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Jan and Cora Gordon: 1939 Biographical Notes

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The 1939 Penguin edition of "Two Vagabonds in Serbia and Montenegro" by Jan and Cora Gordon, a reprint of the 1916 "The Luck of Thirteen", has an informative little biographical introduction to the Gordons.

Cora and Jan Gordon with guitar and laud.

It reads as follows: "These two writers are unique in the general likeness of their abilities and temperaments. Cora J. Gordon compelled her father to allow her to study art by threatening to take up the stage, on which she had been offered a promising start. After a Slade training she took the L.R.A.M. examination in music. Returning to painting she went to Paris, and exhibited her work. In 1909 she married Jan Gordon, ex-mining engineer, who also has exhibited in many important collections, and was an expert banjo player. Subsequently Jan was a designer of naval camouflage and painted a number of pictures on naval medical work, some of which are in the War Museum and some in the Burroughs Wellcome Museum. Togethe…

Jan and Cora Gordon: Portraits by Howard Coster and Madame Yevonde

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A number of photographic portraits of Jan and Cora Gordon exist, typically posed with their Spanish instruments.

There are also two individual portraits which were made by well known photographers of the 1920s and 1930s, these being Howard Coster and Madame Yevande.


Jan Gordon by Howard Coster
Howard Coster (1885 - 1959) was a successful London photographer who specialised in photographic portraits of men. He opened a studio at 8 and 9 Essex Street, London in 1925. His most iconic image was of A. A. Milne with his son Christopher Robin Milne and Pooh Bear, at Cotchford Farm, Sussex.

Cora Gordon by Madame Yevande
Madame Yevande was the professional name of Yevande Cumbers Middleton (1893 - 1975). She had joined the suffragette movement in 1910. After a three year apprenticeship with Lallie Charles she set up her own studio at 92 Victoria Street, London, at the age of 21. She is remembered for developing colour portrait photography in the 1930s.
The above two portraits can be found on th…

Cora J. Gordon: Sketching in Hyde Park

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In "A Step-ladder to Painting"(1934) by Jan Gordon can be found a section on "The Fountain Pen."

"For many years Cora Gordon has made a habit of using the meetings at Hyde Park as a most profitable ground for character sketching." This forms the subject for a chapter in "The London Roundabout" (1933).


Pen sketches by Cora J. Gordon (Step-ladder to Painting) of characters in Hyde Park, London

"It is splendid fun but can also be very hard work. After three or four hours of intensive sketching in the Park, Mrs. Gordon often comes home quite exhausted. In that time she might have drawn perhaps a hundred heads, at least thirty of which will be brilliant summaries of character likeness."
I remember hearing this story as a youth, with an emphasis on drawing directly in ink: "If you can't correct you are bound to observe with precision."

Jan Gordon: "No New Shocks" Prophecy in 1923

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In the revised edition of "Modern French Painters" (1936), Jan Gordon writes, "When the editors suggested a new printing the question arose whether any serious revision of the text was necessary. But on page 174 I had ventured to prophecy that, 'The public may expect no new shocks for a very long while.' .... I am pleased to say that in the interval, allowing for the intention and the limits of the book, no considerable alteration is needed."

This quote links to an article written by Jan Gordon for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 1927 that I wrote about in February 2013.

I went back to the 1923 first edition, which has a very colourful cover, shown below:

Cover of the 1923 first edition of "Modern French Painters.  This copy has a  dedication to artist Steven Spurrier.

.. and turned to page 174 to find that the above prophecy was not there, on the very last page of the book. It is, however, on the preceding page, as follows: "One can assert almost…

"Dazzle-Painting in War-Time"

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A 1919 edition of "The Studio" has an article by Hugh Hurst on "Dazzle-Painting in War-Time."

These are the dazzle designs for ships developed by Jan Gordon, Steven Spurrier and others and discussed in Gordon (1918).

He writes, "To the lover of the ship for the ship's sake the appearance of our docks in the great ports during the war may perhaps have come as somewhat of a shock, but to the artist the transformation from a monotonous uniformity to a scene presenting a pageant-like array of strong colour and strange designs this change can have been nothing but a joy."

Paintings by LIEUT. L. Campbell Taylor R.N.V.R. and LIEUT. Guy Kortright, R.N.V.R. illustrate some of the "dazzled" ship designs.

S.S. Minnedosa at Liverpool after disembarking American troops.  Water colour by Guy Kortright, R.N.V.R.

H.M.T. Mauretania entering half-tide dock at Liverpool.  Water colour by L. Campbell Taylor R.N.V.R.

Dazzled ships in Canada Dock, Liverpool.  Water co…

Jan Gordon and Steven Spurrier: "The Purest Art. Dazzle."

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A copy of "Modern French Painters" (1923) in my library, once in the possession of the artist Steven Spurrier (1873-1961), has the following dedication from Jan Gordon:

"To my old pal Spurrier

       in memory of the purest art we ever touched. Dazzle.

                                                                 Jan Gordon"




This is a wonderfully evocative connection with the story of the dazzle-painted ships of WW1, in which both Jan Gordon and Steven Spurrier were involved. In "The London Roundabout" (1933) Jan Gordon reminisces about those times: "I was in uniform, lieutenant in the R.N.V.R., although I had never been nearer to the quarter-deck than the Royal Academy Schools, which were the headquarters of the Naval Camouflage section, under the well-known marine painter Norman Wilkinson." I wrote about Jan Gordon's involvement with the design of dazzle patterns in February 2013 and March 2014.

The book is also a resonant one for me b…

Jan Gordon: "Some Sketching Tips" in "The Artist" 1934

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In "The London Roundabout" (1933) by Jan and Cora Gordon, a monthly magazine called "The Artist" is held up as an example of the "home interests" of the Englishman.

"This magazine, beautifully produced and costing two shillings, is published solely to give instruction in the various branches of painting and the allied arts. On its inception by a shrewd Northerner expert opinion predicted that the magazine could not last six months. Smith's bookstalls, which handle a full half of the British paper and magazine trade, agreed to take four thousand copies, a half of the first issue, on sale or return, but candidly told the editor that they did not expect to sell two hundred and fifty copies. Within a week they were Oliver Twisting, with a similar fate. The first number was sold out in ten days, and a copy of The Artist, vol. i, No. I, is now to be bought only at a large premium, ten times the original value or there abouts. The circulation is still …

Jan and Cora Gordon in Ghent

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Jan Gordon, under his pseudonym of Salis, tells the story of the "first real exhibition" of art put on by Jan and Cora Gordon, in pre-WW1 days (GRADUS AD ... MONTPARNASSUM, Blackwood's, March 1929).

A German friend (married to an American wife despite them having no language in common) had booked for an exhibition in Ghent and "was looking for a confrère, one who would share with him the expenses of the gallery and yet not be a serious rival." He "inflamed our ambition, described Belgium as a country clamouring for art, and pointed out that painting pictures and selling them were two very different branches of the profession, and that it was time we learned the latter."


Water colour of a Ghent square by Jan Gordon, ca. 1910.
We have a single painting in the family dating from that visit to Ghent. It shows a square with a number of trees, mostly without leaves. In the background is a smoking industrial chimney. A girl walks past in the foreground, car…

Jan and Cora Gordon and the Balkan Hat: Getting Published in World War I

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In "The London Roundabout" (1933), Jan Gordon describes how they came to publish their first book, "The Luck of Thirteen" (for an overview of this and their subsequent books visit Jan and Cora Gordon Books).

Following the "famous retreat" from Serbia, they wrote, "Having reached London in rags, and lacking visible means of support, we were trying to capitalize our experiences. The sale of some photographs temporarily banished the wolf, at least round the corner, but to continue the good work Jo had written an article called A Woman's Day at the Montenegrin Front."

"JO AT THE MACHINE GUN"

A friend sent them to see Dan Rider, who recommended they send it to the Westminster Gazette - "They'll eat it." "Eat it they did, and spewed it out again as print. From this manuscript and a few others grew our first travel-book."
On showing sketches of Serbia to Cecil Chesterton, editor of the New Witness (for which magaz…

Jan Gordon: "Small Coast Town" In "Colour" Magazine

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Browsing through a 1920 copy of "Colour" magazine, "The most Fascinating Magazine in the World", I came across this picture by Jan Gordon:

"SMALL COAST TOWN"
The accompanying text is as follows: "The subject has been seen primarily as a pattern in colour, but at the same time the "lie of the land" has been realised, so that there is no defect of solidity. This is mainly a question of values; of getting the patches of colour exactly the right depth in relation to the general scheme."

The style is very reminiscent of this painting of a Sussex scene. It is painted from a viewpoint on the hill above Sennen Cove in Cornwall. The view has not changed much since then.


Sennen Cove in 2014

The magazine contains an endorsement from Frank Brangwyn, R.A., who had taught Jan Gordon art: "It is a pleasure for me to join the many who have praised "Colour" and its excellent reproductions. It would be hard to improve upon it."

Jan and Cora Gordon: The Master Fiddler of Sweden

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In their book "Two Vagabonds in Sweden and Lapland" (the account of a 1924 journey), Jan and Cora Gordon describe "The Master Fiddler":

"sixty per cent. of Strindberg, to which add forty per cent. of Paderewski, season with more than a dash of boyish laughter, colour to a gentle umber, and clothe the whole in a rather tumbled khaki coat, with knickerbockers and stockings and an old felt hat; slender, not tall, and with a slight hesitation now and then appearing in his eager speech: there you have him, impressionistically, the master fiddler."

Here is his portrait:




The Gordons contrast the master fiddler with his son Erik. The father, as he was playing, "now and then .. shouted with excitement; from the feet upwards every particle was subdued to, and dancing with the incisive rhythm of his melody. At his side the son stood rigidly, a column of a boy, with impassive face and an aloofness in his pale blue eyes, yet holding fairly his part in the dextro…

Jan and Cora Gordon and a Donkey

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The journey described in "Misadventures with a Donkey in Spain" (1924) by Jan and Cora Gordon began with a search for a donkey to pull a cart containing their art materials. By the end of the journey they had "left a trail of 500 kilometres of perplexity across the provinces of Murcia, Almeria, Granada, and Malaga .."
In the summer of 2009 we followed in the footsteps of Cora, Jan and Colonel Geraldine the donkey (the story can be found here). We stayed in Vera, where an ancient and unusual guitar owned by the Gordons had been made in 1854 (more on the guitars can be found here and here). The grandson of Jan Gordon's godson can be seen studying a modern guitar in a Vera shop window here

"Una ventana al pasado", Murcian donkey fair, reproduced in Vera al Dia, 18 Julio 2009.

During our stay in Vera we visited a temporary exhibition (in the Convento de la Victoria) of ancient photographs and found one evocative connection with the Gordons' Spanish …

Jan and Cora Gordon: Vacations in Itchenor

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Jan and Cora Gordon would stay with Ashley and Doris Smith at their cottage in Itchenor (Sussex) during the later years of WW1. The Cottage was No. 9 and Ashley rented it from 1914 onwards. "It had dining room, kitchen, larder, 3 bedrooms, a very prolific garden and a large brick wood shed at the end of it." He made some modifications: "I dug out the cobbles in front of it – made a fence and a portico with two seats over the door and then I planted honeysuckle and a climbing rose tree. Cottagers from around came to look. To praise? Oh no, but “Why can’t these Londoners leave things alone etc.” Now the roses have spread to the cottages on both sides and there’d be blue murder if that rose tree was dug up and destroyed." The climbing roses can still be seen today, a hundred years later.

In August 1917 Jan and Cora Gordon visited the cottage: "We did all sorts of things during the first fortnight – mushrooming – walks – swims – water boating etc. and Jo spent qui…