Showing posts from 2016

A1932 review of "Three Lands on Three Wheels" in The Sphere, 1932

The Sphere of July 23rd 1932 contains a very positive review by Cecil Roberts of "Three Lands on Three Wheels" by Jan and Cora Gordon.

"What a happy pair the Gordons are, and how their pluck has been rewarded. Once upon a time they began to travel across the earth because they were vagabonds and had nothing at all. Now their travel books sell by the thousands, but they are wise enough to remain vagabonds and travel for as little as possible. Hence the three wheels of their motor-cycle and side-car, the latter being their wardrobe. The three countries were France, England, and Ireland."

"The charm of this book lies not only in the text, but also in the drawings that illustrate it. The Gordons miss nothing. I think I know that inn by the old walls in the medieval town of la Rochelle."

"Here are nearly four hundred pages of excellent reading, delightful sketches, and a revealing picture of France, England, and Ireland."

Jan Gordon, of Aberdeenshire stock, on the People's Poetry, 1930

The Dundee Courier, Wednesday 14th May 1930 carries a story about Jan Gordon's Aberdeenshire ancestors and his public talk on the people's poetry. Gordon was not well known for his poetry, although he much later published a small book of nonsense rhymes on famous artists, "Art Ain't All Paint" (1944).

"Of Aberdeenshire stock.

Jan and Cora Gordon, whose leisurely travels through Europe have been so delightfully recorded in the various books they have collaborated in writing, are to be the guests of the Poets' Club in London on Friday evening. Jan, whose real name, by the way, is Godfrey Jervis Gordon, will speak of the people's poetry of to-day in the many lands he has visited, and will also read from his own verse. Like Mr Henry Simpson, the banker poet (nephew of the late Mr Alexander Forbes of Aberdeen), who looks upon the Poets' Club as a pet child, Mr Gordon comes of Aberdeenshire stock. His ancestor, Mr William Gordon, was the schoolmaster o…

An unfavourable review of a 1934 exhibition by Jan and Cora Gordon

Jan and Cora Gordon exhibited in the Lefevre Gallery London in 1937 to some favourable reviews. However, I just discovered some far less supportive comments on a 1934 show in the same gallery.

The London Art Critic for The Scotsman (Friday October 19th, 1934) found the work of Sine Mackinnon (1901-1997) "eminently urbane, sophisticated, polished." The critic ranks Mackinnon "among the half-dozen best women painters in London. Who are they? Well, offhand, I suggest Eve Kirk, Winifred Nicholson, A.K. Browning, and Margaret Fisher-Prout, though duty compels me to add that Laura Knight and Ethel Walker have serious claims, and doubtless I have forgotten many others."

In contrast, the critic makes the following observations on the works by Jan and Cora Gordon: "The Gordons, well-known for their travel books, paint very much alike. The only difference is technical. Cora uses oil and Jan water-colour and tempera. Their work is pleasant but heavy-handed. To borrow ano…

"Two Bohemian Travellers visit the Town of Jazz and Fake," 1930

The Evening Telegraph of Thursday, November 13th 1930, carries a story about the visit of Jan and Cora Gordon to Los Angeles. It is a review of "Star-Dust in Hollywood": The Truth About the Film City by the famous vagabond travellers, Jan and Cora Gordon. Harrap, 12s 6d.

The segment on real estate salesmen made me me smile and brought back recent memories of California. "They talk of the strenuous efforts made by real estate salesmen to sell off as much of the property as possible to gullible tourists, for they have an immense surplus of buildings, and still they build more fantastic and wonderful buildings in all styles and manners - Moorish palaces, olde Englishe cottages, Mexican bungaloes, Grecian temples, and so on, and so on."

The review also highlights the less glamorous sides of the movie business as described by the Gordons, also the subject of other publications, such as "Behind the Film."
"In Hollywood there are more beautiful girls to th…

Jan and Cora Gordon: Three Lands on Three Wheels

Jan and Cora Gordon dedicated "Three Lands on Three Wheels" (1932) to Steven and Gertrude Spurrier, "a poor recognition of their rich friendship." This friendship dated back to WW1 when Gordon and Spurrier had worked together on dazzle painting designs for wartime shipping. There is a wonderful earlier dedication from Jan Gordon to Steven Spurrier in a copy of "Modern French Painters": "To my old pal Spurrier in memory of the purest art we ever touched. Dazzle. Jan Gordon."

The idea that the Gordons should tour France, England and Ireland in succession and record their contrasting impressions came from their publishers (Harrap & co) and they duly set off, spending two months in France, one month in England and six weeks in Ireland. The book, however, contains 13 chapters on France, but only 3 on England and 4 on Ireland.

The book received a very mixed review from "Pierre and Pierette Pan" in "The Tablet", which concluded …

Jan Gordon's "The Ostwald Colour System" (1938)

Jan Gordon's book, "The Ostwald Colour System, An Elementary Introduction" (1938, Reeves & Sons) is very rarely seen. This work was the only one missing from the list of Jan Gordon's books produced for his memorial exhibition in 1944.

Gordon begins with, "To understand sufficiently how the Ostwald Colour system was constructed and to understand how it may be used is not, I believe, as difficult as many would have us think."

The book cover

He recommends the system to artists, "making them more keenly aware of the properties of colours in harmonious associations" and also for use in schools, "by helping pupils to realise what a colour is, what it can do and how it may be combined with other colours."

The achromatic scale and the 8 hues and 24 colour circle (left)  and isotint, isotone and isovalent circles (right)
"The Ostwald system creates a colour space based on dominant wavelength, purity, and luminance, mapping the values of …

The Slade Strawberry Picnic of June 23rd 1905

A year ago, I wrote on Cora Josephine Turner and the Slade School of Art. Cora Turner studied at the Slade between 1902 and 1906 before her move to Paris.

UCL has presented this wonderful photograph from that time period, taken on June 23rd 1905. This was the day of the annual Slade Strawberry Picnic.

The building in the background is the North Wing of the UCL quadrangle, dating back to the 1870s, initially occupied by the Chemistry department. It is said to be the building in which the largest number of chemical elements were discovered.

The Slade Strawberry Picnic on 23 June 1905, image courtesy of the UCL archive team. Cora Josephine is in the group.
In "A Girl in the Art Class," the character Raymonde (representing Cora Josephine Turner) comments that,"My three years at Lyceum Hall and at Edals were happy ones because I never stopped to think."

A selection of Cora Josephine's subsequent art works can be seen here.

Jan Gordon and WWI Dazzle Ship Painting: a new book by James Taylor

Dr. James Taylor has just published (2016) a fine new book on the development of dazzle ship painting during WW1: "Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art." Taylor points out that, "in the course of the First World War, a collision of naval strategy and the nascent modern art movement, led to some two thousand British ships going to sea as the largest painted modernist “canvases” in the world covered in abstract, clashing, decorative, and geometric designs in a myriad of colors."

I had long been interested in the role played by Jan Gordon, who was part of the Norman Wilkinson team (see this gallery), in the development of these designs. In a wonderful dedication to his colleague in the design team of that time, Steven Spurrier, Gordon wrote:

     "To my old pal Spurrier

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

                                                              Jan Gordon"

The dedication is found in a copy of Gordon…

Jan Gordon and the Malaysian tin mines

Walking around the national museum in Kuala Lumpur today, I came across a section on tin mining, including some photographs dating to 1906. This was the time when Jan Gordon was working here, during his failed attempt to launch a career in mining engineering.

I wrote (January 2014) on Jan Gordon's 1923 story in Blackwood's Magazine remembering this time ("An experiment in adventure"). Gordon was a keen engineer, but found that his job at the tin mines involved little mining engineering, but instead seemingly endless hours watching over the Chinese workers, who did not respect his leadership style. He also found himself living in an environment degraded by deforestation and opencast mining, having romantically imagined a lush forest bursting with exotic wildlife. ".. during his whole eighteen months on the mine he saw one snake, and that wasn't poisonous. The only wild beasts he ever heard were the pariah dogs of the village - howling at the moon."

The …

Jan Gordon's recycling of life (and earlier texts) into novels

Jan Gordon often incorporated his own experiences as well as those of his wife (Cora Josephine) in his novels.

For example, the story of “There’s Death in the Churchyard” (1934) contains a character "Gunning," a painter, who, like Jan Gordon, had been a munitions worker during the First World War. The observation that, "why he probably learned no more than his grinding job, and nothing else", eventually led to him being removed from the list of suspects. Jan Gordon had worked at the Derby Rolls-Royce factory making parts for aero engines.  In the same book, the character "Belle" had studied at the Slade School of Art in London, as had Cora (“Jo”) Gordon.

One novel stands out, however, for wholesale re-use of earlier accounts of his journeys in Spain during the early 1920s. This is the book "Beans Spilt in Spain" (1931). The story begins with a frustrated English artist living in Paris impulsively leaving for Spain. After accidentally throwing be…

Ashley Smith's Comment in "...As Beggars, Tramp Through Spain"

The unusual book, ".. As Beggars, Tramp through Spain" (1927) has an introduction by Jan Gordon. He stated that since the war, the "newly-admitted pluck of women has been turned to exploration, and women travellers have shown themselves the equal of men in daring resourcefulness and energy, astonishing to the wild peoples amongst whom they have travelled." He is referring to the colourful author, Countess Malmignati, whose published exploits were sometimes doubted by her contemporaries.

I have Ashley Smith's copy of this book (he was my grandfather and a friend of Jan and Cora Gordon) and in the front of the book are his comments written with a fountain pen:

"This is a true yarn,
Fleet Street thought otherwise."

Ashley Smith's comment in the front of ".. As Beggars, Tramp through Spain."

I also found the story largely plausible (thought some exaggerations are to be expected) and the descriptions of the places along their route convincing…

The Desolation of WW1 France

A hundred years ago today, my granduncle Cameron died in France, near Delville Wood during the Battle of the SommeJan and Cora Gordon knew Cameron's sister (Doris Smith) well and visited the Smiths during wartime summer holidays.

Jan Gordon wrote about WW1 war art and his introduction (writing as John Salis) to "BRITISH ARTISTS AT THE FRONT" seems particularly appropriate to mention here.

He wrote: "Mr. Nash joined the Artists' Rifles at the outbreak of war. He was for a time Mapping Instructor - amongst his colleagues being Maresco Pearce and the late Edward Thomas - but he was commissioned later in the Hampshires. The war, which has had the effect of numbing most men's brains, awoke his to new realities ; he saw the torn soils of Flanders, and in 1917 showed a series of sketches - executed partly in the field, partly in Hospital. The artist who could understand luckily did not remain silent. He became one of the official British Artists and was sent to …

Cora Gordon at the Pump Room, Bath, 1937

I last visited the very elegant Pump Room in Bath in the summer of 2014 (6th July).

Cora Gordon was there in 1937, as noted by the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, Saturday 4th December 1937.

"VAGABONDS IN EUROPE   Forthcoming Pump Room Travel Talk

Cora Gordon, joint author of 'Misadventures with a Donkey in Spain,' and the 'Vagabond' series of travel books by Jan and Cora Gordon, will give an illustrated travel talk at the Pump Room, Bath, on Friday, Dec. 10th, at 5 p.m., entitled, 'Through Europe on Foot and Horseback.'

Jan and Cora Gordon went abroad to paint pictures. Having little money and a strong desire to stay as long as possible, they went to a small town in Spain. Their adventures were so unexpected and characteristic of the country that the book about these experiences, written and illustrated by themselves, 'Two Vagabonds in Spain,' was a great success. Having tasted the delights of living cheaply in one country, Jan and Cora went fur…

Jan and Cora Gordon: A London Exibition, 1937

I just came across a short review of the exhibition held by Jan and Cora Gordon at the Lefevre Galleries in March-April 1937. The report is in the Scotsman of Wednesday 10th March 1937.


At the Lefevre Galleries are four one-room shows, all of much interest. The Gordons, Jan and Cora, have each a group of paintings; Jan, tempera compositions of everyday subjects; Cora small oils of sunny towns. Both prefer downright colour-assertions to any subtleties of tone. And they like pattern that is broad, squarish, and telling. They have had a jolly time making these pictures. They like vermilion and sunshine and pictures with human interest - lots of it. Jan's London scenes are great fun.

The other exhibitors at this Gallery are Fergus Graham and Ben Nicholson. Fergus Graham paints grey, sad pastorals, bare and spacious, with a few trees all carefully garnished with twigs. No less lugubrious are his mystic compositions, where he approaches the border-line of surrea…

An obituary of Jan Gordon: "Life in the Round"

I just came across a warmly-written obituary of Jan Gordon from the "Liverpool Daily Post," reprinted in the Staffordshire Advertiser of Saturday 5th February 1944.

"Jan Gordon, whose death I have to record with great regret, had been for some time the London art critic of the 'Daily Post.' He was sixty-one, and had been battling against ill-health for years, but it never reduced his gusto. He was an extraordinary zestful man, most happily united to another enthusiastic student of life. 

The books by Jan and Cora Gordon went under the skin of the land they travelled over with such gaiety and with such inexhaustible interest in people and places. He liked old civilizations, but as his 6,000 miles' journey across the United States in an ancient motor showed, he was equally alive to new. He was alive, in fact, to everything he touched. 

His art criticism was deeply informed, but humane and humorous. He was a musician and an excellent performer on the Spanish gui…

The Art of Jan and Cora Gordon in The New York Times 1932

In her segment on "Activities in London" in The New York Times of December 18, 1932, Ruth Green Harris writes the following comments on English contemporary art, the quality of Cora Gordon's drawings and the book for art students being written by Jan Gordon.

"It seems to me the English artist is at his best when he does brilliant character drawings. They are too full of character to be called caricature. Here craftsmanship is used to a beautiful end, for the artist has reached beyond the technical business, has recovered from the art school, and can buckle down to his - art.

Cora Gordon's drawings, for instance. She never stops drawing with a command that cannot be translated into any other medium. You look at a a head and say to yourself it is such and such. But it isn't. There is no right word because she has used just the right line. And this cunning is English. Perhaps a Frenchman does not leave himself so completely out of the subject.

These drawings are…

Jan and Cora Gordon (1928) on "Coney Island as a World Show."

In The New York Times of June 3rd 1928 is an article by Jan and Cora Gordon on "Coney Island as a World Show."

The newspaper introduced the article with, "European visitors view the resort as a happy babel where our new citizens from far lands romp on the sand, revel in the mechanical thrills and chatter in their native tongues."

"Rollicking Coney Island, now ready to meet the Summer multitudes with new frills and thrills, is always a source of wonder to the visitor from overseas. In the following article two English artists who have been 'motor vagabonds' in many countries set forth their impressions of this truly American playground."

"Coney Island's multitude swirls over boardwalk and beach like human graffiti"

Much of the text of the article is later reused in "On Wandering Wheels" (1929), including the account of the German "professional wild man", who, as a supper companion of the Gordons and their friends …

"Mr. and Mrs. Jan Gordon Show 'Vagabonding' Work" at the Weyhe Galleries, New York, 1927

The New York Times of November 27th 1927, carries an article on a show at the New York Weyhe Galleries by Jan and Cora Gordon.

"Jan Gordon and his wife, Cora J. Gordon, have spent several months in this country, 'vagabonding'; and now they have come to New York to exhibit some of their pictures at the Weyhe Galleries. Mr. Gordon's book on modern French painting is well known, and the two English artists have collaborated, besides, in writing several delightful books of travel, illustrated with work done along the way.

While a few of the pictures shown here were painted in this country (notably some farm scenes), most of them take the spectator further afield, to Albania, Portugal and Southern Spain. These studies bring one into close and delightfully informal contact with places that cease to be aloof or strange. The travelers never enter with fanfare, through a prepared front door. They prefer to slip into a place quite simply, quite humbly, and, from the beginning, …

An Obituary for Jan Gordon in the New York Times

I recently found this obituary for Jan Gordon in the New York Times of February 3rd 1944.


British Author, Lecturer and Traveler - Expert Player of Guitar, Mandolin


LONDON, Feb. 2 - Godfrey Jervis Gordon, artist, author, art critic, folk musician, lecturer and traveler, who wrote under the name Jan Gordon, died today at his home in London. He would have been 62 years old on March 11.

Of his many books, 'Modern French Painters' is outstanding for its lucid analysis of the aims of such movements as Cubism. He had a wide knowledge of the folk music of various countries and was an expert player of such instruments as the guitar and mandolin and knew a good deal about their construction and history.

The son and grandson of clergymen, Jan Gordon, to use the name by which he was generally known, was educated at Marlborough College and the Truro School of Mines. In the first World War he was chief designer of naval cam…

Virginia Woolf on Jan Gordon, 1919

Reading "The Letters of Virginia Woolf" (1912-1922), I came across a mention of the Athenaeum in her letter to Vanessa Bell, dated Sunday 23rd March 1919. She writes, "Our chief amusement now is Murry and the Athenaeum." John Middleton Murry had just become editor of this venerable magazine, at the age of 30.

There is later a brief mention of Jan Gordon:
" It is rather fun about the Athenaeum, as every one is to write what they like, and Mrs Ward is to be exposed, and in time they hope to print imaginative prose by me - Murry has got a man called John Gordon, a very bad painter he says, to do art criticism; but I suggested that he'd much better get Duncan to the important things at any rate - not that Duncan is exactly fluent in composition, but I don't see why he and I and you shouldn't maunder about in picture galleries, and what with his genius and your sublimity and my perfectly amazing gift of writing English we might turn out articles betwee…

Ezra Pound on Jan Gordon's War Paintings, 1920

In "The New Age," January 1st, 1920, Ezra Pound (American modernist poet and critic) writes (as "B.H. Dias"), on an exhibition of "The Nation's War Paintings and Other Records, Imperial War Museum." He gives Jan Gordon special mention for achieving the feel of war.

"Jan Gordon's 374 looks as if it were by the same hand as 377, but it has the atmosphere of its subject, possibly attained by the masks on the operators; yet there are bandages in 377, and the feeling of eeriness, of the uncanny and unusual could as well have been produced by bandages as by masks. No, the first real demarcation we find in this show, apart from differences of "school," is just this question of getting the feel of war, the feel of the evil and uncanny: some of the pictures are full of it, others are just attempts to evade the issue; to pass off what might have been an old landscape painted in 1898 for a fulfilment of the nation's commission to paint a …

A Comment on Jan Gordon and Bernard Meninsky's "Mother and Child," April 16th 1920

In the 16th April 1920 edition of the Athenaeum, I found the following short comments on "Mother and Child" with drawings by Bernard Meninsky and text by Jan Gordon. I have written on this book before. John Middleton Murry was editor of the Athenaeum at the time, in this its final phase (1919-1921).


Mother and Child. Twenty-eight drawings by Bernard Meninsky, with text by Jan Gordon. 
(Lane. 15s. net.) 

Bernard Meninsky is a young artist who attracted attention last year by his exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, which included much promising work, notably a series of drawings of a mother with her infant child. Admirers of these drawings will welcome this book of reproductions, which conveys an adequate impression of Mr. Meninsky's achievements in this field. The studies vary in technical method and in merit; but it is evident that the artist responsible for the best of them is inspired with genuine enthusiasm and is a draughtsman of considerable atta…

Jan Gordon on Albania, in The New Witness, January 1916

The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Tyne and Wear, England, reported the following on Saturday 8th January 1916:

"Day is day in Albania, and the night is night. Sunrise is the time to commence work, and sunset the time to drop tools and eat, so in the summer, four hours only for sleep, and in the winter, fourteen, says Mr Jan Gordon in "The New Witness."

Every village has its own costume, and in every village each religion is marked by its particular colours, married and single women dress differently from one another, and a maiden may, if she will, swear eternal virginity and enjoy the same privileges as a man, wear his costume, and even eat at his table instead of living upon the scraps which he has left, but - if she fell from virtue her punishment is death."

He wrote about this phenomenon of the sworn virgin in the much later (1927) book "Two Vagabonds in Albania." In that book, the Gordons observed that at one point in the mountains beyon…

The return of the Gordons (100 years ago today)

The Hull Daily Mail for Friday 14 January 1916 (100 years ago today) contains a brief note on Jan and Cora Gordon's return from the Balkans (they had returned to London on December 6th 2015):

"Mr and Mrs Jan Gordon have just returned from their adventurous journeys in the Balkans. The last of the British on the road from Karabevo [Sarajevo], they were entrusted by Sir Ralph Paget with the charge of the men of military age from the Red Cross Hospital in Serbia and contrived by finding a route hitherto unknown through the Montenegrin highlands to reach the Adriatic. Mrs Gordon herself served in the Montenegrin trenches."

Retreating ammunition train, from "The Luck of Thirteen."

Reviews of "The Luck of Thirteen" by Jan and Cora Gordon, 1916

The first book by Jan and Cora Gordon was "The Luck of Thirteen," the story of their role in John Berry's Serbian Mission from the Royal Free Hospital and their experience during the Serbian Retreat. They had originally wanted to call the book "Wanderings and Flight in the Land of Mud." The Gordons, in desperate need of funds,  had written the book in a hurry, completing it in a fortnight:
"We divided the diary into twenty-four parts and started off writing alternate chapters, Jo correcting Jan's, Jan correcting Jo's."
"Day by day, as the material was finished, we sent it to the printers." 
When they became convinced, about half way through, that their writing had improved and asked for the earlier chapters back for revision they were told, "You can't have them. They are already set up. And if you start meddling with what you have done you will only spoil it."
The story of how the book came to be published is told here.

Jan and Cora Gordon and the Chestertons, 100 years ago today

G.K. Chesterton wrote in the Illustrated London News, January 1, 1916:

"It is one of the paradoxes of the war that the Pacifists who insist on its enormity do not seem to realise how enormous it is. They call it a crime; and yet they want to cure it with a compromise. They dilate on the universality of the horror like men talking of the rent seals and falling stars of the Apocalypse, the portents of plagues and persecutions leading up to the Day of Judgment. And then they do not want it to lead up to a Day of Judgment, or even of logical human justice. They want it to lead up to a mere splitting of the difference, as if it were about the bill of a dressmaker or the nuisance of a dust-bin."

Jan Gordon, who had on that day been back in London for three weeks following the Serbian retreat, "a living snake with heads for scales" (see image below), later wrote for the Chestertons in 'The New Witness' under the pseudonym 'John Salis.'

Mrs. Cecil Chesterton…