Rangoli: Art that Binds

Following the success of the 2017 Rangoli: Art that Binds project, as part the India/ Wales season of events with the more >

Oriel Davies Gallery
The Park, Newtown
Powys SY16 2NZ
Telephone: +44 (0) 1686 625041
Fax: +44 (0) 1686 623633
Email: desk@orieldavies.org

 

Monday-Friday 10am-5pm
Saturday 10am-5pm


 

 

Essays

A taste for modernity: the Davies sisters as art collectors

Exhibition: Becoming Modern
Date: February 2008
Writer: Bryony Dawkes
Publication: Becoming Modern
Publisher: Oriel Davies Publications

If collecting works of art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was to be the tangible proof not only of one’s economic, but all-important (albeit hastily acquired) cultural capital then Gwendoline (1882 – 1951) and Margaret Davies (1884–1963), the wealthy granddaughters of industrialist David Davies of Llandinam, were initially followers of such a trend. However, the unique factors of their habitus – their aesthetic disposition, religion, belief in effectual will and sense of social responsibility - enabled them to move beyond this and amass a progressive collection which is both historically important and the embodiment of a highly personal weltanschauung. With reference to Chris Townsend’s essay, it could be argued that the sisters themselves, within their various fields of operation, occupied ‘the space between’ – they were both sophisticated and naïve, restricted and free, and crucially, modern and not modern, a mass of undecidables which inextricably informed their decisions as collectors. It is significant, particularly within the context of this exhibition, that their maturity as collectors occurred during the watershed period in the years directly preceding the First World War when the sisters – if outwardly more by chance than design – and indeed the wider world, became ‘modern.’

The formulation of their taste(s) is one that has been the subject of much discussion. Their early art history training was unremarkable and typical of monied young ladies of the period – their schooling focused on cultural pursuits and they undertook several educational trips abroad. Unusually though, Margaret attended a series of art history lectures in Dresden in 1907 from which her notes survive, yet these betray an as yet undeveloped critical faculty - (“Adriaen Brower – a genius but takes always coarse types”). Educated as they were within such a culturally constructed framework of taste and value, there is no doubt that they were guided initially in what to look at and why it was ‘good’, bringing to mind E. M. Forster’s 1908 description, in A Room with a View, of Lucy Honeychurch abandoned in Santa Croce, without Baedeker:

“Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were?”

Yet in the decade that followed, through a rigorous process of self education, judicious advice, occasional subordination of their own preferences and calculated risk, they displayed a marked independence from received aesthetic judgement, which, had their personal circumstances been different, might not have occurred – and in doing so managed to amass one of the earliest and most extensive collections of late nineteenth and early twentieth century French art in Britain. In 1925 Gwendoline wrote that “the great love of collecting is to do it yourself – with expert opinion, granted, but one does like to choose for oneself.”

In the year 1907, when Gwendoline came into her inheritance (followed by Margaret in 1909), the sisters were said to be the wealthiest unmarried women in Britain. In the early years of their collecting (1908-1911) they focused on small but fashionable domestic works, in particular an outstanding collection of mid-nineteenth century French Barbizon paintings and a fine, if rather expensive, group of late seascapes by J. M .W. Turner. Although their writing suggests a preference for old masters, it is particularly notable that, aside from a few examples, the sisters did not spend time trying to acquire the type of dubious pieces that now characterise the basements of museums everywhere, bequeathed by vain yet well-meaning dilettantes – in fact old masters of the highest quality were prohibitively expensive, even for the sisters, as American ‘squillionaires’ (as the Boston collector Isabella Stewart Gardner despairingly described them) such as Henry Frick and J. Pierpont Morgan dominated the marketplace, and the sisters’ collection of old master works certainly backs this up. Similarly, the trend for Impressionism in America was already established, and had they had waited any longer to begin acquiring examples, they would almost certainly have lost out – as their erstwhile adviser Hugh Blaker wrote to them in 1912 “…delighted that you are thinking of getting some examples of the Impressionists of 1870. Very few English collectors, except Hugh Lane have bought them at all, although much of their best work is in America already.”

The years up until 1911 saw the sisters collecting for pleasure and finding their feet, but by 1912 both were buying with the view to the formulation of a collection which might benefit a greater number of people. Both sisters made their first Impressionist purchase in 1912 – aside from receiving professional advice from Hugh Blaker, other reasons for this are not clear, but there is no doubt that their 1909 Italian trip had a gestationary effect on this choice. Perhaps it could even be argued that it was their love for Venice that provided a ‘way in’ to a style of art that Margaret in 1909 had described as “too impressionist to suit me.” Gwendoline bought two images by Monet of San Giorgio Maggiore (pp. 54-55), and it cannot be entirely coincidental that Margaret’s first Impressionist purchase was also a Monet, of the Grand Canal (which she later sold to facilitate other purchases) – she had written in her diary of 1909 how the “water quite calm seems to be made up of several different colours. Here it is blue, then again green, further on it seems a shade of mauve and all around glistens patches of sunlight in silver streaks…”, observations which chime perfectly with Monet’s own representation. Each of these works was purchased at round about £1000 – small change considering the sums they were paying for Raeburn, Corot and Turner a year earlier (in excess of £6,000 a piece). In total they purchased seven oils depicting Venice – four Monets, a Whistler and a Boudin between 1912 and 1913, and a Sickert (purchased by Margaret in 1935).

Although they were on a steep learning curve, letters show the sisters were shrewd purchasers. Art collecting was certainly viewed by them as somewhat self indulgent - both remained acutely aware of the responsibility of their inheritance, and they were not prepared to pay over the odds. On the whole they bought within their means, sometimes returning works to dealers as part payment for others, and Margaret, in later life selling works she felt to be duplicates to facilitate the purchase of more representative pieces. And while their relative isolation in rural Wales might be described as a hindrance in terms of social and indeed cultural capital, a certain freedom from the rigours of fashionable taste must have encouraged their independence of judgement. Although their conduct was monitored, well into adult life, by the formidable triumvirate of stepmother, governess and belief, their money was their own and, as neither married, remained their own. It is notable that other significant women collectors of the twentieth century, including the Cone sisters, did not marry. The rather unhelpfully loaded tag of ‘teetotal spinster sisters’ has always followed Gwendoline and Margaret around, yet whether they welcomed it or not, unmarried life enabled them to fully pursue the type of cultural and philanthropic activity that marriage and family would have certainly curtailed. Their feelings of social responsibility led them to loan a large proportion of works to public galleries and exhibitions over this period, in particular to the Loan Exhibition of Paintings at the City Hall in Cardiff in 1913, the first time Impressionist painting had been seen in Wales.

One of the most notable aspects of the resulting collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist works, which includes in its number Manet’s first acknowledged Impressionist scene (Effect of Snow at Petit Montrouge), one of Cézanne’s most significant Provençal views (The François Zola Dam, formerly Midday, L’Estaque) and one of Van Gogh’s last works before his suicide (Rain – Auvers), is that it is almost entirely composed of landscapes, seascapes, a small selection of town/cityscapes and some isolated figure-based works. While the central dilemma of this exhibition is modernity, it is interesting to consider what the sisters did not collect. For such an extensive gathering of Impressionism in which no major artist is left unrepresented, there are no classic depictions of modern Parisian life – no bars, no streets, no opera or ballet, no images of dissoluteness, flânerie or alienation. Even their famous Renoir, La Parisienne, which can be argued the most ‘modern’ of all the works, is removed from narrative context. The Degas (p. 53) is interesting in that its signifiers of degeneracy would have been clear as day to a fashionable late nineteenth century audience, yet were meaningless to Gwendoline in 1923 - and, as a sculpture, the piece is able to exist outside of its original milieu. The Morisot, At Bougival (p. 56), on the other hand, with its tender depiction of a nanny and her charge (the painter’s daughter, Julie) is a good example of the intimate and timeless scene that characterises the figure-based work of this type they acquired.

This is, however, not a criticism but an attempt to articulate the extent to which, though clearly taking advice, they were working within a very specific and personal set of criteria. Their more salubrious choice of subject matters could be attributed to their religious beliefs (which forbade drinking and dancing, for example), but the reason was perhaps broader than this. For Gwendoline in particular, the central purpose of art was not to confront but to inspire – highly subjective and rather old fashioned, particularly in the cultural climate of the 1910s (the moral possibilities of art being much more in line with nineteenth century thought). A programme foreword produced by Gwendoline in 1935, on the occasion of the Third Gregynog Festival of Music and Poetry, characteristically articulates her feelings as she observes how, with:

“…the unparalleled advance of science, distance has been annihilated and the boundaries of the world shrunken to insignificance, each fresh invention, every daring exploit of man only seems to bring more awful possibilities of destruction in its train, and intensifies the pall of suspicion and dread which darkens the whole world.”

Her text, redolent with dread rejects the very tenets of what was ‘modern’, and ends with a plea to “fill the world with beauty once again.” Yet of course modernity and beauty are not mutually exclusive, which the sisters’ collection illustrates and which is exemplified in the two Venetian Monets, which have the abstract quality characteristic of his late painting. These were an early example of the sisters buying contemporary art - though dated 1908 were unlikely to have been finished until 1911, just a year before their purchase. In these, Gwendoline inadvertently chose a scene of greater modernity than she perhaps realised. It has been suggested that the dramatic sunsets over the lagoon – Venice at its most picturesque – were in fact the by product of pollution from the rise in industry in the nearby Mestre area. The two Cézanne purchases, The François Zola Dam and Provençal Landscape (p.52) both in terms of painting and circumstance, serve as a classic example of how not only the sisters, but the world itself, for better or worse, had become ‘modern’. While working at a canteen for soldiers on their way to the front at Verdun, Gwendoline took full advantage of the freedoms granted women during the First World War through numerous solo visits to Paris where she purchased works by Daumier, Carrière, Manet and Renoir, and crucially secured the two Cézannes in 1918, a canny part exchange for a recently purchased Puvis de Chavannes. In preparation for this purchase, Margaret appears to have translated Ambroise Vollard’s Life of Cézanne into English - a published translation did not appear until 1924. They were among the earliest collectors of Cézanne in Britain, and understanding his work certainly took them forward to more contemporary painters including Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain. And if the benchmark for modernity in Britain was 1910 and Roger Fry’s Manet and the Post Impressionists at the Grafton Gallery, then the sisters owned a piece of it - Gwendoline purchased Van Gogh’s Rain – Auvers (1890), which had been shown at the exhibition, in 1920, for just over £2000.

The sisters’ most progressive period of purchasing came to an end in 1924, when they turned their attention to social causes and the establishment of Gregynog Hall, and after 1926, Gwendoline ceased collecting entirely. Although Margaret continued sporadically from 1934, she gathered pace following Gwendoline’s death in 1951, acquiring pieces this time with advice from the National Museum of Wales. During this period she acquired mainly twentieth century British works (retrospectively purchasing works from the period between 1908 and 1920), but an isolated late purchase of a Bonnard (Sunlight at Vernon) in 1960, just a few years before her death, sees a return to previous concerns, its subject – the painter’s garden at Vernonnet – slotting seamlessly into the Impressionist and Post Impressionist collection of the early years. The aim of this essay has been to suggest that perhaps the sisters became modern (with a small m) not in spite of their unusual circumstances, but because of them. Their progressiveness came not only from what they collected, but also why, when and how they acquired it and displayed it, on their own terms, by and large avoiding the pitfalls of fashion, vanity or punditry. To use the Italian trip of 1909 as reference point, theirs was not the aggressively avant-garde Venice of Marinetti and his clock-tower demonstration in St Mark’s Square of 1910 (only a year after their trip) but the more established modernity of Monet, Whistler and even Turner - yet for the thousands of people in Wales and England whose first brush with recent French art was through their collection, the Davies sisters’ modernity was a revelation.

Selected published sources for information on the Davies sisters:
Fairclough, O. ed, Things of Beauty (Cardiff 2007); Gere, C. & Vaizey, M., Great Women Collectors (London 1999); Rowan, E. & Stewart, C., An elusive tradition: art and society in Wales 1870 – 1950 (UWP 2002); Sumner, A., Colour and Light (Cardiff 2005); Ingamells, J., The Davies Collection of French Art (Cardiff 1967)