It’s easy to think that the latest biography is the best, incorporating more up-to-date information and approach. This is not always the case. The 1980s and early 90s was a really good time for biography.
At our last meeting at the Seymour Arms, the discussion touched on the artist Gwen John (1876–1939), and whether biography had done anything to enlighten the reader or bring the artist closer. Over Easter, I took up this challenge and read Susan Chitty’s 1981 biography. It’s an excellent piece of writing, well-structured, mobile, and truly enlightening about the artist and her work.
Susan Chitty is not an art historian, she is a professional biographer who has tackled subjects as different from Gwen John as Anna Sewell, Charles Kingsley and Edward Lear. Yet her understanding of Gwen John’s work is thorough and sensitive. It’s an unusual life, to say the least. Born in Haverfordwest, the second of four children, her mother died when she was only eight. Her (devastated) father was not a skilfull parent. Gwen John went to France in 1903 and lived most of the rest of her life in Paris, often in severe poverty. In her middle age, her younger brother Augustus, always fulsome in acknowledging that, of the two, she was the greater artist (there’s another discussion there) bought her a cottage on the edge of the New Forest in the grounds of his own new abode, Fryern Court. She only ever spent three nights there, returning to Paris and her family of cats, in the barely upgraded shed that was her last home. What is fascinating about the biography is the interweave of friendships and loves (she had a ten-year relationship with Rodin and they remained close until he died), a passionate but unconventional Catholicism (she converted in 1913), and her work, which became almost a form of prayer – much of her time in church was spent drawing people. She drew quickly but painted slowly.
Susan Chitty refers to her as ‘Gwen John’ throughout, never falling into the trap of just ‘Gwen’, a familiarity adopted with female subjects, rarely with male ones. The biography excels in evoking the background that created the translucency and calm of Gwen John’s work, and it was exactly this quality that informed our discussion. Chitty also manages to keep the larger-than-life Augustus, who was more famous, indeed notorious, and whose work began to decline just as Gwen’s increased in quantity and quality, in perspective. He was by turns neglectful and extravagant towards his sister, but did his best to help her career. He drank so much, and fathered so many children on so many women, it may have been difficult to focus. Gwen John is in focus throughout this fascinating book, and for such a recluse, she met all sorts of interesting people, from Maud Gonne to Marc Chagall.
Blagdon’s Readers will be meeting again at the Seymour Arms on Wednesday May 11th at 7.30pm, to discuss the books mentioned in last month’s column. Do join us if you would like to!
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