Mark Gertler, the son of Austrian-Jewish immigrants, was born in Spitalfields, East London. Whilst at the local Board School he was inspired by the work of the popular Victorian painter William Frith to become an artist himself. After beginning an apprenticeship as a stained glass maker, he came to the attention of the art critic Sir William Rothenstein, who facilitated a scholarship from the Jewish Education Aid Society for study at the Slade School. His work was admired by Lady Ottoline Morrell, and through her he came to know many members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Bertrand Russell, David Garnett, Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey. Like them, Gertler was opposed to the First World War, and in 1916 declared himself a conscientious objector, being supported by Lady Ottoline at Garsington Manor, Oxfordshire, whilst undertaking farm work,
In September 1916 he completed his most celebrated work, Merry-Go-Round, showing a mixed group of military and civilian figures all caught in the vicious circle of a world at war. In the patriotic mood of the time, Gertler had difficulty in finding a gallery willing to accept it, until it was shown through the London Group at the Mansard Gallery in Heal’s department store in May 1917. Gertler’s friend D H Lawrence wrote to him, on seeing a print of the painting, 'Your terrible and beautiful picture . . . is the best modern picture I have ever seen: I think it is great and true. But it is horrible and terrifying. I’m not sure I wouldn’t be too frightened to come and look at the original.'
William Rothenstein later wrote, 'With its harsh flickering restlessness, the painting seems to be a comment on Mark’s life: Whitechapel slum, young artists’ Bohemia, fashionable society, the Garsington intelligentsia. It was impossible to look at these mechanical soldiers going round and round without recalling the horrors of the deadlocked Western front.'
After the war, although he continued to paint, with the encouragement, amongst others, of Aldous Huxley, Gertler contracted tuberculosis, and was in and out of several sanatoria. Depressed by the death of his friends Katherine Mansfield and Lawrence from the same disease, and the looming prospect of another world war, he took his own life in June 1939.
Merry-Go-Round is now in Tate Britain, London. Gertler’s original home, 32 Elder Street, Spitalfields, is marked by a blue plaque. Also, the cover for the coal-hole in the pavement outside has been replaced by a roundel incorporating a detail from Merry-Go-Round.