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.’

The man with the portfolio was interested in selling its contents for the benefit of the Maritain Study Centre and he was advised to sell a few at a time through Sotheby’s. The results far exceeded expectations. For instance, a small gouache of the back view of a girl in church, in the first batch (a late work, one of a series of girls in church always seen from the back because Gwen had become too shy to ask anyone to pose), for which £120 was expected, fetched £2000 – and prices were even higher before the majority of the works were dispersed.

The penultimate chapter of the biography is headed ‘Véra 1928-32’, but by the end of 1926 Gwen was living in the same street as Véra and the Maritains, in Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, and was no doubt beginning to keep Véra under observation, since they both regularly attended early morning mass at the local church. It probably took Véra longer to notice Gwen, who instinctively kept at the back. It was on these early morning walks to the church that Gwen fell in love with Véra. Gwen knew Meudon well. She had first gone there many years before, to gaze longingly and bitterly through the fence of the Villa de Brillats where Rodin lived. She had ceased to be his mistress and was forbidden to call on him, but she made herself a hide-out in the bushes outside and sometimes slept there at night, as naked as a wood nymph.

She was 50 in 1926, and by way of a celebration Augustus persuaded her to hold her first one-man show. It was held at the Chenil Galleries and was successful enough to provide her a useful sum for her return to France. The John family wanted her to stay in England and she was happy in the cottage they had found her, but she had other plans for her five cats, which were being looked after by a neighbour in Meudon, who was expecting her to reclaim them without delay. As soon as she was back she bought half an acre of wasteland, and after building a high wall all round it, went to live in the shed that was already there. The wall was built partly to keep visitors away and partly to give her cats space to roam in without getting lost. If one of her cats strayed it was a traumatic experience for Gwen. The search would last for months. The cats were well fed and Gwen’s chief reason for venturing out of her patch of ground, apart from attending mass, was to buy food for them. As for herself, she was continuing to be the economical eater that had made her so dramatically thin she became useless to Rodin as a model and caused him to be deeply concerned for her health. Now she was taking it to extreme lengths, approaching starvation, and in the atmosphere of spirituality created by the Maritains was using it as a religious tool. She was hellbent, so to speak, for sainthood.

She had been converted to Catholicism by Rodin. For two years or more, his passion for her was as fierce as her passion for him, and she even complained that he was taking her so often that she was sore between the legs, but hurriedly assured him that she wouldn’t have things different. But there was well over thirty years’ difference between them and in his late sixties the sculptor was suffering from too much love-making. He tried to divert some of her passion to God, God the Father, bearded like himself. She acquired the habit of going out in all weathers to mass, and although at first it was only to please Rodin, she never lost the habit. One day when following Véra Oumançoff to mass she found an excuse for speaking to her. She said that the curé had told her that it was a sin to draw during mass and did Véra think so? Véra thought not and even considered that it could do no harm to take her sketchpad to other services such as Vespers and Benediction, so Gwen saw the church as a studio full of models facing the other way. For a time, Véra allowed her to call on her everyday, seeing her as lonely and destitute and in need of love. She also, acutely enough, saw her as a contemplative so lost in solitude ‘that she did not always know reality from fantasy.’

Gwen told Véra about Rodin and asked her to call her Mary, the name that Rodin had given her, perhaps because in spite of his knowledge of her he saw her as virginal. She started to write long letters to Véra, into which she poured the devotion Rodin had once inspired, but was careful not to go into raptures about her physical attributes. Ms Chitty says that Véra was plump and fair like a Russian peasant and wore her hair in plaits round her head. She must have contrasted very sharply with Gwen, who was described by Augustus as ‘this retiring person in black with tiny hands and feet, and soft, almost inaudible voice’. Ms Chitty thinks that Gwen’s love for Véra was purely spiritual. I think, on the contrary, that she had a desperate need of physical contact with ‘plump, fair’ Véra. The idea would have horrified Véra, but I think Gwen yearned for what Melanie Klein called the ‘good’ breast: in other words, had a great longing to lean her head against Véra’s warm bosom. Instead, Véra’s compassion wore thin. She couldn’t stand the way Gwen sat and stared at her as if she was not listening. Gwen insisted that she only gave an impression of inattention, that she was attending to Véra’s presence. The Maritains stepped in and told Gwen that she could only call on Mondays, so Gwen took Véra a drawing every Monday in the hope that her love would be kept in mind until the next one. But Véra said: ‘Do you really have to write to me every day? I think not, and I even think it is injurious to your soul, for you are becoming too attached to a fellow creature whom you hardly know. You have strong feelings but they should be turned towards Our Lord and Our Lady.’ By the end of 1930 the Monday visits came to an end, but there were a few more meetings in church and even a few more drawings pressed into Véra’s unwilling hands. Véra promised that she would always pray for Gwen and Gwen retired to her shed, to live out her life in what almost amounted to solitary confinement.

Gwen was 28 when she met Rodin in 1904 in Paris. Rodin was 63 and at the height of his fame. She was introduced by Flodin, herself a sculptor, an assistant to Rodin and at one time his mistress. It was arranged that Gwen should go to the studio next day to show the great man her body in case he could use her as a model. Not that he could have been very hopeful. She was only a shadow of the fully-developed women he usually chose. But when she walked naked onto the modelling stand her figure gave Rodin the impression that it had been constricted by her clothes. He told her she had ‘un corps admirable’, and his praise made her immensely proud to be posing for him in the nude. He had a commission to execute a memorial to Whistler and decided to make the subject Whistler’s muse rather than the painter himself. Gwen was the model for it, which must have pleased her not only because her admirable body was to be immortalised but because it was to be associated with the memory of Whistler. On her first stay in Paris in 1898, a girlfriend paid for her to study two days a week for a few months under Whistler at a new school called Carmen’s. He perceived that she had a refined sense of tone and helped her to bring it to perfection.

Posing for the muse was the happiest time in Gwen’s life, and when work on the sculpture slowed down it was because they were preoccupied with love-making. The sculpture was exhibited without arms. It is now in the Musée Rodin and still without arms. Gwen was his model and mistress in the afternoon; she was his companion in the studio and then had to go to her rented room where the female cat called Tiger was waiting to spend the night in her arms. Before Tiger strayed one day, never to be seen again, she was Gwen’s most constant companion. There are 15 studies of Tiger among the drawings she gave to Rodin. In some of the long letters which Gwen wrote to Rodin in the evening and then again in the morning she refers to Flodin, the woman who introduced her to him. Ms Chitty has had access to the two thousand love letters housed in the Musée Rodin and tells us Flodin watched Gwen and Rodin making love and even joined in. A ‘playful relationship developed between Gwen and Flodin, and when Gwen was not required as a model by Rodin, she was booked by Flodin for herself.’ It was ‘as if,’ continues Ms Chitty, ‘the two girls derived some satisfaction from each other’s bodies in his absence.’ All Gwen’s portraits are of women, not one is of a man.

The shed in which she spent her last years was not weatherproof and a pile of her water-colours was reduced by rain to a washed-out mush. There were days when she could not dress properly or tidy the shed. She slept between damp sheets. She would start up suddenly to look for a lost cat, then remember that Véra had told her not to follow chimeras. Sometimes she would keep her eyes open all night for fear of missing morning mass. I wish her life could have concluded in a last great lesbian affair. Instead, the nymph became a hermit-saint.