Women’s Arts Association members spent a happy hour in the National Museum of Wales with Beth McIntyre, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, who had made a selection from Gwen John and Edna Clarke Hall.
The museum has a superb collection of Gwen John’s drawing, 984 in all, and she is well-known as an artist. Edna Clarke Hall (nee Waugh) was Beth’s suggestion and I don’t think any of us knew her, although she shared many of the same experiences and friends as Gwen John. As Beth talked, she traced the relationships and we passed round the mounted drawings, starting with early portraits of Gwen’s sister (by Gwen) and Augustus John (by Edna).
They both attended the Slade School of Art in the 1890s, when the Slade’s reputation as a progressive force included offering women equal opportunities with men to rigorously learn art, based on excellence in drawing (and life-drawing). Edna Clarke Hall epitomises the Slade style of cross-hatching and no smudging while Gwen John developed her own way. Another of their friends was Ida Nettleship who became Augustus’ wife, and Dorelia McNeil. These women were bright stars in their time, exhibited, walked across Europe on their own, but somehow have been lost to view. These drawings are of Ida and Gwen by Edna.
Edna CH married at 19, to her father’s collaborator in founding the NSPCC. Her husband apparently supported her art, but also expected her to adopt the role of a traditional wife and her art became bounded by domesticity: she drew what was available, like her housemaid, or a barn (below). Her watercolours included one of the suffragette, also an artist, Katie Gliddon, who was imprisoned in 1912 and she was involved in the movement.
Gwen moved to Paris and had a domestic blip when she became Rodin’s lover. She kept more independence, encouraged by her younger brother Augustus to earn, for example by modelling. Her drawings of Rodin, and of nuns, are below. Religion was important to her.
Gwen J developed more interest in shapes, often by drawing the backs of people, for example in church. Her fluid drawings of her adored cats were passed round. She tended to draw on anything, poor quality paper or backs of things. The drawings in this room are stored flat in their mounts, and removed only to be put in frames for exhibition. It helps to preserve them.
Gwen also used repetition, the same picture with minor changes, often taking things out.
The two friends interacted, for example when Edna CH happened to be in the same area of France on holiday and painted Augustus painting his son. Sadly, the drawings of Ida and Augustus’ children is captioned “when they were staying with us when his mother Ida died in Paris”.
Gwen J loved her garden roses and primroses.
Edna CH lived until she was 100 in 1979. She turned to poetry in her later life, and the last painting we were shown (below right) is almost surreal. Gwen’s beautiful drawings (eg below left) have finally been recognised, but the lives of these two great artists illustrate the difficulty that women – even when encouraged at college – have in gaining lasting recognition. That struggle, even today, is the reason for Women’s Arts.
We are lucky in Wales that our museums have been made free to visit, and on a Tuesday afternoon there were plenty of people dropping in, and lucky too that there is dedication to preserving and discovering women’s art: the museum is a treasure-house of good art.
Anyone can visit the Print and Drawings Study room, although there is a charge of £54 for up to 12 people. Booking is necessary and usually a week’s notice is fine. The link is https://museum.wales/curatorial/art/works-on-paper/
We agreed that it was a wonderful experience, and were very grateful to Shirley Anne Owen for making the booking, and to Beth McIntyre for her brilliant choices and explanation.