Happy Birthday, Gwen John!

Posted by Tenby Museum on Jun 22, 2018 Blog No Comments

Today marks the 142nd anniversary of the artist Gwen John’s birth. She was born Gwendoline Mary John in Haverfordwest, the second of four children to Edwin and Augusta John, with Thornton being the eldest, Augustus born in 1878 and Winifred a year later.  She and Augustus inherited their artistic talents from their mother, who encouraged the children to draw and paint. When she died in 1884, Edwin moved his young family to Tenby.

One painting in the museum collection, Landscape at Tenby with Figures, is a very early painting by Gwen, executed in around 1900. It portrays North Beach at Tenby, the harbour as a backdrop, with several figures including a mother with her children and a dog and a young man, possibly walking alone, possibly as part of the family, in quiet contemplation. A twilight is implied as the sun casts a golden light on the harbour as the shadows fall. In the foreground, the centre of the picture, walk two figures, a young lady in an elegant black coat and a younger girl who gazes up longingly at her companion. The older of the two is Gwen’s sister, Winifred, with whom Gwen had a specially close relationship and who often occurred as a model in Gwen’s work. The younger girl is probably a model – there were always children on the beach and both Gwen and Augustus chose models from among them to sketch. A relationship of closeness between the two figures is implied.

Whilst living in Tenby the only freedom that the children had was to be found in the outdoors. The house was overseen buy their father, a strict Victorian disciplinarian. Gwen left the town in 1896 to study at the Slade School of Art and although she never returned she always retained an affection for the coast.

Landscape at Tenby with Figures is not a typical Gwen John picture and is almost unique in her body of work. Traditionally her work is associated with the interiors of empty rooms, portraits, nuns, cats and still life. It would not be a picture instantly attributed to her. Apart from its early date the picture holds fascination in this marked difference to her more recognisable work. There are no other pictures known of her having painted the town of her childhood.   Later works show that Gwen was not so much inspired by the topographical landscape but by the landscape of the soul, trying to capture a tranquillity in her work that she may not have felt within herself.

The museum acquired the painting with the aid of a grant from the Museums and Galleries Commission administered by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

We are fortunate to have such a work in the collection and the town too is fortunate to have such close links with this immensely talented and internationally recognised artist.