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Remembering Gerald Marks

November 7, 2022
by the gentle author

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Gerald Marks (1921-2018)

As an exhibition opens at Abbot & Holder, running until 26th November, Doreen Fletcher remembers the painter Gerald Marks to whom she was married between 1981-83.

Doreen will be in conversation with Tom Edwards at Abbot & Holder, discussing her ex-husband’s paintings on November 23rd at 6pm. Email to book a ticket.


Gerald was born in Hampstead in 1921 as the only child of a middle-class liberal Jewish couple. His father was a gentle mild-mannered man who was too generous to succeed in his profession as sales representative for high-end fancy goods such as Bohemian crystal. He was always referred to by Gerald’s mum as “Poor Ferdy- a nice man but no good with money.” Liz one of Gerald’s ex-girlfriend’s told me he enjoyed having a glass of whisky with her and pinching her bottom.

His mother’s family had been wealthy, owning a carriage company in Maida Vale, but they fell on hard times when cars replaced horse-drawn vehicles at the beginning of the century. Orphaned at an early age and losing her brother in 1918 to the First World War, his mother found herself living alone in a hotel in Bayswater and struggling to earn a living as a milliner when she met Gerald’s father.

After Gerald came along, the family bought an attractive Edwardian villa in Westcliffe-on-Sea where they employed a maid and a nanny. This was normal at the time but what was unusual was that Mary continued to work, travelling to Paris and leaving Gerald in the care of his indulgent nanny. Unfortunately, this way of life ceased abruptly when Gerald was four and refused either to eat cucumber sandwiches or go to the toilet when instructed. He announced proudly that “Nanny lets me do what I want.” This domestic crisis led to nanny’s swift exit  and end of Mary’s professional life.

Gerald enjoyed a carefree childhood, attending a minor public school locally. He excelled at cricket and art, and was interested in Left wing politics from a very early age. At fourteen, he exhibited at the Nationwide Children’s Royal Academy at the Guildhall, showing a drawing of an unemployed man. The image was published in the Daily Express on March 27th 1936. Gerald admitted that his political education was “the Spanish Civil War, the Depression, the rise of Fascism and mass unemployment. This was when I became a Marxist.”

Between 1938 and 1941, Gerald attended Central School of Art in London and then Northampton, where the school transferred once war was declared. Talented, popular and exceedingly good-looking, these were happy years judging by the photographs, when he made many life-long friends. Gerald joined the Communist Party in 1941 and was observed selling copies of the ‘Daily Worker’ on the streets of Northampton and thereafter monitored closely by MI5 throughout the war and perhaps beyond.

He was conscripted into the RAF’s photographic unit as a non-combative private, happily for Gerald’s survival because it was difficult to imagine him wielding a gun. Stationed in Harrogate and then Aberystwyth, Gerald was unpopular among the officers for his political stance and middle-class accent. Consequently, he was frequently given latrine duties and penalised for minor offences such as not making his bed properly. During the liberation of Europe, Gerald’s unit marched to Brussels, photographing the devastation along the way.

After the war, he received ex-serviceman’s grant to continue at Central, rejecting the Royal College as too elitist. He was taught by John Minton, Bernard Meninsky and Claude Rogers, and became involved in the Artists’ International Association Group at the Leicester Gallery, noted as an artist of great facility and potential. By the late forties, Gerald was renting a room at 13 Queens Gardens in Bayswater – a building that was to become his home and studio for the rest of his life. In 1952, he took over the top floor and, through the following decades, shared his much-loved space with a lot of young people. Gerald’s flat contained so many stories, drama, laughter and not a few tears. It could never be described as a placid environment to dwell in.

During the fifties, Gerald developed a growing reputation as a figurative painter and taught in art schools. But ,as his personal style evolved, his work was met with disapproval by the Communist Party. Gerald’s paintings of scaffolding and building workers fell short of the sentimental and naturalistic demands of Social Realism at that time. He confessed this led to his decision to quit the Communist Party, as well as the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956.

In the sixties Gerald learned to drive, and drove with great panache until the age of eighty-six, inspiring fear and consternation amongst his passengers, many of whom only travelled with him once. He began wearing suits with bow ties, clamping an ornately-carved pipe between his teeth and his paintings became abstract, first unveiled in his solo show at the Drian Galleries in 1962.

Like his father, Gerald was no good with money and got into debt, forcing him in 1961 to take a full-time post at Croydon College of Art that lasted twenty-five years and which he believed ‘did for him’ as an artist. For twelve years, he painted very little, getting very involved in setting up teachers’ workshops and Saturday schools for young people, and he was almost fired for taking the part of the students in the 1968 lockout.

During the early seventies, Gerald started to work again on small abstract pieces and, in 1974, made the life-changing decision to buy a ruin with a tree growing through it in a remote mountainous valley in the Cevennes. He employing a team of art students, led by a fire-eater from Glasgow, who did a magnificent job constructing a roof of chestnut beams.

After Gerald retired in 1986, he spent months at a time in ‘L’Atelier’ as he called it, producing some of his best work. He had a solo show at Faroe Road Studios in 1988, culminating in a much-acclaimed exhibition at the William Jackson Galleries in 1991, entitled the ‘Madeleine Series’ – inspired by his relationship with an acclaimed violinist who spent time with him in France.

I think it is fair to say that Gerald’s three driving passions were women, art and politics in interchangeable order of importance. In 2003, he declared in an interview “Women seem to like my friendship.” They adored him but were also infuriated by him, yet even in his final months in hospital he enjoyed a significant number of female visitors.

I entered Gerald’s life in 1976 just as he was starting to exhibit again, first with the London Group then winning an Arts Council major purchase award in 1980.

I lived with Gerald for seven years and was married to him for the last two of those years. When I eventually left after some spectacular scenes, one of which included me scattering a packet of Daz over him, he said to a neighbour “How could she leave me? She knows I don’t speak French.”

Wartime London, Olympia from Kensington High St, 1940

Wartime London Refugees, 1941

London Nocturne I, Queens Gardens, Bayswater, c.1948

London Nocturne II,  c.1948

Still life, c.1948

Still life, 1952

Bayswater Scaffolding II, c.1955

London Scaffolding I, 1956

Bayswater Scaffolding III, 1956

Construction Site Abstraction I, 1950s

Paintings copyright © Estate of Gerald Marks

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Marie Lenclos permalink
    November 7, 2022

    Beautiful use of colour and tone. Great to discover this artist. Thank you

  2. Mark Smith permalink
    November 7, 2022

    Women, art and politics, a man after my own heart. What a talent, beautiful paintings. Thanks as per.

  3. paul loften permalink
    November 7, 2022

    Thank you both Doreen and the GA for this very personal insight into the life of Gerald Marks . Apart from the remarkable paintings.I personally found it very interesting to compare the political stance of Jewish ex-communist members and fellow travellers after the Stalin- Hitler non-aggression pact in 1939. Our family also faced the same dilemmas regarding the pact, bearing arms and taking lives but chose the other direction and waved goodbye to the CP
    The Daz episode at the end of Doreen’s and Gerald’s marriage is very interesting and would definitely fit into a scene in a TV soap in more ways than one . However I am still a bit puzzled about the connection to his not speaking French

  4. November 7, 2022

    In reply to Paul, my French was/is very good, whereas Gerald was one of those British who when abroad, thought if they spoke loudly enough in English they would eventually be understood! Consequently, I was a very useful diplomatic go-between when dealing with builders. Before I arrived on the scene he was threatened with an axe and later, after I left, with a hammer. But that is another story!

    In reply to Mark, he sure knew how to make the most of all three!

    Marie, I hope you will be able to make it to see the work on 17 November.

  5. Mark permalink
    November 7, 2022

    Mentioned by the great Doreen, I’m flattered!

  6. Peta Bridle permalink
    November 7, 2022

    Hello Doreen. I wish you well with your forthcoming talk at the exhibition. I cannot imagine you throwing soap powder over someone! Best wishes Peta

  7. Jill wilson permalink
    November 7, 2022

    Very strong paintings, particularly the ones with the scaffolding…

  8. November 7, 2022

    Very interesting read about this artist today GA

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