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The Motivations of Edward Marsh

John Simkin

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Edward Howard Marsh was educated at Westminster School and at Trinity College, where he obtained first classes in both parts of the classical tripos (1893–5). On the death of an uncle in 1903, Marsh inherited a large sum of money. Three years later he received a share of the government money paid to the descendants of Spencer Perceval. Marsh decided to use this money to start a fund for the patronage of the arts. With the help of his friend, Neville Lytton, he purchased some paintings by Thomas Girtin, Paul Sandby and John Sell Cotman. Marsh was also a great supporter of modern poetry. After writing a good review of the work of Rupert Brooke in the Poetry Review, the two men became close friends.

In 1905 Winston Churchill invited Marsh to become his private secretary. According to his biographer, Christopher Hassall: "For the next twenty-three years Marsh was at Churchill's right hand whenever he was in office. He toured British East Africa, Uganda, and Egypt with him in 1907–8, and served with him successively at the Board of Trade (1908–10), the Home Office (1910–11), the Admiralty (1911–15), and, from May to November 1915, the duchy of Lancaster."

In December 1911, he ignored the advice of Neville Lytton to buy a painting by Duncan Grant. Marsh later recalled that he decided to reject the advice of buying acknowledged masterpieces from the main Mayfair dealers. He said he found it much more exciting "to go to the studios and the little galleries, and purchase, wet from the brush, the possible masterpieces of the possible Masters of the future."

He also became interested in the work of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. He later introduced Marsh to Mark Gertler and John S. Currie. Marsh gradually got to know a group of artists at the Slade School known as the Coster Gang. This included Gertler, Currie, C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson and Rudolph Ihlee.

Marsh was a homosexual and as David Boyd Haycock, the author of A Crisis of Brilliance (2009) has pointed out: "Marsh's keenness for painting was matched only by his passions for poetry and handsome young men." He became very attached to Gertler who he took to the theatre. He told Rupert Brooke: "Gertler is by birth an absolute little East End Jew. Directly I can get about I am going to see him in Bishopsgate and be initiated into the Ghetto. He is rather beautiful, and has a funny little shine black fringe."

Currie was invited by Marsh to dinner at Gray's Inn. He brought Dolly Henry with him and Marsh described her as "an extremely pretty Irish girl with red hair". The following day Marsh wrote to Rupert Brooke: "Currie came yesterday I have conceived a passion for both him and Gertler, they are decidedly two of the most interesting of les jeunes, and I can hardly wait till you come back to make their acquaintance."

Mark Gertler and John S. Currie now became Marsh's artistic mentors. They argued that he should buy the work of their friend, Stanley Spencer. Marsh told Brooke: "They both admire Spencer more than anyone else. Gertler was to have taken me to see him (at Cookham) tomorrow, but it's had to be put off... I shall be buying some pictures soon! I think I told you I was inheriting £200 from a mad aunt aged 90, it turns out to be nearer four hundred than two! So I'm going to have my rooms done up and go a bust in Gertler, Currie and Spencer."

Edward Marsh met Spencer and eventually purchased the Apple Gatherers for 50 guineas. Marsh told Brooke that he had hung the painting in his spare bedroom. "I can't bring myself really to acquiesce in the false proportions, though in every other respect I think it magnificent." He added that Spencer "has a charming face" and that "we got on like houses on fire."

In August 1913 Marsh decided to spend an inheritance from an aunt on paintings by John S. Currie, Mark Gertler and Stanley Spencer. He also purchased the work of John Nash and Paul Nash. By 1914 he had one of the most valuable collections of modern work in private hands in his apartment at 5 Raymond Buildings, Gray's Inn.

Edward Marsh, who never married, died on 13th January 1953 in his flat in Knightsbridge flat. On his death The Times described him as "the last individual patron of the arts". However, the question needs to be asked, was he more interested in the sexual favours of these artists than in their paintings.


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