Jan Gordon, 1939, on the Arts during Wartime

Jan Gordon had already lived through one war when WW2 broke out in 1939.

As he had done at the beginning of WW1 (see The Sketch of 31st March 1915), he quickly wrote a short story (The Sketch, 18th October 1939), beginning with "I suppose you'd call us old buffers, though we'd all done our bits, more or less, in the other war.."

He had been active as an artist during WW1 and had written extensively on the topic. See, for example, "British Artists at the Front."

In a 1939 article in the Liverpool Daily Post (Tuesday 3rd October), he wrote, under the title "Art in War-Time," the following:

The question of how the Arts, or what might be called the mental-emotional stimuli, can be kept up in war-time is one which might be called, in babu language, very moot. The first slightly hysterical catalepsy has worn off, and London cinemas no longer bear the legend: “Shut; nearest open, Aberystwyth,” but the National Gallery still might be labelled “Nearest open National Gallery, The Hague" —or is it the Prado? Nevertheless, though national and irreplaceable treasures should be held thus in the greatest safety, it should be just as much the duty of contemporary Art to brave the risks of its times and preserve alive the mental zest of everyday citizens. 

Most of the important London dealers have decided to keep their galleries going and resume regular shows as soon as possible. Few will realise quite what that means, including, as it does, the risk, with large glass roofs overhead, and heavy running expenses without any real hopes of immediate or adequate return. Indeed, they could not have carried on at all had not the Orders in Council exempted pictorial art from the compulsory insurance scheme, including the odd error of describing etchings as “hand painted from plates of copper, zinc, &c.,” instead of "printed.” 

The gallery that has the credit of being the first to stage a new show is the Lefevre Gallery, with a mixed collection of works by leading nonacademic British and French artists. Considering the risk, for everybody expected London to suffer almost at once from vigorous bombing raids, it is a show of real excellence. Duncan Grant, Dunlop, Pitchforth, and Vanessa Bell have particularly interesting exhibits. W. B. Henderson, a new artist, shows very acceptable vitality and promise. The exhibition started quietly, but, by now, visitors have increased so that numbers are about the same as in peace time. Many of these have expressed gratitude to the directors for their courageous initiative. Also, unexpectedly, several sales have taken place. The next exhibition will be of works by R. O. Dunlop, who thus dares to challenge fate. 

Two other exhibitions have been opened, Derwent Lees at the subterranean Stafford Gallery, and Louis Wain at the Brook Street Gallery. Both artists were in their ways victims of the last war, Lees through worry and Wain through an accident, from which war conditions probably prevented his recovery. The drawings by Lees were discovered bundled up in an attic. They belong definitely to the Slade School style of 1914 or 1915, but are full of genuine expression and touched, in high degree, with that blend of precision and sensitiveness which marks the best work of this period. A Room in Chelsea,” The Old Bedford,” and Elsie McKnight ” may be selected. 

Louis Wain was nursery-famous for his cats although, actually, he drew dogs rather better. He suffers from the lack of a word to describe his peculiar talent. He was not a very good artist, nor a very good draughtsman, and yet matter what he was not he was emphatically Louis Wain. That is to say he contrived to be an unmistakable individuality and his vivid and almost naively amusing cats and kittens have given a grand sum of pleasure not only to children but to grown-ups. His most marked qualities were a personal outlook, genuine passion for his subject matter and a never failing vitality. And I think one may say truthfully that Wain will probably be reprinted and enjoyed long after many another more artistic ” artist has been forgotten. 

Jan Gordon continued to write up until his death at the age of 61 in February 1944, not living to see the end of his second world war.


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