“We are Earth’s best,that learnt her lesson here.
Life is our cry. We have kept the faith!” we said;
We shall go down with unreluctant tread
Rose crowned into the darkness!”
Proud we were,
And laughed, that had such brave true things to say. ‘
This quote from a poem by Rupert Brooke provides the epigraph to a book about five young British artists and the Great War, and is the first of the books I have chosen to read this year in my quest to read around the Great War whilst staying out of the trenches if I possibly can. That is not to deny or avoid the bloodshed, or the unremitting horror of it all, though if I am honest, as I get older I find it all so much more upsetting to read, but I wanted to read about some aspects of which I knew much less.
What was life like in those years before the war…
How did the war impact on the everyday..
And in the case of A Crisis of Brilliance, how did it affect the artists and their art. It is a book I can't recommend highly enough so expect some gallimaufry-type posts about it to follow. I have really enjoyed this new ground, and along the way getting to know more about the lives and work of Stanley Spencer (knew very well) Mark Gertler,(heard of but knew nothing) Paul Nash,(knew well-ish) Richard Nevinson (never heard of) and Dora Carrington (adored Lytton Strachey, shot herself, didn't know much more.)
It is one of those good books that has led me off on all sorts of reading and ‘looking up’ trails, and it was mention of Gilbert Cannan (1884 - 1955) in connection with Mark Gertler that started today’s little excursion...
The name Cannan rang all sorts of other bells too..
I had been reading Scars Upon My Heart, the war poems of the women of the Great War and came across May Wedderburn Cannan. Her poem Lamplight had stayed in my mind for its opening lines…
'We planned to shake the world together, you and I
Being young and very wise;'
Those few words seemed to sum up all the hopes and dreams shattered by unimaginable grief, and the sadness of lives torn apart by the Great War, and I couldn’t get them out of my head.
And then I remembered Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan, a Persephone book that had been sitting unread on my shelves for several years…surely all these Cannans were related.
A quick hop on the branch line that is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography answered all my questions (free access via library ticket number here in the UK). May and Joanna were sisters, in fact the daughters of Charles Cannan who headed up the Oxford University Press, and Gilbert Cannan was their cousin (though I can't find out through which branch of the family.)
Gilbert Cannan, a young Cambridge graduate, was a writer who, having given up reading for the Bar, became J.M.Barrie's secretary. Gilbert was madly in love with Kathleen Bruce, a young painter and sculptress and Lisa Chaney's excellent biography of J.M. Barrie, Hide and Seek With Angels, has filled in all sorts of gaps for me, not least this description of Gilbert which seems to place him squarely in the Rupert-Brooke-Adonis category...
'Gilbert Cannan was tall, slim, with a fine profile, shaggy blond hair, a 'crooked smile' and an aura of sadness that made his undoubted beauty yet more compelling; people turned when he entered a room. His looks, his immense vitality and his passionate admiration for her in turn kept Kathleen Bruce beguiled..'
Sadly not beguiled enough, and when Kathleen met the 'not very young...and not very good looking' Captain Robert Falcon Scott (soon to be 'of Antarctica) and had to make a choice, she opted for Scott's 'dignity and restraint...his proven strength of character' and the likelihood that he would father a son for her, over Gilbert's lovelorn entreaties which took the form of four poems a day.
There is evidence that Kathleen may have regretted her decision.
On the rebound Gilbert was soon crying on the shoulder of Mary, the wife of J.M Barrie. Barrie, busy himself with his 'ongoing obsession with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and the boys, seemed unaware of the lovers and was deeply shocked when his gardener finally told him of the year-long affair. Whether Sylvia encouraged Gilbert and Mary in their relationship is uncertain, what is certain is that when cited in the Barrie’s divorce, Gilbert subsequently married Mary considering it the gentlemanly thing to do. The social stigma of all this in 1909 was profound and it would seem J.M.Barrie, now wife-less and alone, never quite recovered.
It was the newly-wed couple’s move to a converted windmill in Buckinghamshire that placed Gilbert and Mary in the midst of an artistic and cultural milieu that included Katherine Mansfield, D.H.Lawrence and socialite and all-round Bloomsbury hostess-with-the-mostest Ottoline Morrell. One of the Crisis of Brilliance artists, Mark Gertler was a friend and used the mill’s garage as a studio….there we finally arrive back where we started, and with it comes this picture, by Gertler...
Apparently the Newfoundland dog on the left was the model for the Darling's dog Nana in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, and at Mary's insistence became hers as part of the divorce settlement.
Avoiding conscription and war service it would seem via a combination of conscientious objection and illness, for some years Gilbert Cannan's literary output was prolific, but he was in for a massive fall when he used the lives of Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington (another fascinating Crisis of Brilliance story) as the plot for his 1916 novel Mendel. Gertler's journey from poverty in Whitechapel to the Slade Art School, and his relationship with Dora Carrington...well I hate to say it but must... it was all grist to the novelist's mill. As David Boyd Haycock suggests it was a story far too good to waste.
There were ructions within the circle of friends that intimate conversations could have been used in this way and Gilbert, by now in an even deeper mess with his marriage having had affairs various and the occasional menage a trois, was ousted, all trust gone. There followed a sad and slow descent into complete mental breakdown, loneliness, and a life eventually lived in institutions, all recounted in The Release of the Soul, Gilbert's own account of his demise...
' This was a bitter winter, bitter to the senses but more bitter to the soul: 1916 when the shouting and the eager idealism had withered away and all meaning had gone out of the words of war. So bitter was the agony that physical discomfort had become a small thing and men and women were like ghosts pathectically trying to remember the sensations of their life in the Flesh.'
It was a tragic demise given that Henry James had, in 1913, heralded Gilbert Cannan as one of four promising authors, rating him ahead of D.H.Lawrence,(that didn't go down well with Lawrence) whilst established authors such as George Bernard Shaw and John Galsworthy saw him as a real threat to their own dominance.
So, having sorted Gilbert I turned my attentions to cousin Joanna, opening the first page of Princes of the Land and knowing that, as with any Persephone book I pick up, I would be enthralled to the final page. I wasn't disappointed, in fact hardly believing that I could have left such a gem unread for so long... more about sisters May and Joanna and this book soon.