Gwen John on foot for Rome

May 3, 2024 2 Comments
Gwen John, Self-portrait, c 1900 (National Portrait Gallery)

I’ve been reading Celia Paul’s painfully honest book Letters to Gwen John, a series of imaginary messages to her fellow-artist, dead for almost a hundred years.  She shares many circumstances with Gwen, and feels many close affinities, both creative and emotional.  In one of the letters, she describes a continental journey that Gwen made in August 1903 with her new friend, Dorelia McNeill – a journey that proved a critical turning point in her life and her artistic growth.

Gwen had already been through one great change in her life.  In 1895 she left her family home in Tenby to follow her younger brother Augustus and study in the Slade School of Art in London.  Suddenly she found herself among students who led a freer and less inhibited way of life, and who were experimenting with less traditional ways of making art.  She’d graduated from the Slade and was still living in London when she met Dorelia, another art student (in Westminster School of Art) and a girl of ‘dazzling beauty, now lyrical, now dramatic’, as the painter William Rothenstein recalled.

The two young women formed an immediate bond, complicated after Gwen introduced Dorelia to her brother, who fell under the same spell.  It was perhaps to interrupt this second relationship – Augustus was already married to Ida Nettleship – that Gwen suggested to Dorelia that the two of them should start out for Rome.

Rome, of course, had long been a traditional destination for cultural tourists.  Most ‘Grand Tourists’, almost invariably men, had made for the artistic and other attractions of the city, ever since the second half of the eighteenth century.  This, though, was to be no grand tour.  Neither woman had much money, and they decided that they’d try to reach Rome on foot, sleeping outdoors, living as plainly as possible, and carrying only the bare essentials – which, however, included sketching and painting equipment.

Gwen John, Self-portrait in a red blouse, 1900-3 (Tate Gallery)

This would be a big adventure today, but 120 years ago it was a decision of astonishing boldness.  It’s true that the art schools, and London life after it, had introduced both women to a bohemian way of life that had been inconceivable in Victorian times.  But it was still a big step to start across Europe alone, unchaperoned, with few resources and a long way to travel.

Gwen and Dorelia took a steamer from London to Boulogne and started to walk up the valley of the Garonne.  Gwen’s letters to Ursula Tyrwhitt, a close friend since their Slade days together, gives us vivid glimpses – Gwen was a fine writer as well as great painter – of their French adventures.  At La Réole on 3 September she reported

We only sleep in on rare occasions, when we work late, for then it is rather dangerous to set out, they want to know where we are going to sleep and follow us.  When we came back we showed our specimens and began to draw the men who would pose.

They slept under haystacks, to wake in the morning with a man looking at them.  Local people were suspicious, taking them for mauvais sujets, and often overcharged them for lodgings and food.  They tried to raise cash by offering to draw the locals.  One of them claimed to be a sculptor and gave them the benefit of his drawing skills.  At Meilhan an old man followed them and they had trouble shaking him off.  They always seemed to be hungry, tired and often sleepless.  ‘Gwen always insisted on Dodo carrying the heaviest loads and doing the biggest jobs’, one later writer was told, ‘because Gwen was an artist.’

Finally, with the help of some lifts, they reached Toulouse, where they realised that Rome was a step too far: ‘We shall never get to Rome I’m afraid – it seems further away than it did from England.’  They found Toulouse attractive, and the memory of ‘trudging from village to village’ began to fade. They rented rooms in the city and ‘sleep in like any bourgeoise’, though the landlady was ‘a tiny little woman dressed in black with a black handkerchief over her head, she is very, very wicked, everybody says so in this house.’ Gwen also started to make paintings.

Gwen John, Dorelia in a black dress, 1903-4 (Tate Gallery)

While in Toulouse Gwen completed three portraits of Dorelia. In one of them, Dorelia in a black dress, Dorelia looks directly at Gwen, with confidence and, maybe, desire (or maybe her look reflects Gwen’s desire?).  She looks demure enough in her long black dress, and her arms crossed, but the red cloth flung casually over one shoulder and the open face and steady gaze suggest a more passionate spirit.  Celia Paul suggests that ‘Gwen desires her and admires her, and understands her in a more intimate way than her brother ever could.’

This painting marks a kind of ending.  It’s the last, for the time being, in a series of face-on portraits and self-portraits that make a determined assertion about the presentness of women, and especially women artists.  The best known are Gwen’s two self-portraits of 1900-03.  They insist that women have earned their rightful place in the world – not by hectoring or aggression but by being there, and remaining there, in the public world.

Gwen John, Dorelia by lamplight at Toulouse, 1903-4 (private collection)

The other two paintings are very different and seem to point the way forward to a new strain in Gwen’s art.  Dorelia by lamplight at Toulouse uses a traditional theme of painters, the woman reading, and marks a turn from direct face-to-face encounter to interior communication through silent words and thought.  Dorelia, straight and still, sits at a table reading – a second, well-used book, entitled La Russie, lies closed under the first – her fingers touching the text, as if feeling as well as seeing the words.  Her face, which you might expect to be in shadow, is actually as brightly lit as the book, the two forming the anode and cathode of the current of thought.  According to Rothenstein, ‘it is not with a sentimental, but a serenely detached, an almost impersonal pity that the beautiful reader is portrayed.’

Gwen John, The student, 1903-4 (Manchester Art Gallery)

In The student Dorelia stands, wearing the same long-sleeved small-check dress, one hand leaning on a chair, the other holding an exercise book.  She’s staring at La Russie as if contemplating its contents.  The poet and critic Laurence Binyon wrote of this painting ‘Here is that intensity, quiet and shy though it be, which counts for so much more than brilliancy, and which is so rare in contemporary art.  It is a picture of singular delicacy and beauty.’

Gwen John, A corner of the artist’s room in Paris, 1907-9 (Sheffield Museums Trust)

The effort in Toulouse to catch the interior life of women is a new element in Gwen’s work.  You could say that it was one she pursued during the rest of her life.  Sometimes she chased it in extreme directions, as in paintings like A corner of the artist’s room in Paris (1907-9), where the woman, though physically absent, still leaves eloquent traces of her being.  As Tom Lubbock once wrote, ‘The room portrays a state of mind, a life.’ 

Gwen was clear that Toulouse marked the opening of a new phase in her career.  In early 1904, she wrote in a letter to Ursula:

I do nothing but paint – but you know how slowly that gets on – a week is nothing, one thinks one can do so much in a week – if one can do a square inch that pleases me … this life is rather hard – but I have discovered a few little things about painting – (which of course I ought to have known before).

Eventually the two women tired of Toulouse, and possibly of each other, and moved to Paris.  In May Dorelia left Paris for Bruges and then returned to Augustus John in London to form a ménage à trois with Ida Nettleship.  Gwen stayed in Paris and worked as a model.  Soon she met Auguste Rodin, and they began the passionate relationship that lasted until 1912.  For a time she stopped painting, but, as Celia Paul says, ‘even when she as nearly derailed by her infatuation, Gwen managed to keep the balance in her work.’  She let nothing stand between her and her art.

Gwen John, Portrait of Dorelia, 1903-4 (British Museum)

Comments (2)

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  1. Gill Lewis says:

    Thanks Andrew, I remember years ago searching to find any works by Dorothy/Dorelia McNeill, but couldn’t trace any work by her,you’ve just prompted me to try again now that there are more sophisticated search facilities, I’ve only done a brief search, but still nothing. As she was a fellow art student, albeit at Westminster not at the Slade with Gwen and John, I would have thought there may be some work still surviving..have you ever seen anything by her?

    • Andrew Green says:

      That’s an interesting question, Gill. I’ve never come across any art by Dorelia. There must be something, somewhere!

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