‘Few on meeting this retiring person in black, with her tiny hands and feet, a soft, almost inaudible voice, and delicate Pembrokeshire accent, would have guessed that here was the greatest woman artist of her age, or, as I think, of any other.’
Gwen John (1876-1939) is today a much acclaimed British painter associated with the first half of the 20th century. Schooled at the Slade in London and in Paris, where she studied for a year under Whistler, her formal economy and restricted palette of luminous browns, powdery blues and subtle greys resonate with our contemporary sensibility. Much has been written about her life and her work, and some of her letters have been published. In 2004, a major retrospective at Tate Britain (London) and at the National Museum of Wales (Cardiff), celebrated her work and that of her brother Augustus John. In their lifetimes he was by far the more famous painter, also a larger-than-life celebrity, while she remained little known, something of a recluse, and when she collapsed on a visit to Dieppe, and died unrecognised, she was given a pauper’s grave. Yet only three years after her death, the Burlington carried this heartfelt recognition of her stature as an artist, her brother recognising that she had far surpassed him. His admission is also, in some ways, a sad indictment of himself.
Their careers began on similar lines. Gwen John followed her brother to the Slade School of Art, Her early work has a remarkable intensity. She showed at the New English Art club in 1900, and in 1903 shared an exhibition with Augustus at the Carfax in 1903. On that occasion Augustus wrote to his friend and fellow painter William Rothenstein: ‘Gwen has the honours or should have …. [Her] little pictures to me are almost painfully charged with feeling’. But not until 1926 was she offered a sole exhibition, by the New Chenil Galleries in the West End.
In 1904, Gwen had fled London for Paris, where she maintained a studio there, for many years, largely with the help of support from the American collector John Quinn. She restricted her subject matter to single figures, a few landscapes, children and nuns in church, cats and the sparse contents in her poorly furnished rooms. Nevertheless, these Spartan scenes contain surprising riches. Some look back obliquely to themes inspired by Renaissance annunciations or 17th century Dutch painting. Yet these overtones of the past fuse with an intensely personal vision, while her emphasis on tonal relationships transforms these modest scenes into something that is purposively minimalist and intellectually charged. There is a lyric, self-assured and quietly confident quality in her portrait of a woman (illustrated above), standing beside a table covered with her books and with her drawings on the wall behind. There is nothing casual in this restrained image. The formal attention given to the wicker chair, almost made of gold threads, and the white-and-orange cotton curtain are remarkable. John is an acute observer of fabrics and how they help evoke the personality of the sitter – see for instance her Chloë Boughton-Leigh (Tate, London), a portrait of a Parisian friend which was acquired by the Tate Gallery during Gwen John’s lifetime, in 1925.
John has been more celebrated in exhibitions and biographies than studied in scholarly articles. The Burlington Magazine has traced, since the late 1950s, mostly with short reviews, exhibitions and books dedicated to her and her art, but the strongest statement remains her brother’s memoir. He may have been encouraged to write it by the editor at that time, Tancred Borenius, but we have as yet found no evidence of this. Later it formed part of Augustus John’s autobiography Chiaroscuro. It is here republished, in all its touching detail.
BP and FS, September 2015.
By Augustus John, The Burlington Magazine, October 1942, pp. 236-240.
My sister’s preference for slums and under-ground cellars never quite won my approval. I am attracted by both, but not as a potential resident. The robust paganism of my outlook, intensified by the fact of consanguinity, resulted in a conflict in which fraternal jealousy was too often unable to repress its instinctive movements of impatience with what seemed to me a renegade and injurious philosophy, diametrically opposed to the system, perhaps more muscular than intellectual, which I then professed. When soon after leaving the Slade she installed herself in a kind of dungeon near Fitzroy Street, into which no ray of sunlight could ever penetrate, I openly demurred. It was cheap, but was it truly economical ? Would not her health suffer in this gloomy vault ? Was the lighting, what there was of it, suitable for painting ? It is true the ordinary studio, with its glaring top-light, is usually an unpleasant place, but this, I thought, was going too far. But no, Gwen was delighted with her, new quarters and would not listen to my arguments. She never did. The same indifference to physical considerations characterised her throughout her life. The apartment at Meudon which she occupied for so many years was certainly not subterranean, being about six stories above ground, but it was inconvenient and situated in no enviable quarter; and later on, when she moved to Rue Babie, her new residence consisted of a mere shed, hardly weatherproof, erected in half-an-acre of waste ground. My objections to this policy of self-neglect, entirely motivated by my regard for her well-being, were met with ridicule. I was only betraying an absence of sensibility and a fundamentally “bourgeois” state of mind. Besides she had her cats to consider. They came first. It was these animals prevented her coming to England on account of quarantine regulations, and their necessities which made an occasional visit to her father in Wales a matter of insuperable difficulty. Though she had acquired a cottage in Hampshire, after one short sojourn she never returned to it. With some talented student friends she passed some time in Paris under the tutelage of Whistler. It was thus she arrived at that careful methodicity, selective taste and subtlety of tone which she never abandoned. Though she owed much to this training, her power of drawing was entirely original as was her more than aesthetic sense of life. Her friendship with Rodin played an important part in her career. He recognised her gifts and acclaimed her as “a fine artist.” It is not generally known that the statue commemorating Whistler which Rodin was commissioned to execute for this country, was modelled after my sister. This magnificent work, of which one arm is incomplete, takes the shape of a colossal female figure, slightly draped and holding a medallion with the Artist’s portrait thereon. It was not approved by the Committee, who decided to acquire a replica of the Bourgeois de Calais instead. Gwen, though she became so much of a recluse, was by nature by no means lacking in joie de vivre. Her eye for character and her native humour enabled her to appreciate the gay as well as the tragic aspects of the Comedie Humaine. Of an extreme timidity in a social sense she was always capable of demonstrating a dauntless courage and a formidable strength of will. Her pride, honesty and devotion to what she took to be her duty, combined, under the compulsion of a sufficient motive, to transform her into “an irresistible force. This gentle soul was then adamant in resolution and would stick at nothing. Having embraced the Catholic Faith she became,’ it might be said, more pious than the Pope. My Jesuit son, Elphin, used sometimes to attempt the conversion of his father and once, when he was arguing that I had nothing to lose but everything to gain by accepting the true Religion, Gwen happened to enter the room and, overhearing this line of reasoning instantly corrected the ardent young casuist. “You are quite wrong,” she said, “one accepts the Truth because it is the Truth, and not for any advantage; indeed, for the love of God one is prepared to lose everything, even life; as if that mattered!” The cold contempt of these words impressed me while it silenced my son. In her later period my sister painted numerous portraits of nuns; she also left some landscapes, done chiefly in Brittany, besides many drawings of children, women, flowers and cats. Her coloured drawings are often repeated dozens of times, with slight variations. Few on meeting this retiring person in black, with her tiny hands and feet, a soft, almost inaudible voice, and delicate Pembrokeshire accent, would have guessed that here was the greatest woman artist of her age, or, as I think, of any other. The end came when, feeling the need of a change of air, Gwen John took the train to Dieppe. She collapsed on arriving. She had brought no baggage whatever, but as it turned out had not forgotten to make in her will a suitable provision for the cats.