Unfulfilled literary prodigy associated with the Bloomsbury Group. Lived at Cholesbury Windmill and Mill House, near Chesham, 1913-16.
Link with the Chilterns
Lived at Cholesbury Windmill and Mill House, near Chesham, 1913 – 1916
25th June 1884
30th June 1955
Born at Broughton, Manchester, as one of the nine children of a shipping clerk, Gilbert Cannan won a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School, read Modern and Mediæval Languages at King’s College, Cambridge and was called to the Bar in 1906 before pursuing a writer’s career. His early novels included Peter Homunculus (1908) and Round the Corner (1912).
Rejected by the sculptor Kathleen Bruce in favour of Scott of the Antarctic, Cannan was taken up by J M Barrie’s wife, Mary, and became her lover in 1908 and her husband in 1910. After a spell in Kensington, the couple rented a cottage at Bellingdon near Chesham before moving to Cholesbury Mill in the village of Cholesbury. There they entertained among others Katherine Mansfield, Compton Mackenzie and Bertrand Russell, with whom Cannan played bowls at the adjacent Full Moon pub. A frequent guest was the artist Mark Gertler, whose fictionalised biography Mendel Cannan wrote while living at the Mill. Gertler’s 1915 painting of Gilbert Cannan at his Mill now hangs at the Ashmolean in Oxford. A famous 1914 Christmas party at the Mill included Katherine Mansfield and D H Lawrence, then living in Bellingdon.
Through his association with Lady Ottoline Morrell of Garsington, Cannan became friendly with Lytton Strachey and other members of the Bloomsbury Group and, like them, an opponent of conscription. After an affair with a maid, Cannan left Cholesbury in 1916 for London and pursued an unsuccessful relationship with a South African girl; he became increasingly disoriented and was committed first to a nursing home and in 1924 to a sanatorium, where he remained until his death in 1955.
Although Cannan’s output included 27 published books, including poetry and translations, and some 14 plays, he never realised the potential inherent in Henry James’ 1914 coupling of him with Hugh Walpole, Compton Mackenzie and D H Lawrence as the up and coming writers of the day.
Biography: Gilbert Cannan – A Georgian Prodigy by Diana Farr, Published by Chatto and Windus 1978, ISBN 0-7011-2245-5.
What you can visit
Cholesbury Mill is not open to the public but is easily seen from the Chesham/Hawridge/Cholesbury road. Gilbert Cannan played bowls at The Full Moon pub in Cholesbury, which is open during licensing hours.
The Ashmolean in Oxford where Gertler’s painting of Cannan hangs.