'Feminine' Anatomies of Taste and Cultures of Collecting in Early Twentieth Century Britain: Gwendoline and Margaret Davies as Women Art Patrons
Stephenson, Andrew, Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art
While the literature on art patronage in the first half of the Twentieth century in Britain has focused primarily on wealthy male collectors and their public acts of benevolence, the activities of two Welsh sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies have been largely overlooked and until recently, relatively undervalued. (1) Not invited onto the male-dominated trustee committees of the nation's public galleries nor active as executive members of the major art patronage groups, these Welsh co-collectors remained highly independent in their patronage operations and frequently eschewed publicity by lending their work anonymously as 'friends of the arts', thereby shielding their privacy and their female identities. (2) Bearing in mind that art collecting in Western culture is often and unquestionably theorized as a metropolitan 'masculine' activity demonstrating a singular celebrated and innovative male taste formation and superior aesthetic judgment at work, the Davies sisters pose a fascinating challenge to such cultural, sexual, and behavioral stereotyping. (3) While inheriting enormous wealth from their grandfather, David Davies (a self-made multi-millionaire rich from coal, railways, and shipping investments), they also inherited his Calvinist Methodism, his teetotalism and his liberal politics demonstrated through a fervent commitment to cultural philanthropy and to social welfare. (4) Furthermore, as active supporters of Welsh nationalism and the Welsh language (although themselves English-speaking Welshwomen), their taste-formation disturbs any convenient bourgeois classification. (5) It refuses any correlation between marginality and provincialism and challenges any simple categorizations of nationalism and cosmopolitanism thereby yielding revealing insights into the complex significations of art patronage.
As single women with distinctive educational backgrounds and different artistic expertise, the Davies sister's two collections were frequently collapsed together and discussed by art writers as if it evidenced the singular taste of one 'feminine' patron of the arts. If, as often is the case, art collections are approached as offering up the signs and signifiers of a self-conscious individualism in operation--the display of a distinctive identity projected onto the objects of collection--then the Davies collection as a product of dual selection deceives and refuses any expectation of homogeneity. (6) Although both women were educated privately, their cultural formations were different. Margaret studied art at the Slade School of Art in London and then attended drawing classes in Paris where she was exposed to modern French art. Gwen specialized in music and played the violin, studying music in Leipzig and becoming a convinced Germanist in musical taste promoting Bach and Beethoven in festivals alongside an appreciation of Wesley. (7) While the Davies sisters co-owned a London flat at 3 Buckingham Gate near St. James' Park, both women traveled regularly and independently, notably to Paris and to the South of France. Formed within the dynamic cultural frameworks and changing parameters of Edwardian femininity, the sisters seem in many respects to embody and epitomize an expansive cosmopolitanism associated with a growing sense of female confidence in an age of urban mobility amongst British upper middle class women. (8)
Insofar as they shared a collective endeavor as art patrons, the Davies sisters were committed to an intellectual project formed by and in response to the residues of the moral and ethical ideals of William Morris' earlier Arts and Crafts movement. Both sisters subscribed to a belief in the seriousness of art (incorporating painting and music) and the sincerity of its aesthetic affects: a view that equated artistic integrity and aesthetic vitality with social and moral regeneration. In part, this reaction was inherited from their father's socially responsible political convictions, yet it was an outlook modernized and reformulated according to their own generational concerns and experiences as women in which aesthetics and ethics were imbued with religious zeal. …