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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 October, 2004, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Writing of Gwen John revealed
Clare Gabriel
BBC Wales News website

Gwen John Self Portrait (picture courtesy of Tate Britain)
The book casts new light on Gwen John's development as an artist
An unrivalled insight into the life of artist Gwen John is revealed in a new book, as an exhibition of her and her brother Augustus's work is displayed.

A collection of Gwen John's letters and notebooks held in the archives of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth has been published.

The joint exhibition, now at the Tate Britain, moves to Cardiff in February.

But the book by Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan gives a much bigger insight into Gwen John's very private life.

Dr Lloyd-Morgan, Head of Manuscripts at the National Library, has spent 20 years studying Gwen John, one of the most enigmatic figures of 20th century art.

At a launch of her book in Penarth, she detailed how important her writing was to the artist, who grew up in Pembrokeshire at the end of the 19th century, and went on to study at the Slade in London and then in Paris.


Later Gwen John modelled for Rodin, whose mistress she also became.

She later converted to Catholicism and went to live in solitude in the southern French village of Meudon.

"When in France she read extensively, often reading when she ate her solitary meals, after painting and before going to bed," said Dr Lloyd-Morgan.

"She was very much concerned with the process of communication, whether it was through words or through visual imagery".

The artist's confidence in writing and reading was pivotal to her art, and she developed a literary skills almost despite her typical middle-class upbringing in Tenby, where her education would have been "partly at home, partly by genteel governesses".

Her letters to her friends - often making use of her bad French - are in a relaxed style, and are most informative.

Dorelia in a Black Dress c. 1903-4 (picture courtesy Tate Britain)
Gwen John's relationship with her friends is also documented

John often gave prominence to books in her studies and portraits, said Dr Lloyd-Morgan. She also used imagery in her correspondence to her friends and brother Augustus, describing her Parisian room or the leaves on the road outside, which clearly showed her painter's eye.

Her contact with the sculptor Rodin also introduced her to new reading matter, and as her interest in Catholicism grew, so did her references in her work to her faith.

She also gathered an ever-increasing and varied library - including books on psychology and literary criticism.

In her later work, Gwen John often placed sketches and notes side by side on the same page.

She also wrote many draft letters, some of which to people already dead and most of which Dr Lloyd- Morgan believes were not meant to be read, but "were a form of writing as a type of catharsis".

"In the notebooks I often get the impression that the notes are drafts of records of unsatisfactory conversations that have take place or rehearsals of more satisfactory ones in the future."

Gwen John And August John is at the Tate Britain in London until 9 January. The exhibition moves to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff in February.

Gwen John's work on display
07 Mar 04  |  South West Wales

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