About to be at Tate Britain, or Meanwhile in Cork Street

Peter Campbell

Some artists engage with the world. They present a public face and seem eager to value themselves as the world values them. Sales and commissions, praise and dismissal, as they come and go, define them. At the other extreme are artists who turn away from the world, strive only for their own good opinion and are uninterested in selling or exhibiting. If they’re good, they are liable to be a cherished secret when alive and a discovery when dead.

No painter is entirely of one kind or the other, and fate clearly has a hand in the matter. Augustus John, who was generally of the first sort, had ambitions beyond the marketable portraits which sustained him and his reputation in the latter part of his life. His early drawings persuaded some critics that a great painter was about to emerge, but his figure compositions and Post-Impressionist landscapes never quite made good what the drawings promised. What, after all, could drawings that owed so much to Rubens and Watteau promise in the 20th century? A hint of unrealised ambition colours his reputation, despite the attractive briskness of pictures of Yeats, Shaw and other literary men, and the confident flow of line in paintings and drawings of his wives and children.

Gwen John, ‘Two Hatted Women in Church’
Gwen John, ‘Two Hatted Women in Church’

His sister Gwen – they were both Slade students – was a painter of the second sort. Asked what she thought of a show of Cézanne watercolours, she murmured that she liked them, but liked her own better. She painted fewer pictures than Augustus and became reluctant to exhibit even those. What she did show was applauded, but she was immune to the world’s opinion or, at least, unwilling to expose herself to it. Self-sufficiency has its limits, however. Rodin’s praise of her work (she was his mistress and model) was important. And even she needed a little money. The American collector John Quinn would, right up to his death in 1924, buy anything she would sell. For the last four years of his life he paid her an annual stipend.

In the exhibition that will open at the Tate on 29 September, shortly after these words go to press, the work of the public brother and the private sister will be seen side by side. The most interesting comparisons will probably centre on their portraits of the same model. Dorelia, whom both Gwen and Augustus loved and painted, looks stronger and more exotic in his paintings, more ordinary and interesting in hers. Perhaps it is best to see Dorelia the model as the joint creation of all three. Gwen took part in the search for and design of the clothes – tight bodices and long skirts – which read in the drawings neither as fancy dress nor quite as of their own time (the John household must, to the eye at least, have been more Pre-Raphaelite than modern). In Gwen’s portraits of Dorelia, the active poses her brother chose, in which hands are raised and the head is angled, are replaced by plain sitting. And in hers you are more aware of surroundings. Dorelia is in a room, probably a small one. She seems more an individual, less the painter’s creation.

At Tate Britain there will also be many of the drawings and paintings that Augustus made of Gwen, and of his family. The early 20th century produced better intimate portraits than public ones. John’s family pictures – separated out from his commissioned portraits, shown with the Mediterranean landscapes and attempts at large figure subjects, and complemented by his sister’s pictures – may, like those overlapping Bloomsbury memoirs in which alternative views allow one to guess at unshown dimensions, do something for his reputation.

As a prelude to the Tate’s juxtaposition of brother and sister you can, until 15 October, see a small exhibition of Gwen’s work at Browse and Darby in Cork Street. Two oil paintings and two watercolour drawings are well known: they were in the 1946 memorial exhibition, and have been seen since then in various shows. All the drawings have stamped signatures, indicating, I assume, that they were still in Gwen John’s possession when she died. They are of children, cats, flowers, women in church, a few landscapes. The colour is soft: in the watercolours often made softer by the buff or brown of the paper. The later oil paintings use a range quite close to that of Morandi’s still lifes. All the pictures began as records of things seen, even those of the backs of nuns in church, which appear simple enough to have been painted from memory. (Gwen John converted to Catholicism in 1913; there are recorded exchanges about the propriety of drawing in church. She said she prayed, but couldn’t do it for many minutes on end.)

She painted one version after another of the same picture; but her repetitions are quite unlike those of, say, 17th-century Dutch still-life painters, or Academy stalwarts who knew that their glass, twist of lemon and herring, girls in the garden, or wet street at night, would sell again and again. Nor do her series mark out a path towards the final resolution of a pictorial problem, or depict a scene in different light and weather in the way that Monet’s did. Sometimes they seem like a subtle version of the fabric designer’s different colourways, or like a tune sung through with minimally different intonations for the pleasure of the act itself.

Because the drawings are small and the lines shaky, because the brush is used to make dabs as often as strokes, it is easy to forget that she was a painter in a tradition that valued craft, and which, as is evident in her late oil paintings in particular, reckoned to arrive at freshness through discipline. Colours were planned; the setting out of the palette was a creative prelude to painting. If something didn’t succeed – if the pink was not quite strong enough, if the relation of marks to shapes was out of whack – you started again.

The essay in the Tate catalogue by Mary Bustin about Gwen John’s later painting technique is especially illuminating.[*] The matt, pastel-like paint is genuinely chalky. It was applied to an absorbent ground of glue and chalk, and powdered chalk was mixed with the paint. Paint straight from the tube is usually overloaded with the oil medium – you find manuals which recommend squeezing it first onto blotting paper. The chalk which made her paint into a stiff paste also made it paler. In the two oil paintings in Cork Street you also see many hairline cracks, as though the dabs of paint shrank in drying. Look at the surface of the pictures and you see how un-fluid the paint has become – it isn’t stuff you could make long strokes with even if you wanted to.

The dabbed paint in the oils contrasts with sensitively drawn outlines in crayon or charcoal in the portrait drawings. But both are aspects of an aesthetic of frugality – of minimal means. If a moment comes when you get impatient with the pale light, the attic room, the girls always sitting in similar poses; if the individuality of the cats fails to impress you; if it all seems thin and lacking in scope, you know that your feelings are not in step with what sustained Gwen John in her work. She wasn’t doing it for you, she was doing it for herself.

[*] Gwen John and Augustus John by David Fraser Jenkins and Chris Stephens (Tate, 224 pp., £29.99, September, 1 85437 543 1).