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A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Woman

Researching the archives of Gwen John

Gwen John

A Lady Reading is Gwen John’s painting of herself pretending to read, actually waiting for a visit from her lover, the great sculptor, Rodin. She stands, elegantly dressed, holding her book like a prayer book (Rodin was Catholic ) but the figure seems not so much demure as full of anticipation; there is dynamism in the pose, something absolutely charged. At least, I thought so, as I stood looking at this particular work by Gwen John, painter of melancholy women in lonely rooms… Not this woman, though, surely; the lady reading is not melancholy but expectant, radiant; determined.  Embarking on research for a new Life of Gwen John, I had thus begun with a hunch. The art history books stressed her fragility, her rectitude, quoting the word she once used herself in a letter to a friend, receuillie — Rodin, Gwen told her friend, had taught her to be receuillie…  Why had she needed to learn?

There were four archival sources to be investigated. The main collection is in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, high on a hill, with a view of the sea; and (first surprise) the archive is substantial. The last biography of Gwen had appeared some fifteen years before I began my research, since when the John family had deposited a substantial amount of material, expertly catalogued by the assistant archivist; the bound list of items is itself the size of a book. Nothing may be photographed or removed. Any notes were to be made in pencil only. The row of white, cloth-covered beads to lay across any tiny notebook of Gwen’s to hold the page open without damaging it reminded me of rosary beads. A mere perusal of the catalogue established that to read the entire archive would take many weeks. From my home in Brighton, Aberystwyth is a fourteen-hour round trip. I would need a B & B, and great patience. The first group of letters I read (from Gwen to her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt ) had me hooked. Here was a person of great energy, deep feeling, imagination and utter dedication to her work. And to Rodin. Fascinating. I would study this archive first, and only then her letters in the Musée Rodin; more in the Tate Archives; and if the opportunity presented itself, a small, additional group of letters, to and from the collector who (when he could) purchased Gwen’s work, deposited in the New York Public Library.

Working a week at a time, five full days a week in Aberystwyth, I spent many weeks (months) in total, reading and taking notes on Gwen’s letters, jottings and notes to herself and others. She was an engaging and energetic writer, I discovered from letters including those to her two brothers — the famous Augustus, and Thornton, the unknown, reticent one who lived in British Columbia, where he had gone searching for gold . When Gwen left the Slade, she set off on foot for Rome with her friend Dorelia, Augustus’s lover. The daring journey (walking for miles, laden with painting equipment, sleeping under the stars) is entertainingly detailed by Gwen in her letters home. When they got as far as Paris, Dorelia made a detour, leaving Gwen alone in the French capital, where one day she knocked on the door of Rodin’s studio, looking for modelling work. She got no further.

Here was the journey to Rome, here were Gwen’s letters to Augustus and Thornton and to her younger sister Winifred , all loving, all dynamic; here too were Gwen’s letters to Ida, Augustus’s wife (usurped by Dorelia, despite Ida’s determination to accommodate the freedoms of the artistic life. ) Here were the letters detailing Ida’s death, tragic, and painful to read. Here were Gwen’s tiny notebooks , many entries in sprawling, untidy handwriting, detailing her precise thoughts on the techniques and technicalities of painting — her notes on colour and form. Here, too were the letters from others to Gwen, which revealed to me the importance of letters received as well as those sent, as they too shed fascinating light on not only the sender but the recipient. As I worked I realised many things about biography. Every detail has the potential to count; to add to, shift or change the emerging picture. I was interested not only in what made Gwen extraordinary but also in what made her ordinary. She fell down the stairs, doing the housework, wearing high heels. She washed her favourite red blouse and the dye ran, turning it from red to a washed rose colour, still beautiful. She cared about her siblings and they cared about her. She could be focussed and reckless, patient and impatient; understanding and indignant. One major discovery was the letter in which she tells a friend she needed to be left alone, to paint (the legendary attic rooms…) as it was impossible to work when Augustus or anyone turned up unexpectedly and distracted her. Not, then, the harried sister who escaped to France to avoid the influence of her more famous brother (that myth). Nothing to do with Augustus. She went to Rome because that is what intrepid artists did, and stayed in Paris because she fell in love with Rodin.

Next, the heady experience of walking up the central staircase of the Musée Rodin, lifting the red rope and entering the small door into the attic where the Gwen John papers are kept, together with Rodin’s. These are not catalogued at all. The archive consists of a pile of faded envelope-folders stuffed with about two thousand pieces of paper, including the pages Gwen selected and copied out for Rodin from the scriptures (to save him the trouble of reading the whole book); her letters to him, the great artist she called mon Maître, all in tidy handwriting, her characters carefully formed to be instantly legible, since Rodin was always so busy, so bousculé par le monde.  Her love letters. Her letters to friends, about Rodin.  Her letters recounting her journeys to Dieppe or Pleneuf. Many of them are repetitive, many undated. All in Gwen’s inimitable French, which she wrote as she spoke it (with variable spellings and turns of phrase), by ear. All amounting to many more weeks’ work. Same rules and restrictions — permission would be required to quote anything at all. No photocopying. Furiously energetic bouts of note-taking, then, and the frustration of being interrupted, every day, by the lunch break; this was France. I nearly didn’t read every folder, returned after a gap (for reflection, sifting, writing-up) to look at one last one, and found a treasure trove of letters from her early days in Paris, detailing the hilarious antics of her neighbours in the hostel she stayed in, with much vivid conversation, shouting and indignation, tales of strange noises from behind the walls, kind (or nasty) concierges, fights over wardrobes. Delightful — and a further, wonderful insight into her character.

Outside in 42nd Street  the yellow taxis swayed like dinosaurs , people rushed and sashayed; inside the New York Public Library I was reading John Quinn’s courteous letters to Gwen begging her (with unconscionable restraint) could she please just finish the painting… He sent his great friend, Jeanne Robert Foster, to visit her in Meudon and Jeanne was captivated by the way Gwen lived — the attic room, the re-heeled shoes, the monastic lack of furniture (Jeanne was staying at the Paris Ritz at the time). They struck up a great friendship. Gwen’s friendships were loyal and lasting (another insight.) One letter from Jeanne Robert Foster stalled me. It seemed to break off in the middle, and the date didn’t tally with others of that month and year… In archives you become alert to the point of nearly obsessive about detail. It nagged at me as I explored Gwen’s paintings and drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, remaining dazzled, for a whole two weeks, by the contrast between the visual marvels of everyday Manhattan and the world inside Gwen John’s head.

One last archive to explore. Among the letters in the Tate archive I turned up half a letter… and yes, miraculously it was the other half of the one in the New York Public Library. I felt as Thornton would surely have felt, had he actually struck gold. From the half in the Tate I could establish why its counterpart in the New York Public Library seemed out of kilter — the first half was erroneously dated. Eureka moment. Now the letter made sense. What was it about? I can barely remember, but I will never forget the researcher’s moment of triumph. By now, I should add, I had explored Gwen’s various habitats — also vital. Nothing can be substituted for the insights gleaned from standing on the very spot where… But that is another story. From the archives I had my material; I had my vision. Now all I had to do (the work of a further three years) was write the book.

Sue Roe is a biographer, poet, novelist and scholar whose books about painters include Gwen John: a life, The Private Lives of the Impressionists, In Montmartre, and In Montparnasse.

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