Dear John

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), September 24, 2004 | Go to article overview

Dear John


Byline: By HANNAH JONES Western Mail

Letters and notebooks written by artist Gwen John are to be published in full for the first time, giving a new insight into her complex personal life and work. The editor of the collection allows Hannah Jones a glimpse

SHE was, of course, primarily an artist. It was through her painting that Gwen John sought to bring her thoughts and vision to life.

Yet there remains evidence of another side to her - the side that showed the colours of a woman who was unmistakably a woman in love, in turmoil, in doubt and in a passionate embrace with her art.

Writing letters and filling her notebooks with ideas, sketches and curious notations suggesting colours in a code only decipherable by the artist herself, were also important to Gwen.

And she left behind a comprehensive personal archive of material, now housed at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

To coincide with an exhibition of work by Gwen and her brother Augustus John at Tate Britain, a selection of her letters and notebooks are to be published together in full for the first time.

Featuring unabridged letters and extracts from her notebooks - complete with original drawings, scribbled notes and rough sketches - the work casts new light on the artist's personal life and development of her ideas and technique.

In them, the Pembrokeshire-born painter reveals her distinctively feminine side. Although viewed as one of the most intense and self-confident figures in 20th century art, her words depict someone who is also a frustrated lover whose heart was sometimes 'turned to ice' by Rodin's treatment of her, a sister who felt at odds with the greater opportunities afforded her artistic brother, a congenial companion prone to the darkest of thoughts.

Edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, head of manuscripts at the National Library of Wales, Letters And Notebooks provides an invaluable insight into a complex character whose scribblings and notes point towards a detailed self-analysis of her own work.

Ceridwen, who admits to a lifelong fascination with Gwen, says that reading her words, many of which were intended for purely personal use, can be both a moving and uncomfortable experience.

'It is true that her disinclination to release her work into the public domain has been much commented on over the years, but this seems to derive as much from her perfectionism as from any shyness about exposing her work to others' scrutiny or from any doubts as to its quality,' she said.

'Her writing must be approached with caution because it just represents a kind of shorthand to her life. …

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