Carole Burns explores painter Celia Paul’s new book, Letters to Gwen John, which sets out a series of imagined correspondence with Gwen John, the artist who inspired her.
The contemporary painter Celia Paul keeps a reproduction of Gwen John’s painting “The Convalescent” in her studio in Bloomsbury.
“The whole composition is a symphony in grey,” Celia writes. “She must have mixed the colours on her palette first – Payne’s Grey, Prussian Blue, Naples Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Brown Ochre, Rose Madder, Flake White – then all the other colours would be dipped in this combination so that every form is united in grey: the dark blue of the girls’ dress, the thrush-egg blue of the cushion behind her back and the tablecloth, the rose pink of the cup and saucer echoing the delicate pink of her fingernails and lips, the teapot like a shiny chestnut. …the structure of the composition holds everything in place; this delicate painting will endure.”
Passages like these are the simplest, the most exquisite, and the most exciting moments of Celia Paul’s complicated book, Letters to Gwen John: one artist looking at, analysing, and imbibing work by another artist. More than the sometimes overly intellectual art criticism in journals, or the sometimes dumbed down exhibit labels that museums provide, artists talking about another’s work is often surprisingly plain, direct. They help me see.
That both artists are women – and that they are these two women in particular – begins to touch on the more complicated nature of this book: part memoir, part biography, part artist appreciation, part diary. As she draws parallels between her life and Gwen’s, Celia Paul turns these “letters” into an exploration of being a woman artist; of balancing art and life as a woman. As she examines the sexual relationships each woman had with a more famous male artist – Celia Paul with Lucian Freud, Gwen John with Auguste Rodin – the book takes its place alongside the Me, Too movement, examining the dynamics of power, passion and privilege wrapped up in each of these relationships.
(For example: How difficult it was not to name these more famous men/artists sooner. And while it’s just a coincidence, how strange that I needed to decide, in writing this piece, to use these women artists first names or full names; otherwise, I’d be referring to them as “Paul” and “John.”)
Early on in Letters, Celia Paul asks: Why do her and Gwen’s biographies always end up asserting that they are each “a painter in her own right” as if they are “still bound to our overshadowed lives, like freed slaves.”
“What is it about us that keeps us tethered?” she asks Gwen. “Both of our talents are entirely separate from the men we have been attached to – we are neither of us derivative in any way. Do you think that, without fully understanding why, we are both of us culpable?”
The book is also a complicated answer to this complicated question.
Some might call the question disingenuous. A part of me, at first, still do sometimes feel that Celia Paul has a role in this relationship, however unequal it was. And it was wildly unequal. She was an 18-year-old student at the Slade School of Art when they met; he was a tutor, 55. Yet, more so than with Gwen and Rodin, it would be hard to argue that Celia Paul did not in some manner benefit from her relationship with Lucian Freud, even in just practical ways. The Bloomsbury studio across from the British museum, where she keeps Gwen’s image, for instance, was famously purchased for her by Freud when she was just 22.
But as Celia Paul continues her explorations of these women’s lives as both artists and lovers, she changes my mind. It’s not the obvious power differential that shifts my point of view (though of course, that’s at play for me, too) but Celia’s insistent questioning about how a woman, or anyone, persists in making art. Playing with D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, I can imagine this book being re-titled as I leaf through it, to Daughters and Lovers (Celia reflects on how both their mothers were especially important to her and Gwen), or Sisters and Lovers (Gwen’s brother is the painter Augustus John, for decades the better-known sibling) as well Artists and Lovers. And then, at some point, the title Letters to Gwen John becomes right. This is a book about two women – two artists – communicating across time, with one finding inspiration and solace.
I became familiar with Gwen John’s work almost immediately upon moving to the UK. Nearly twenty years ago, Gwen John was beginning to come out from under the shadow of not Rodin (whose artistic stature far outshines that of any of these artists) but her brother Augustus. I worried that meant she had been simply under-appreciated, a correction to a male-dominated world – and I wasn’t convinced she might actually be the better painter until having the chance to spend time in front of her paintings. They have a quiet power. The several currently on display at the National Museum of Wales are strong examples of the intensity of her muted colours, the subtly vivid light in her emptied interiors (not empty, but recently emptied), and the daring simplicity of the women’s faces she paints again and again. “Two rare blossoms from the most delicate of trees” is how Augustus himself once described two of her paintings, angry after they were ignored at an exhibition. “To me the little pictures are almost painfully charged with feeling, even as their neighbours are empty of it.” The flashier paintings by Augustus may suffer from this same comparison.
(Regard for Gwen’s work, by now, may have eclipsed her brother’s – in the last major retrospective of her work in 2005, when Tate Britain and the National Museum of Wales exhibited both work by both Johns, their names appeared in this order: “Gwen John and Augustus John.” Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales is now working with other major galleries to plan a retrospective of Gwen’s work only for 2026, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of her birth. And yet, the correction remains incomplete. I was horrified, in a recent quick Google search, to find that ArtUK, the charity founded to create a public catalogue of British art, mentions that she is the sister of Augustus in its first sentence of her bio, and that Gwen is not mentioned in Augustus’s bio at all.)
At the time, I also made the mistake we often make in considering an artist’s work: that it somehow reflects her life. I imagined Gwen John as an Emily Dickinson-type figure, living like the nuns she so often depicted. I wasn’t aware, then, of her affair with Rodin, which started when she first posed for him in 1904, and raged for ten years (she was 28 when they met; Rodin was 64). But I shouldn’t have missed the passion inside those paintings.
This passion is also an element of how and why my sympathy with Celia grows as I read and re-read Letters to Gwen John. Celia refers to the passionate aspect of her own love affair with Freud mainly obliquely (though she has written about their ten-year relationship, and their much longer association, at length in her 2019 memoir, Self-Portrait). Here, in what might be a kind of sleight of hand, she explores Gwen’s wild emotions around Rodin in detail, especially as Rodin began limiting his time with her: how Gwen wrote him more than a thousand letters, often pleading to see him; how, after missing a visit from Rodin when she’d gone out for a walk, she didn’t leave her room for weeks so she wouldn’t miss him again. It is estimated that Gwen stopped working for more than two years in the worst of her obsession with Rodin.
Why do women do this to themselves? But Rodin – like Freud, too – had the power: the famous artist decides when to visit. Celia mentions in passing that, after she’d ended their relationship, and when her son with Lucian was a teen-ager, Freud refused to give her his phone number, and forced her to arrange with his adult daughter times for his visits with their son. Celia suspected, earlier, that he wanted to buy her a studio so she could be in London to pose with him and sleep with him without staying in his flat. (They never married, and never lived together.) And are Gwen/Celia to blame if, as Gwen writes to Rodin: “I was a little solitaire – no one helped me or awoke me before I met you.” (p 118) Do men feel rescued by love? Awoken to their full selves by love? Because I identify with part of the feelings Gwen expresses here. Am I to blame for that?
Letters to Gwen John is a beautiful object: a hardback in a matte cover with a black and white photograph of Celia Paul’s studio framed in a desaturated-salmon that could be a color in one of Gwen John’s paintings. Its dimensions are a bit smaller than most books, and sits pleasingly in the hand even if it is also thicker, with ivory-dense pages that are a pleasure to turn and often feature gorgeous reproductions of paintings by the two women. How I wish Celia could have included a reproduction of every painting she refers to – I recommend reading the book as I did, with an IPad nearby so I could look up the works referred to but not included in the book.
The letters themselves begin on page 8, and Celia decides to end each letter in the way that Van Gogh ended his letters to his brother Theo: “with a handshake”. It feels like a very equal way of signing off.
Celia cleverly does not tie herself too closely to the idea in the book’s title, but instead interlaces her “letters” with bits of biography (her own and Gwen’s), as well as ideas about art, observations about art and women, meditations on art and isolation, and thoughts about their tendency to paint women and not men – all of this sometimes part of the letters, sometimes in between the letters. The structure is loose and allows for connections that might not otherwise be possible.
Her writing, for all she claims artists have difficulty with words, is sometimes exquisite: she can often translate her artist’s eye for colour and detail into language. This is especially true when she turns to landscape, including when she visits Pembrokeshire – Gwen’s homeland, and a landscape infused with her for that reason – after the pandemic in 2020, toward the end of Letters. “Mist still screens off the landscape. Certain forms stand out sharply: the nearest trees are coloured dark veridian and black, Payne’s Grey, umber; the dry-stone walls are beaded with dew… So much of this haloed light of the shrouding sea-mist of Pembrokeshire persisted in your work and influenced your seeing; your emotional portrayal of forms is remote and cocooned, certain shapes isolated and heightened; the whole composition unified by mist.”
And a page later: “It is nearly midday now and the landscape is beginning to reveal itself, like a person shaking off sleep.”
I will admit to times when Celia makes assertions about Gwen John that are, for me, too much of a leap. About Gwen’s mother’s death when Gwen was eight years old: “But Gwen had lost her first and purest love. She would never recover fully from the loss.” This feels like weak armchair psychology, not at all the type of insightfulness Celia displays elsewhere (although I found similar ideas expressed in art criticism about Gwen and Augustus, so I could have an author’s bias against making easy links between artists’ lives and work).
Very occasionally, her addresses to Gwen feel a bit twee or even self-serving; “Neither of us values worldly success over love,” she writes, and I’m not entirely convinced. And why should she feel the need to deny a desire for worldly success? Freud and Rodin wouldn’t.
But more often, Celia’s letters seem to me an expression of loneliness, even need. Is it required that an artist be this lonely? Celia asks Gwen, or us, or herself. How did Gwen manage her splendid isolation? Celia is defensive on her behalf about the choices Gwen made that, in some ways, also made her life more difficult. “Your self-imposed solitude was not,” she writes to Gwen, “a martyr’s instinct, as your brother often implied when he talked about your self-neglect, as he called it, but a sign of strength.”
These questions haunt me too; just the other day, I was talking to an artist friend who worries she gives up too much life (friends, family, cooking) for her art, while I worry I don’t give up enough – like I’m a kind of Clarissa Dalloway, buying the flowers myself for a party I shouldn’t be hosting. I don’t think it’s implausible to suspect that women feel this struggle over life/work family/work friends/work balance more often than men (despite, in my own life, notable exceptions).
Celia avoids defending her own decisions, but as she talks about the pain of leaving her infant son with her mother about a month after he was born, so she could both continue sitting for Freud and complete a painting of her own, it feels like she is also rebutting the questions that might arise in many people’s minds: she left behind her four-week-old baby? Women are expected to make different choices from men, and while Celia delineated the individual parallels between the two women’s lives – studying at the Slade; living somewhat isolated lives; having relationships with famous male artists; experiencing powerful connections with their mothers – this might be the strongest parallel between their lives: they have not made the decisions expected of women. Of the years her son was a teenager, she writes: “There was no way, in the world’s eyes, that I could be a good mother – and I wanted to be a good mother now – while at the same time being a painter wholly committed to her art.”
Occasionally, Celia’s letters seem so plaintive – “What is this longing about, my dearest? Did you ever find an answer?” – that I almost want to write her myself: to explore her ideas around women artists and art and isolation and men; to confide my own worries that I’ve let my own desire to write – no, my need to write – too often get pushed aside; but mainly, to offer her the consolation she asks for from the long-deceased Gwen John.
But this book is also the process of Celia finding an answer for herself. She ends Letters to Gwen John with Gwen’s own final letter, unsent, to her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt. It’s an exuberant list of Gwen’s favorite oil paints.
“Rouge Phénicien is the colour of what we call wild geranium. The stems are dark crimson, the emerald leaves seem dipped in pale crimson just now, the rest of the leaves are somewhat 4 Anglais. Earlier in the summer the leaves are emerald green all over…
Rose Erythrine…is a very beautiful and brilliant Rose…
Laque Géranium – fugace [fugitive]
A peu près the colour of the roses in tufts now in flower.
4 Anglais is the green on the tubs in bands by your hotel…
Ocre jaume demi brûlé is useful to me..
Cinabre vert is the green ball holding the snowdrop petals…
Vermilion franais is warmer than V[ermilion] ecarlate…Poppies.”
Art. Art is the purpose, and the answer.
This book is also, itself, an answer.
Toward the end, Celia writes about a Renaissance painting by the female artist Sofonisba Anguissola, a tricky double-portrait, in which she depicts her more famous teacher, Bernardino Campi, as he finishes her portrait — but of course the painting is her own self-portrait, that includes almost incidentally a portrait of her teacher. The woman looms from the darkness of the painting magnificent, numinous; the artist Campi smaller, in shadow. In making her own self-portrait the more prominent, more striking, Anguissola famously “subvert(s) the expected gender power-balance,” as Celia writes.
Celia tries, she admits, to do the same, when she paints Lucian Freud, long dead by then, from an old photograph alongside a self-portrait, but she ends up painting over his image. Her attempt is too narrative, she thinks. It becomes a self-portrait only, long shadows on either side of her, entitled “Overshadowed.”
A few pages later, she admits she could not let the idea behind that painting go, and tries again, finishing “Looking Back: Bella, Me, Lucian.” “This time Lucian is alive. I’ve captured him alive,” she writes.
I have to admit I prefer “Overshadowed,” though she hasn’t included it in the book. I have to look it up on my I-Pad to see Celia sitting, hands clasped like Gwen John, in a yellowy-grey that might appear in a painting by Gwen, Celia’s own shadow to her right, another, taller and thinner and leaning slightly over her. It’s a much more intriguing image than that of Bella, Celia and Lucian; and Lucian isn’t in it anymore.
I wonder if Letters to Gwen John – this double self-portrait of her and Gwen – is also the self-portrait that Celia was aiming for in those paintings. As the book progresses, the still more-famous male artists fade into the backdrop of Gwen and Celia’s stories. The women artists take center stage, and emerge with a vitality and complexity and imperfectness and ferociousness that I grow to admire. Determined, they both are, to work; to think; to be.
This book takes you and Gwen out from under any shadow.
With a handshake,
Carole Burns’s debut novel, The Same Country, will be published by the London-based Legend Press in Autumn 2023.