Wood Nymph

Robert Melville

  • Gwen John by Susan Chitty
    Hodder, 223 pp, £9.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 340 24480 1

It’s not clear why Susan Chitty called at a château in Alsace some time in the Sixties, but it’s evident from her account of the visit that she had not been there before, and that it had unexpected consequences. For one thing, it provoked the initial researches for the present biography, and for another, it led to a handsome windfall, not exactly deserved, for the Jacques Maritain Study Centre. The surprises began when the owner of the château asked her if she had ever heard of an artist named Gwen John. She had indeed, and, like many others, considered her work to be of a more consistently high quality than that of her famous brother. The man at the château had never heard of Augustus, but on hearing that Gwen was highly regarded in England he brought out a portfolio containing no less than a hundred drawings and watercolours which were unmistakably from her hand, some early, others among the very last. He said that they came into his possession through Jacques Maritain, who had spent the last years of his life at the château. They had belonged to his sister-in-law, Véra Oumançoff. They were presents from Gwen and she had accepted them without enthusiasm. It’s doubtful if she actually left them to Maritain. More likely he found them in the cupboard into which yet another would be slipped after a visit from Gwen. Out of sight, out of mind. Thus they mounted into an unheeded memorial to an unwanted love. Maritain was as unresponsive to their quiet intensity as Véra. His pride in having what he called ‘the habit of art’ was in his pocket when he glanced at Gwen’s work. Ms Chitty says that there is a chapter on her in his Carnet de Notes, ‘chiefly concerned to prove that she was never his friend.’

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