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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 July 2007, 05:41 GMT 06:41 UK
Art sisters revealed in new light
Margaret and Gwendoline Davies were born in the 1880s
Gwendoline and Margaret Davies were born in the 1880s

New insights have been revealed into the lives of two sisters, whose gift of masterpieces by Monet and van Gogh transformed Wales' art collection.

The traditional image of Margaret and Gwendoline Davies is of two elderly spinsters living in rural mid Wales.

But a new exhibition in Cardiff shows them as adventurous travellers at the cutting edge of the art scene.

The sisters, who left more than 250 works to the National Museum, visited places including Iraq and Jordan.

Their extensive collection, which was bequeathed between 1951-63, featured waterlilies by Monet, Renoir's Blue Lady and La Parisienne, Rodin's The Kiss and van Gogh's Rain at Auvers.

It is seen as one of the most important world-class collections of impressionist and post-impressionist art outside Paris, although staff do not comment on its potential value.

Davies sisters exhibition
A number of Monet works were among the Davies' collection

To mark the museum's centenary, officials were given access to the Davies family archives to find out more about the sisters, and came across diaries, passports, medals and letters.

It was already known the sisters were teetotallers and strictly religious, but researchers found they had studied art history extensively across Europe, and served with the Red Cross during World War I.

Born in the 1880s, they were the granddaughters of coal magnate David Davies, who made his fortune at the Ocean Coal Company, as well as building railways and Barry Dock.

Ann Sumner, the museum's head of fine art, said the new exhibition placed the sisters within the context of their industrial background, featuring pictures and artefacts from the Ocean Coal Company.

She said it was "incredible how much they travelled" both before and after WWI.

It was very unusual for women to have reached these heights of art history at this time
Dr Ann Sumner

"We had thought they travelled a bit but only as occasional tours," said Dr Sumner.

"But we have discovered they travelled very regularly, studying art history and making copious notes."

Dr Sumner said the sisters toured Europe in a chocolate-coloured Daimler, and the exhibition featured their diaries, the international travel pass for the car and a suitcase.

"They were far better educated, particularly in art history, than we realised," she said.

"In 1907, Margaret went to Dresden and went to a series of art history lectures; they went to Rome in 1908 and studied art very closely in the city, they were very fond of Venice.

"It was very unusual for women to have reached these heights of art history at this time."

They started acquiring art in 1908, and other destinations also included Greece, Monte Carlo, Egypt and Jordan, where they rode into Petra on horseback.

'Great destruction'

Dr Sumner said WWI had a "huge impact" on them, as they signed up with the Red Cross and Gwendoline won a Serbian medal for her work.

Van Gogh's Rain at Auvers
Van Gogh's Rain at Auvers is a highlight of the display

"They had their eyes opened to great destruction and were very much changed by WWI," she said.

"They lost beloved cousins in the war and they wanted to live in a different way."

In 1923, their buying of art slowed and they bought Gregynog Hall, near Newtown, Powys, to display their paintings and many people came to see them including Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, but they also lent them widely to other galleries.

The new exhibition, which opens on Saturday, also features displays on the Gregynog festival and the Gregynog Press, both of which the sisters set up.

There is also a section on oral history, which collects stories from people who remember Gwendoline, who died in 1951 and Margaret, who died in 1963.

"You really get an idea of how they were"

Festival screens rare Elgar film
24 Jun 07 |  Mid Wales
Museum makes sisters art appeal
09 May 06 |  Mid Wales


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