Artists in Hampstead: London’s Montmartre

JUST AS MONTMARTRE in Paris attracted artists, particularly painters, so did Hampstead in north London. Best known amongst these were John Constable (1776-1837) and Sir George Romney (1734-1802), who both resided in Hampstead. Constable lived in various parts of Hampstead including Well Walk and Lower Terrace. Reynolds had a fine house on Holly Hill. Since the 18th century, many painters and sculptors have either worked and/or lived in Hampstead.

Studio of the painter Mark Gertler in Hampstead

Although I have visited Hampstead often over a period of more than six decades, it was only yesterday in April 2021 that I first noticed what looks like a small industrial unit with two sloping roofs each with large skylights along one side of Well Road. This is not what it looks like but was formerly artists’ work places, named Well Mount Studios. A commemorative plaque affixed to the building records that the painter Mark Gertler (1891-1939) lived here. I first became aware of this artist when visiting an exhibition at Dulwich Art Gallery in 2013 (www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/about/press-media/press-releases/dulwich-picture-gallery-presents-nash-nevinson-spencer-gertler-carrington-bomberg-a-crisis-of-brilliance/) in which pictures painted by artists who had studied at London’s Slade School of Art were displayed. Amongst these artists was Dora Carrington (1893-1932), whose brief sexual relationship with Gertler was the inspiration for a novel, “Mendel”, by Gilbert Cannan.  Gertler painted Cannan in about 1916.

Gertler lived at several other addresses in Hampstead in addition to Well Road: The Vale of Health, 13a Rudall Crescent, and 53 Haverstock Hill (https://rosemaryhallart.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/artists-in-hampstead-part-iii/).  His parents were poor Jewish immigrants. Gertler was born in London’s Spitalfields in 1891. Soon after that, his parents and the family returned to Austria-Hungary in 1892, settling in Przemyśl in Austria-Hungary (now in Poland). Then, in 1896, the family returned to London. Mark displayed great artistic talent as a child and in 1906, after leaving school, he studied art first at the Regents Street Polytechnic and then, at the recommendation of the artist Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945), who lived in Hampstead between 1902 and 1912, he entered The Slade. Rothenstein lived at 12 Church Row, where he painted “Mother and Child” in 1903 (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rothenstein-mother-and-child-t05075).

While at the Slade, Mark was a contemporary of artists including Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, C. R. W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Isaac Rosenberg, and Morris Goldstein (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Gertler_(artist)). During his time at the Slade, he met and became infatuated with Dora Carrington.

Mark moved to Hampstead in late 1914. According to Caroline Maclean in her book about the Hampstead Modernists, “Circles & Squares”, Mark moved into the studios near New End, i.e. Well Mount Studios, in 1915, and painted his well-known “Merry-Go-Round” in 1916. This painting that is in the collection held by the Tate Gallery was inspired by a special funfair that was held on Hampstead Heath in 1915 on behalf of wounded soldiers and sailors (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gertler-merry-go-round-t03846). The painting is believed to reflect that artist’s reaction to war. He was a conscientious objector. He had written to his patron, the art collector Edward Marsh (1852-1953):

“’I am I believe what you call a “passivist”. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I just hate the war”.

Well Mount Studios were built in the late 19th century (http://hughcullum.com/portfolio/well-mount-studios/). The building’s exterior is not particularly attractive but its interior was tastefully renewed in 2003.

Gertler contracted tuberculosis in 1920. He married Marjorie Greatorex Hodgkinson ten years later and they had a son in 1932. Both he and his wife suffered bad health and Mark’s mental stability deteriorated during the 1930s. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1939 in his studio which was by then at 5 Grove Terrace, Highgate Road (near Parliament Hill Fields), London (https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-genius-of-the-place-mark-gertler).

A relatively early 20th century artistic arrival in Hampstead, Gertler was followed by a host of other 20th century artists from all over Britain and elsewhere. These included well-known creators such as Barbara Hepworth, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, and many others. When I was at the Hall School at Swiss Cottage between 1960 and 1965, one of my fellow pupils was a son of the graphic designer Frederick Henri Kay Henrion (1914-1990) and his wife the sculptor Daphne Hardy Henrion (1917-2003), who was once a close friend of the writer Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). The Henrions lived in Pond Street for twenty years from about 1946 onwards. They had two sons, one of whom attended The Hall with me. I do not recall his first name because at that school everyone addressed each other by their surnames.

Far less well-known than any of the above-mentioned artists was my mother’s cousin Dolf Rieser (1898-1983; https://dolfrieser.com/biography/). Dolf, a fine etcher and engraver, lived in Sumatra Road, West Hampstead. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to attend his inspiring classes in the large studio in his house. Some examples of his prolific output are in important collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum, both in London. Apart from being a great judge of composition, my relative Dolf was highly inventive as his son Richard noted:

“Dolf was innovative, experimenting with plaster prints, silk scarf prints for Liberty’s, printing on leather, printing on plastic paper to be laminated table-tops and on fibre glass to create translucent panels. He even designed for the whole side of a building a ‘print’ to be sand blasted into the concrete, at a university Witwatersrand in the form of a Bushman cave painting. Dolf worked with a plastics expert, Richard Wood, to develop the laminated hand made prints and the prints on fibre glass. The prints went off to the factory to be laminated, but the fibre glass he rolled onto the plate which had been inked with specially prepared plastic pigments, then had resin spread on and then another layer of fibre glass. The resin warmed up and emitted a sweet smell, like honey, and when it was set it could be peeled off the plate. A light could be put behind to give a translucent image.” (https://dolfrieser.com/a-personal-memory/)

Working in Dolf’s studio once a week for a few years helped made me feel like I was involved in the Hampstead art scene at least a little bit.

During my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, when we often visited Hampstead, there used to be an annual summer fair of local artists’ works held on the wide pavement of Heath Street near to Whitestone Pond. Most of these artists were far less well-known than the likes of Gertler or even my relative Dolf Rieser, but seeing the exhibition helped to imprint Hampstead’s rich association with visual art firmly in my then young mind.