In 1930 Henry and Gwen Mond commissioned a remarkable art-deco drawing room for their London house. Its centrepiece, Charles Sargeant Jagger’s relief Scandal, long thought to have been destroyed, has been acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum. Eric Turner reveals the tale of sex and money that lay behind its creation.
Eric Turner, Tuesday, 22nd September 2009
Gilbert Cannan was described by Henry James in 1913 as one of the four most promising authors in current English literature.3 He wrote 27 books and 14 plays as well as numerous articles, short stories and dramatic criticism. His entry into literary circles was considerably boosted by his appointment in 1908 as secretary to J.M. Barrie’s anti-censorship campaign, aimed at the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which had authority over what could or could not be produced on the English stage. His appointment was to have other, more personal, consequences for both men.
Cannan, smarting from his recent rejection by the sculptor Kathleen Bruce (later the wife of Robert Falcon Scott), embarked on an affair with Barrie’s wife, the actress Mary Ansell, whose marriage had never been consummated by her emotionally stunted husband. The affair was eventually brought to Barrie’s attention by his gardener.4 In 1910, three days after she divorced Barrie, Mary married Cannan, who within a few years began to demonstrate mental health problems. However, the immediate cause of their judicial separation in 1918 was Cannan’s affair with Gwen Wilson, then a radiantly beautiful 19-year-old art student, and his decision to move in with her.
Little is on record about Wilson’s background except that she was the daughter of a Johannesburg businessman and was a student at the Slade under Tonks and Steer. Her ménage à trois with Cannan and Mond persisted for nearly two years. In the autumn of 1919, Cannan went on a lecture tour of the United States to promote the work of his friend D.H. Lawrence. During his extended absence, Mond married Gwen, precipitating Cannan’s final, catastrophic and irreversible mental breakdown.
In April 1924, he was certified insane and became a patient at the Priory in Roehampton, south London. Gwen remained protective; a condition of her marriage was that Cannan was to be cared for. The Monds paid his hospital fees for the rest of his life. Cannan occupied his time writing paranoid letters to members of the government, all of which were intercepted by his nurses and consigned to the wastepaper basket. He died in 1955.5
Henry Mond originally had ambitions to become a writer and poet, but he had no particular literary talent, although later in life he was to show some skill as a political and financial commentator. His father disapproved of his literary ambitions – and of his ménage à trois – but he did not go so far as to terminate his allowance. Henry Mond’s social circle reflected his artistic ambitions and interests: it included artists such as Charles Sargeant Jagger, Glyn Philpot, Edward Seago and Augustus John and skirted the fringes of the Bloomsbury circle, all of whom were in temperament and sexual mores outsiders to the social establishment. This reflected his family’s own ambiguous relationship with society. Although respected for their wealth and very much a part of the political and social establishment, the Monds were always aware of an undercurrent of anti-semitism in English attitudes.
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