEwan has a story called “Reflections of a Kept Ape” in which an ape who’s just been dumped by its human girlfriend, a writer, observes her at work and wonders if writing is not just a wish to appear busy. After publishing two books based mainly on my own life, and without anything burning to say about myself, I had to find a way to look busy. What I came upon were the lives of three artists who have given meaning to my life as a writer for the past few years. They have kept my love for writing – that process of translating the images in our heads into words – they have kept that alive. Most of these stories are fiction.

What follows is a taster of some of the fragments I’ve been weaving together into a book about three London-based Jewish painters from the last century – Isaac Rosenberg, Mark Gertler, and David. This is still a work in progress. My story of the three Whitechapel Boys is a dreamscape, a chronicle of grief and love. How I came to write about three London painters who grew up within walking distance of each other and went to the same art school at the same time – around 1911 – starts in 1975 in South Africa with me in bed at night listening to a programme called “Poets and Poetry” on the BBC’s World Service.

My fascination begins with a line-by-line analysis of Isaac Rosenberg’s poem “Break of Day in the Trenches,” a poem he wrote within a year of enlisting to fight in the Great War. That was in 1916. In the mid Seventies, I was 13 or 14. What captured my imagination – besides the image in the poem of a rat running back and forth between German and English trenches – was that you could be a Jew and you could be an artist and you could be talked about on the BBC World Service. For a young boy in a small in the Cape Province, this was a revelation. Isaac Rosenberg was my first glimpse of what I wanted to be. I saw in him something of my future. Not a role model, but a possible way of being. Soon after that, my family left South Africa and immigrated to Israel. Happened what happened over the next 15 year, then I came to London. I think I missed the Diaspora too much. I was ready to slip back into English.

Just before lunch on March 11th 1911 George V and his entourage came into Room 30 at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square while Isaac Rosenberg was copying a portrait of Philip IV by Velázquez. King George, mindful of distracting the artist from his work, raised his index finger to his lips and gestured to his men, as they tiptoed behind Rosenberg along the back wall of the room – a quick sideways glance over the artist’s shoulder at his copy, then up at the original – as they made their way back to the Gallery’s Central Hall.

Rosenberg frowned at the shuffling behind him. He’d been thinking about a poem he’d started on his way here – only in night grows… no, glows! the flower of peace. He’d been walking along Great Eastern Road, then Old Street, then up Clerkenwell Road, passing Eddie Marsh’s flat. A raisin bun would do it. He could kill for one of those raisin buns Mrs Elgy made in large batches – thinking about a poem that began: The world rustles by me… no, the world rumbles by me. Ooh, and a liver sandwich, a cup of tea. He lit a cigarette, inhaled, stared at Philip IV, down at his own version, exhaled.

It was time for lunch.

Four years later, to the month, it is 1915 and Rosenberg has returned home from an uninspiring trip to South Africa. He fashions his self-portrait on the painting he’d been copying when the British monarch was about to intrude. In the picture, Rosenberg’s jaw juts out as King Philip’s does, his eyes squint to the right, he has the same thick bottom lip, and instead of the King’s blonde, shining quiff he wears a Tyrolean hat. The self-portrait is here now, upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery – well, it was, till they took it down a few years ago – Isaac Rosenberg by Isaac Rosenberg, oil on a wood panel, a religious icon, nailed to the wall.

Who would have thought?

Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890. David Bomberg was born in Birmingham in 1890. Mark Gertler was born in Spitalfields in 1891. Rosenberg was 7 when the family moved to London. Bomberg was 5. Gertler was 3 when the family left London and moved to Austria, and then 6 when they came home again. By 1897 they were all settled in the East End, as settled as one can be without much money, living in a ghetto. They all lived within a short walk of each other. The Whitechapel Boys Triangle.

There is not really any documentation of how they met and when, and what their relationships with each other were like. They must have seen and spoken to each other at the Whitechapel Library, which was open till 10 throughout the week, and where Rosenberg in particular spent a lot of time. They were at the Slade School of Art together around 1911. In 1913 at the Café Royal, Gertler introduced Rosenberg to Eddie Marsh. Eddie Marsh is the man who more or less kept them alive, put food on their tables, gave them faith in their work. Edward Marsh was Winston Churchill’s secretary. He fell in love with Gertler. He sent books and boots to Rosenberg when the young poet was fighting in France. Rosenberg always asked after Gertler in his letters to Marsh, though he had no idea that by that time Gertler had broken off all ties with Eddie Marsh over the war. Bomberg seemed to hang out with a different crowd.

The book was initially going to be about the undocumented points of contact between the three artists. But I began to wonder if the reason behind a lack of documentation – letters, in particular – was that they didn’t really spend much time together. Their paths crossed, the way paths do in the fairly insular world of any art scene, but they didn’t necessarily seek out each other’s company. There was a trip Rosenberg and Bomberg took together to the Isle of Wight in 1913. But that’s about it. But then, one of the main ways history has of measuring intimacy between friends is through surviving letters, and Rosenberg, Gertler, and Bomberg did not write to each other. I thought I was going to fill a gap in the stories their biographers have told, but I realised that I wanted to have a separate relationship with each one. I didn’t want them closing ranks, excluding me from their trio.

At the time of my father’s death, these three Whitechapel Boys were the only Jewish men I knew in London. Together we weren’t even half the number you’d need for a minyan, and I needed someone to say Yitgadal to. These men were my company. Three Dead Jewish Guys. They were the ones I felt closest to. The Canadian writer Margaret Attwood says that all writing of the narrative kind “is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.” This novel was written out of a sense of grief and a fear that I had run out of things to say. I was ready for a trip to the Underworld. What I found were three men with struggles so similar to my own, that I felt I had chanced upon the perfect metaphor, the perfect subliminal activity.

All three painters were obsessed with death, but perhaps Rosenberg and Gertler in particular. Isaac Rosenberg, a pacifist, but penniless, joins the army to fight in the First World War, to try, as he says to Eddie Marsh “to get his head blown off.” He enlisted, he said, for the separation allowance that his mother would get to help keep the household going. He felt he had no choice. Some twenty years later in 1939 Mark Gertler killed himself in his studio in his garden. Towards the end of his life, Gertler wrote to Thomas Balston, a collector and a close friend: “I am really very depressed and disheartened. I have only sold one picture… I’ve only made about £50! which barely covers the expenses of frames… What is going to happen? I don’t know. …my immediate worry is the summer… unless I sell another two medium-sized pictures I shall be in a real hole. I feel so disgusted that I really don’t feel able to paint.” That was the end of May. By the end of June, Mark Gertler was dead. Almost twenty years after that, David Bomberg starves himself in Spain and is brought home to die in St Thomas’s Hospital, stark raving mad. But I’m not talking about the physical death that is the end of being, I’m talking about the echoes of death that are the constant fear of financial misery and the lack of recognition for one’s artistic creation.

But before all that, in amongst all that warding off of death, there were times of clean joy. I don’t think there was much in Rosenberg’s life. He left school at fourteen and was apprenticed to an engraver, a man by the name of Carl Hentschel, a friend of Jerome K Jerome, the author of Three Men in a Boat. Hentschel was Harris in the book and George Wingrave was George. George and Hentschel were almost forty when Rosenberg began his apprenticeship. The two men were united in their love for the theatre. George worked for Barclays on the Strand and would turn up around five to cart Hentschel off to a show. They’d march arm in arm across the studio, from the small office at the far end towards the front door, Hentschel’s head as high as Wingrave’s shoulders, past Rosenberg standing earnestly over the etching basin, feathering bubbles off the plate, frowning.

“Smile, for God’s sake,” Hentschel would say.

Rosenberg shook his head vigorously and tightly, like a hand-cuffed prisoner trying to shake a fly off his forehead, and he breathed in the nitric acid vapours – odourless and lethal – and thought he’d go mad from the boredom of it all. He could fall asleep right there and then, on the spot, no matter how loud Hentschel and Wingrave were, his lids heavy with lack of sleep, staying up nights to write poetry and paint, keeping himself awake to feel that at least an equal measure of the day was spent on art than was spent in this place, chained to a mangling-machine that provided him with just a few shillings to buy materials, notebooks, and chocolate. Nothing more.

“Are you coming,” George said.

The two men were standing at the door, waiting.

“Theatre!” George said. “Remember? Keep with it, boy.”

And they whisked him away.

In the cab on the way to the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel, they listened while Rosenberg talked. He’d seen the show before, so he told them about the puppets that came on at the start. Not at all like Punch and Judy. Yes, in Yiddish, of course in Yiddish. With Goldstein on the piano. You should hear the man. Fantastic. A genius.

Whitechapel High Street circa 1910 was a mess. The Yiddishe clamour and clatter, the noise of the Ghetto, street hawkers and prostitutes, kids running barefoot, the whole stereotypical megilah. It was like that. The Metropolitan District Railway, Whitechapel and Mile End Station, the trams, the buses, men in black and grey suits and caps. And the ones dressed for the theatre as if they were off to shul. That’s my shul, Rosenberg said, pointing to the Library, feeling regal and impetuous in a cab, as they drove up towards the corner of Vallance Street, got out, paid the driver, and made their way to their seats, ladies and gentlemen, for this evening’s performance of Thomashefsky’s The Straying Lamb.

“Excuse me,” said George to the couple with the child and the overflowing bagels. “But I think these are our seats.”

“It’s okay,” said Rosenberg. “We’ll just sit somewhere else.”

“Those seats over there are better,” the woman said, “I’m telling you – much better – better view,” indicating where they would have been seated if only they hadn’t bumped into the Fineberg’s – “Her cousin’s in the show,” she said, smiling at the Fineberg woman, who smiled back with pride, curtseying with her eyelids.

George was loving it. Hentschel was awkward. Rosenberg was staring at a young man at the opposite end of the circle, sketch pad on his knees, scribbling away in what seemed to be charcoal, looking directly at him. He wanted to take out his own notepad, make little scribbles, send little signs to the man across the circle, show him that he too was an artist. And then, when George leaned over to talk to Hentschel, he rested his open palm on the inside of Rosenberg’s knee, while Rosenberg gaped at the programme, at the news about the benefit concert for the East London Boot Fund, a notice about the draperies and carpets being supplied by Lazarus & Sons, while George’s hand stayed there – light and warm – as the curtain lifted and the table with the puppets was revealed, and the lights were dimmed, and the puppet masters from New York nog walked onto the stage with some puppets on strings and some with a hand up their tuches. And together with the audience, by this point louder than ever, Rosenberg sat up straight and whooped along: “This is it. This is it.” And George’s hand slid gently off his knee.

For Gertler there were times when he could forget the weight of destitution and pause in that incessant clawing for recognition. The years when Ottoline Morrell was his friend and patron and protector were like that. She made space for him at Garsington, her manor house in Oxfordshire, prepared him a studio, made her house his house. She never said no to him.

The servants brought in grilled salmon as pink as the streaks on the walls in the entrance hall at Garsington. Gertler loved the salmon on a white plate with a cheese sauce and fine brushstrokes of dill. He felt nourished here – Ottoline’s magnanimity, the gentle landscape, the generous portions. He revelled in the fullness of the house; though, sometimes, drunk and overwhelmed, he’d go up to his studio, or in summer, to the fountain in the garden. And he loved the calm, the thickness of the quiet – the opposite of his entire life: the noise of the East End, the zigzagging of his childhood, from Whitechapel to Austria, then back again. At Garsington his imagination was boundless. He brought its density of colour to his paintings. Bold, solid, fleshy, Jewish – each colour separate, as if he was back at Clayton and Bell designing stained-glass windows for the Catholic Chapel of Westminster.

They all fell in love with Mark Gertler. He was a beautiful man, playful and funny, and hard to resist. All his patrons – Thomas Balston, Monty Shearman, and Eddie Marsh – adored him. But Dora Carrington said no. In a letter to her, Gertler writes: “My love has now reached such a point that I can hardly bear it. For God’s sake don’t torture me by not letting me see much of you… I shan’t worry you for much ‘sugar’ if only I can see you and talk… if any other man touches any part of your beautiful body I shall kill myself…”

Carrington doesn’t want Gertler pushing against her, his face pressed against hers.

“I can’t breathe,” she says.

Like she’s being forced, like a stranger is pushing against her, licking her cheeks.

And yet his body is so delicate, a slimness she likes, but it scares her, tests her. Lytton doesn’t love her enough to demand anything. Gertler’s demands threaten to disrupt her fragile identity, the brittle sense of separateness she has from her family. And yet he is tender. She never feels she has to censor herself, or explain things. But when he is on top of her, she is paralysed, her whole body in shock.

“What’s going on inside you,” Gertler says. “What is it?”

“Don’t ask me to talk about my inner self,” she says. “It’s confused, too agonising to pull out.”

She becomes overwhelmed and withdraws, then feels guilty for turning away, as if there is something wrong with her, and all she really wants is for him to know her completely. One minute she’s excited, feeling like she could make love forever, and then one wrong gesture, a kiss that lasts too long, a tongue darting into her mouth, and she withers, becomes despondent.

“You make me feel ashamed and unclean,” she says.

“How can you say that,” Gertler said. “My desire for you is beautiful.”

“But your body,” she said. “I don’t want a man’s body pushing against me.”

“You yourself said I was as beautiful as a woman. You called me girlish and pretty.”

“But this,” she said, moving her hand down his stomach – so smooth and soft and pale, so like her own – and stopping at the top of his pubic hair. She didn’t need to look to know how black it was, how soft, how much darker than her own.

“What this?” he said. “My pork sausage?”

“Your kosher sausage,” she said.

“But we can be friends, can’t we?” he said. “I can’t paint without you. Nor live.”

“Let’s be like we were at Gilbert’s cottage. I’ve never cared for you so much as when we were there. You were splendid.”

“I want you to love me,” he said. “To love me properly. You’ve said how awfully happy you are when I love you.”

“I am,” she said. “You are such a good comrade.”

“But can’t you see that we need to fuck?” he said. “Just as painting expresses beauty, so fucking expresses love. You can’t have them separate. Then you’re just a crap artist, like – “

“Sh,” she said. “Don’t”

“They express nothing but their own stupidity.”

Carrington got up. Her back an invitation and a rejection – like all forms of beauty can be – her neck exposed, her hair even shorter than his.

“Now I know how Lytton feels,” Gertler said. “And Eddie. Perhaps I should offer my sausage to them. For I do love them. A love that is a form of gratitude. I need them, especially Eddie, almost as much as I need you.”

The word Intimate comes from the Latin word meaning “to make familiar with” [intimare]. My aim has always been to make Rosenberg, Gertler, and Bomberg as familiar to me as possible, to feel as if there were no secrets between us. It is voyeuristic – but I am a writer and that’s what I do – I look for stories under every rock, I peer through people’s blinds. I called this talk Three Intimate Portraits because I wanted to visit some of those unrecorded, unspoken moments in the lives of these artists, and those moments are often the times when they are naked, unobserved, or in the company of just one other. But I also wanted to visit the places they went to, the landscapes they walked through and lived in for various lengths of time, the sceneries they painted. I went to Arras, where Rosenberg is buried and near where he was killed. I went to Braemar, where Bomberg and his soon-to-be-wife Lillian Holt went on a painting trip in 1932, and I went, amongst other places, to Banchory and Mundesley, the sanatoria where Gertler, stricken with TB, spent months of his life in the 1920s and 1930s.

We walked through the grounds of Glen-o-Dee, the sanatorium in Banchory, yellow paint peeling off the walls, security fences around the building, and yet we manage to squeeze into that thin strip of pavement between fence and building. The grounds are overrun with rhododendrons, bushes of them 8 feet high. There is nothing manicured about this place. I pick daffodils, every unopened one I can find. I want the beauty of the sanatorium daffodil to be witnessed; I want these flowers to open in my living room.

I want to get inside. I will not be forbidden to tread in Gertler’s footsteps. I want to be everywhere he has been. How will I know him if I do not become him. And so we find an opening in the fence to slither through, the two of us – we walk along the paved veranda at the front of the building, the side that faces the lawn that slopes down into the forest of silver birches, Scots pine, and what my lover insists are elm trees. In the place of tuberculosis, two elm trees have escaped disease.

We are not the first to break in. The washbasins. The Bakelite switches. Mirrors. Wardrobes from the sixties. Paint peeling off the ceilings – like skin. This is what stays with me the most. The peeling paint – the paint coming off – curling – hanging from the ceiling like water, like something is leaking from the floor above. And the grand stairway, the stained glass windows – the names outside the doors on the first floor. The men dressed for golf and the women in evening gowns move like a herd of zebra and wildebeest to the watering hole, the dining hall at the end of the building. At first, Gertler was fed in his room. He watched two rabbits on the front lawn. It was six in the evening. There was only a hint of light. It took almost a week before he was allowed downstairs.
A few decades after Queen Victoria colonised the hills and glens around Braemar and Balmoral and Banchory – everywhere she could find along the River Dee and what is now the Cairngorms National Park, into the landscape traipsed David Bomberg and his lover, Lillian Holt. Carrying paints and canvases, easels and a tent. From Pitlochry to Braemar, from Braemar to Aviemore they went in search of the perfect light. Bomberg wanted to melt into the landscape, to surround himself, immerse himself in it so that he was no more than a thing. So we climb after them to the top of Creag Coinnich – 538m up – we walk briskly, almost running, as if the thing that will save the day is at the summit. The wind is wild – Lillian remembered that the wind “made it impossible to keep the canvas steady on the easel.” With tree logs, she helped Bomberg build an enclosure and then settled herself a little way off. “Working fiercely against the wind,” she said. “Two hours passed and the Cairngorms was completed.” (Lipke, 20) Then my lover and I went back into town for hot chocolate at the Victorian Tea Rooms.

I wanted to do the journey to Arras on my own. To arrive in France as Rosenberg had. The rain was unceasing and it took me a while to find a taxi driver in town who’d even heard of the cemetery. They’d been wet for the past three days; there was no way to get dry. No body-heat and no sunshine. They huddled together in the trenches, in those narrow grave-holes, Rosenberg nodding off with a soldier’s foot in his face. It was like trying to sleep at the bottom of a well, in a snake-pit, you learnt to regard the bodies of others as your own, their closeness never an intrusion. Life in the trenches was death and dead bodies, and the godawful boredom and monotony of waiting, sitting without moving on one side of a mound waiting for bombs to fall or for an order to attack.

Rosenberg’s uniform was a layer of cold wet skin grafting itself onto his body. Always failing – failing to get dry, to keep him warm, to make the rest of his body like it: reptilian, cold-blooded. And in that quiet at the end of fighting, the snoring as reassuring as crickets and barn owls, sounds of life and the wonder of nature in the embrace and sanctuary of night.

Then a German cannonball – cold, heavy, hard – pushes against his face until he wakes up with a boot on his chin. He likes to know there is something between him and death. The smell of mud and damp ashes, and he is in his mother’s kitchen with his cheek against the table’s wooden surface while she prepares dinner, the day’s vegetables on the table. Have they told her that he’s in the army? Does she know where he is on the days he rushes off to France to fight the Germans, then comes home for his supper? She insists he come home in the evenings.

“Mama,” he whispers. “Mama.”

“Sh. Enough already” she says, helping him off with his boots. “I’m not surprised you’re so tired.”

Let’s face it, I don’t have the lungs for a straightforward, linear narrative. I don’t have the staying power. I’ve never even had a lover for more than a couple of years. I knew a woman once who could talk for three hours without stopping, without breathing through her mouth. I know this because I timed her. She did it often, until one day I thought: I’m going to see how long she can keep going without asking me a question, without waiting for a response. She made me think of the time we went to see Rolf Harris at the Feather Market Hall in Port Elizabeth – I must have been ten – and he’d explained how to play the didgeridoo: you blow out through your mouth and inhale big chunks of air through your nose at the same time. The woman I know inhales silently, consistently and delicately through her nose while she speaks. She is not as interesting as a didgeridoo. With her, there is no room for your mind to wonder. But enough about her. And enough about all this.

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One thought on “Three Intimate Portraits at the NPG

  1. >Thanks so much for that transcript, Shaun, I really enjoyed reading it.It touched on SO many difficult/frustrating questions… not least the one about how long we allow ourselves to remain attached to one particular project. Seven years, you say? I feel myself getting increasingly depressed because my current work is fast approaching the two-year mark. The thought of five more is enough to make me want to… well… you understand…Hope you’re well, by the way.

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