After the painful ending of her affair with the sculptor Rodin, the painter Gwen John sought consolation in the Catholic Church. Terry Grimley reviews an exhibition exploring its influence on her work.
There is surely no stranger story in the history of British art than that of a brother and sister who grew up together in remote West Wales in the 1880s.
From their shared background they both went on to achieve fame, but by routes which could hardly have been more different.
Augustus John had scarcely completed his studies at the Slade School of Fine Art before his evident natural gifts were prompting extravagant comparisons with various old masters.
His dazzling technique combined with a notoriously bohemian lifestyle made him one of the first artists of the 20th century to cross-over into a wider world of celebrity.
By contrast his sister Gwen, who was two years older but arrived at the Slade a year later, pursued a quieter career in deliberate obscurity, living for the most part in France and combining her own art with modelling for others.
Her death in 1939, as she was attempting to return to Britain at the outbreak of war, seems to have been hastened by self-neglect, and the whereabouts of her grave is unknown.
Augustus lived on until 1961, but on his death his once vast reputation more or less vanished.
At the same time appreciation of his sister’s more circumscribed but intense output of female portraits and quiet interiors grew over the years, to the point where his prediction that in 50 years’ time he would be remembered only as Gwen’s brother seemed to have been remarkably far-sighted.
Since then his own reputation has undergone some rehabilitation, and the siblings were the subject of a joint exhibition at Tate Britain in 2004.
It’s perhaps significant, though. that the highly selective Barber Institute has a painting by Gwen – bought in her centenary year, 1976 – but not one by Augustus.
Now this painting, Mere Poussepin, is the subject of the latest in the series of exhibitions exploring works from the Barber collection in their historic contexts.
It’s the first of these exhibitions to be organised by the present director, Ann Sumner, and a natural choice because most of the material lent to it comes from her previous employer, the National Museum of Wales.
Mere Poussepin is one of a series of 16 paintings of the same subject, painted between 1913 and 1919.
They were commissioned for the Dominican convent at Meudon, on the outskirts of Paris, with which Gwen became involved when she turned to religion following the final collapse of her decade-long affair with the great French sculptor August Rodin. She converted to Catholicism in 1913.
Mere Marie Poussepin (1653-1744) was the founder of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Virgin of Tours in 1696.
Initially the convent commissioned one portrait, to be based on a prayer card (an example which belonged to the artist is shown here) which was itself based on a lost portrait done from life, but later it was decided that a portrait was needed for each room.
This substantial commission dominated Gwen John’s professional life for seven years and evidently weighed heavily on her.
With retrospect she said that, without it, she might have done “some nice work” during these years, and these paintings have always seemed to me to be her least interesting.
Ironically, only one of the portraits was ever hung in the convent and that was sold off quite quickly to the artist’s chief patron, the American collector John Quinn.
The Barber’s small exhibition reunites three of the Poussepin portraits, with the Barber’s own joined by versions from the National Gallery of Wales and Southampton Art Gallery, together with a closely-related portrait of a nun, wearing Mere Poussepin’s costume, from the Tate.
Having previously been only vaguely aware of the Poussepin portraits I had assumed them to be more or less interchangeable, but in fact there are quite marked differences in quality.
The version from Cardiff, evidently from early in the series, is a more conventional portrait, including trappings such as the book and flowers on a table in front of the figure and the picture on the wall behind her.
There is also a certain flabbiness about the composition, with dead space on either side of the figure, in comparison with the more stripped-down versions from Southampton and the Barber, where the various distractions have been dispensed with.
While these two versions are very close to each other (though the Southampton one, for some reason, is larger), the Barber painting seems to go a step further in the way in which the figure seems to be absorbed into the paint surface.
It’s a relief, though, to turn to the vibrant Girl in a Blue Dress, the only purely secular image in the show.
This is included as an illustration of the way in which the “nun” format of three-quarter length portraits, with the subject sitting with hands folded or clasped in her lap, fed back into John’s other portraits, and is a reminder that John was still in touch with life outside the convent cell or the church pew.
The selection of watercolour drawings from the large collection at the National Museum of Wales shows how John made productive use of her time in church, sketching fellow members of the congregation.
These were invariably women and children. Men almost never appear in her works, except when she was commissioned to draw portraits of priests.
There are two examples here, both of which are impressive pieces of draughtsmanship. One of them is also highly unusual in its horizontal format, so I doubt that I would have identified the artist if presented with it in isolation.
It is also interesting to see the portrait of Pope Benedict XV – though the portrait itself isn’t up to much – which she copied from the cover of the Midweek Illustrated section of the New York Times. The original, squared up for transfer to the same-size portrait, is shown alongside it.
This unusual venture was prompted by Benedict’s unsuccessful peace initiative in 1917. Apparently John did a whole album of similar portraits of politicians, something well off what is normally thought of as her beaten path.
There is an evocative watercolour of her studio at Meudon, a former garage, by her nephew Edwin, Augustus’s youngest son and Gwen’s executor. This seems to date from the mid-1950s.
There are also various personal items including a crucifix which was found buried beneath the studio, a painting shirt and a sewing box with reels of cotton still in it.
These things are powerfully evocative of a solitary life which was in many ways frustrated and tragic, yet ultimately triumphant in its artistic legacy.
* Reunited: Pere Poussepin and the Catholic Church is at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham University, until September 21 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12 noon-5pm; admission free).