Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Gwen John

Despite the fact that it wasn't on my to read list for January (best laid plans and all that!) this evening I should finish Margaret Forster's novel Keeping the World Away.  The book is about a painting by Gwen John that plays a significant role in the lives of several women as it moves from owner to owner, from the time when it was painted to the present day.  Although I can't be completely certain I'm assuming from the way in which it is described that the painting is the one I've included here.

I knew very little about Gwen John other than that I had heard somewhere that her brother, Augustus John, also a painter and in his time much more highly regarded, is reported to have said that fifty years after his death he would be known only as the brother of Gwen John.  I'm not certain that has entirely come to pass, but doing some background research to accompany the Forster book, Gwen John does seem to be much more highly thought of now than was ever the case in her life time.

The one painting by her that I did know previously was the one on the right, which is in our University gallery. This portrait is one of several versions she made between 1915 and 1925 for the Meudon nuns, who had commissioned a painted copy of an existing picture of Mère Marie Poussepin (1653–1744), founder of their order, the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin of Tours in 1654.  John was received into the Catholic Church around 1913, after her affair with Rodin had collapsed around her.  She moved into Meudon and must have felt that she wanted to give something back to the nuns who had helped her at a time of great turbulence.

The portrait that Forster draws of Gwen John is certainly that of a woman whose life was marked by turbulence.  At one point one of her friends reflects that

after a mere hour in her company she felt drained by the emotional demands made on her, that urgent need for constant sympathy which was so exhausting to give.  And Gwen, in that respect, gave little in return.

My heart lurched when I read that because I used to work with someone who was exactly the same and even the memory made me want to put the book down and run away.

And yet, both of these works have, for me at least, a certain air of tranquility about them and this was only strengthened when I discovered the third painting here which, appropriately enough is called The Perfect Book.  I don't know anything about this painting, when it was executed or who the sitter was, but a feeling of absorption and contentment radiates from it.  Whoever the sitter was, I want it to be me.

I am fascinated that a woman whose own life was apparently so permeated by strong, even violent, emotions could paint in a way that transmits such feelings of peace to me and at some point during the year I would like to find out more about her.  We have a new member of staff in the gallery, who used to work for the museum in Wales where many of John's works are now on show.  I shall have to try and waylay her in the coffee lounge and get her talking on the subject.  There is no point in having experts about the place and not making use of them.


  1. I love that final painting as well. :)

  2. Nice post ... and I can relate to her friend's reflection too. I had a friend like that too. It's pleasing to see all the work being done now on bringing more female artists to the fore.

  3. Eva, it's really interesting, isn't it? All I know about it is what is in the Forster, which is that at some point in the last couple of decades it was sold for £160,000. However, as her facts aren't always correct in other areas I'm not sure if that really is the case and I certainly don't know who bought it. Time for more research.

    Whisperinggums, I think the woman who has just joined our staff is going to be pushing that line of thinking so it will be interesting to see what she does to bring women artists work into the gallery.