Sue Roe
Gwen John, A Life

Book Reviews

Published by Chatto & Windus

There are certain families, the Brontës and the Stephens (Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) to name but two, who produce prodigiously talented offspring. The Johns were another. Gwen and Augustus John grew up with their younger sister and elder brother in Pembrokeshire. When Gwen was eight their mother died and their stern, broken-hearted solicitor father left the children pretty much to their own devises. For the 1880s they had a remarkably unrestricted childhood, running wild without shoes and socks on the beach at Tenby, where Gwen and her younger brother began to draw gulls and shells. These bohemian beginnings were to set the tone for the rest of Gwen’s life. After her death in 1939 the myth grew that she had been a recluse. Certainly her life was somewhat overshadowed by her colourful, talented brother, Augustus, and his flamboyant domestic arrangements with his wife, Ida, the charismatic Dorelia and their collection of children, but, in fact, Gwen exhibited regularly, was collected by the American patron John Quinn and led a daring and unconventional life. Augustus once predicted that ‘fifty years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John’s brother.’ His pronouncement proved highly perceptive, for it is, indeed, Gwen who is now recognised as the great artistic innovator and one of the most original artists of her day.

Based on her passionate unpublished letters, Sue Roe has created a vivid picture of this remarkable, shy, strong willed and singular woman. Roe draws us into her narrative following Gwen to the Slade and later on her reckless unchaperoned walking trip with Dorelia to Rome ‘carrying a minimum of belongings and a great deal of painting equipment’ when they slept outdoors and lived on bread, grapes and beer. They made it as far as Toulouse and then went on to Paris. Gwen was never to live in England again. Showing remarkable independence, she supported herself by modelling amid the Bohemian circles of early 20th Paris where she met Rilke and Picasso. Among those for whom she posed was Rodin, with whom she had an intense affair, although thirty-six years his junior.

Roe conjures the complexities of this relationship with great empathy. Although married, Rodin had had many lovers and used his models to explore female sexuality and the female form. For Gwen this passion was to mould her life. She yearned, above all, for complete erotic and spiritual unity. Her sexual awakening was epiphanal. To quote Rilke, she experienced all beauty as ‘a quiet enduring form of love and longing.’ Despite her devotion to painting, Rodin became her main passion; she was even prepared to sacrifice her art, waiting for hours in her little attic room in case he should decide to drop by. Yet although he paid her rent and continued to visit her spasmodically, virtually until his death, he could not meet her need for spiritual symbiosis.

He also proved to be a major influence on her work, but after his death she turned increasingly to the Catholic Church, though, at times, her need of Jesus seems alarmingly close to her emotional/sexual need for Rodin. All her life she longed for intimacy and her apparent hard-won serenity masked a deep inner turbulence. It is this quality that imbues her haunting paintings. Still and austere, they are filled with restrained emotion having something of the tranquillity of a Vermeer coupled with the intensity of Rembrandt’s portraits. She had exacting standards, telling herself that ‘Unless you have the will to be great you will fall into mediocrity’ and kept copious little black notebooks filled with technical jottings on colour tones. After her death Augustus read them saying ‘Astonishing how she cultivated the scientific method. I feel ready to shut up shop.’

In 1911 she moved to Meudon, sleeping in what was virtually a garden shed with her cats and giving herself retraits, periods of time when she would see no one and just paint. She drew her cats, the children in church, but mostly she painted women in rooms, canvas after canvas, trying for an elusive perfectionism. In the 1970s her paintings were much used on Virago book covers, as if presenting her as a feminist icon. But she defies such easy stereotyping. For what we discover in Roe’s insightful biography is a woman of fierce independence and intelligence, an artist of unique vision and talent, who nevertheless would have – at one point – given up everything for a man. Yet we watch her grow through her struggles to become not only the slightly eccentric recluse and great artist, but a woman who never compromised, living life to the full, on her own terms.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


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