Renoir, “La Parisienne” and the Davies Sisters of Gregynog

Whenever Cardiff’s National Museum provides a news story, television’s treatment never varies. An external shot of the noble Cathays building is followed by a quick interior shot. Even with a medium shot Renoir’s “La Parisienne” is instantly recognisable. Renoir’s picture is the one that school parties gather around. “La Parisienne” is the Museum’s best-selling postcard.

Renoir painted day in day out according to July’s television documentary on the rapidly executed “Bassin d’Argenteuil” in Pembrokeshire’s Picton Castle. The greatest collection of Renoirs in one place is to be seen in the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. But even its one hundred and fifty pictures or so is a fraction of the legacy of the artist’s four thousand works. The work is not always of the same standard but “La Parisienne” was picked out by critics immediately at its first exhibition in 1874. The model, Marie-Henriette-Alphonsine Grossin, was just sixteen. A critic at the exhibition revelled in the “daringly coquettish” tilt of her hat, “the little black mouse” of the shoe and overall the “heavenly blue” of the dress.

Photographed By Robin Maggs – National Museum Wales

The Gwendoline and Margaret Davies Charity has produced in A Gift of Sunlight – handsomely produced by Gomer – a book to tell the story of the unique bequest that is the foundation stone of the national collection. The charity’s chosen author Trevor Fishlock does justice to his mix of turbulent history and boldness of aesthetic judgement- driven by a belief in the ennobling quality of beauty – of great wealth joined to modesty of living and personal humility. That blue of the dress, comments Fishlock in his attention to the fine grain of the detail of history, owed much to the astonishing leaps in the chemistry of the time. Fishlock tells of the eighteen-year old prodigy William Perkin in his reeking workshop in London’s East End. His experiments with coal were intended to find artificial quinine to combat the malaria that was endemic all over the Empire. Instead he discovered a brilliant dye that did not fade, the source of his subsequent vast fortune.

“La Parisienne” at that first exhibition may have delighted the critics but it did not translate into a buyer.  Later in the year another painter, Henri Rouart, bought it for his own substantial private collection. By 1891, on a visit to Rouart’s home, art historian Armand Dayot was declaring it “one of the artist’s major works…time can only improve the exquisite quality…this superb portrait.” By the time it emerged for sale in London in1913, and found its last buyer in Gwendoline Davies, its price had jumped from its first fifteen hundred francs to five thousand pounds.

A Gift of Sunlight ends with eleven pages that list the collection. The first purchase, in 1906, was “An Algerian” by Hercules Brabazon at a cost of ten pounds and ten shillings. Three hundred and seventy plus works later the last auction house is Sotheby’s on 4th May 1960, the purchase “A Study of a Girl’s Head” by Whistler for six hundred pounds.

Fishlock’s narrative follows the growth in the sisters’ artistic discrimination. The first artists were conventional – Turner, David Cox and Carl Seiler. He mentions the sisters’ enabling means, the scale of the inheritance was colossal. In 1907 at age twenty-five that of Gwendoline was over five hundred thousand pounds with an investment income of forty thousand. Margaret had a similar two years later on her same birthday. Art was at once the beneficiary, their expenditure in 1908 being £19,543.

The first impressionists were bought in October 1912. A Monet of Venice was then between one thousand and sixteen hundred pounds. The book adds an illustration of a woodcut of some sweetness of Venice, executed by Margaret and hand-coloured. An exhibition in Cardiff in February 1913 comprised thirty-eight Davies pictures and had the Western Mail enthusing over the donors who remained anonymous. It attracted visitor numbers of twenty-six thousand.

In 1920, among four Cėzannes, “Still Life with Teapot” cost two thousand pounds, although El Greco was a different matter, six thousand pounds for “the Disrobing of Christ”, later deemed to be a studio product. James Dickson Innes’ gorgeous “Collioure” was to be had in 1952 for thirty-one pounds and ten shillings. Late purchases for the collection included Terry Frost, Ivon Hitchens, Spencer Gore and Oscar Kokoshka.

Still Life with Teapot, Paul Cezanne (DA000191) © Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales

The lives in art are lived alongside the biographies. There is the art of the sisters themselves. One set of pages has a woodcut by Margaret that shows Llanidloes’ sixteenth century market hall next to a scene from Llandinam, the distinctive tower of St Llonio’s overlooking the cottages. The opposite page has Gwendoline playing the violin. An illness reduced the suppleness in her fingers and obliged her to abandon the violin in favour of the organ-practice took place in the Llandinam chapel six nights a week.

The enduring musical legacy is Gregynog Festival but the family legacy is indelible on the shape of Wales, not just the making of Barry as a port but in the lineaments of the railway network. The handsome building that served for a century as Ceredigion’s Reference Library now seeks a new use. But the endowed black and white hall in Llandinam flourishes and has been home to performance by Wales’ National Theatre.

Fishlock goes back to the beginnings and the career of the top sawyer. David Davies was baptised 20 November 1818 but has a date of birth that is unknown. Schooling was meagre and the demands of faith austere and unyielding. At the age of twenty-seven his signature was made with a cross. His first engineering accomplishment was in the exploding railway industry with over one hundred and forty miles of track. Fishlock does not over-exaggerate the sheer will in the creating of the link from Montgomeryshire to the coast. The cutting through Talerddig Hill is still a place of wild views for the rail traveller of today. In its time it was the largest cutting in the world until the canal at Corinth was constructed.  The Ocean Coal Company of Davies’ creation employed ten thousand. It was the first company to provide pithead baths for its miners.

The Severn Valley that flows through the now county of Powys is a place of tranquillity. Fishlock’s narrative is threaded with connections to the turbulence of the last centuries. He recalls the Chartist battles in Llanidloes, the dismal state of education, the scourge of tuberculosis. Renoir’s art may be all light and colour but the artist served in the cavalry in the Franco-Prussian war, being discharged with severe dysentery.

The Davies sisters themselves were in wartime London to welcome refugees from Belgium and help them find homes in Wales. A cousin was killed at Gallipoli, another in the fighting in Palestine. The later Lord Davies accompanied Harold McMillan for two weeks to Finland. They met politicians and soldiers in support of Finland against its invasion by Russia.

The Davies dynasty represented new money not old, was liberal not Tory, Welsh chapel not Anglican. It was a culture that frowned on dancing but permitted itself frivolity in the shape of lawn tennis – invented, adds Fishlock, at a North Wales country house. But the sisters were travellers, proficient in French and familiar with a Europe from France to Greece. Developing her own artistic judgement Gwendoline declared of books on art:  “Often they have no literary value and very little artistic, beyond being a collection of minute information which it would take years to wade through and (one) would not be much wiser at the end.”

Fishlock touches on the music. Walford Davies took up the Professorship of music at Aberystwyth that was endowed by the sisters. He also became director of the new Council of Music for Wales, the salary, adds Fishlock, a nice ten thousand a year.  At the first meeting of the Music Council in 1919 the Walford Davies’ credo was cited. “If you were to say to a plain man, art is all that man does well for love, he would perhaps be startled. But art is all that introduces orderliness into life.”

Trevor Fishlock is a writer with an eye to a vividness of detail. His summary of other art collectors of the time include Sir William Burrell and Hugh Lane. He cites a contemporary on the advantage that women collectors enjoy. “Ladies, having more leisure, enter with completely intelligent zeal into the pursuit.” The political giant Tom Jones is depicted as an irredeemable scruff. The head of the civil service is so appalled by the shabbiness of a Jones hat that he seizes the offending headwear and throws it into the sea from the deck of the liner Mauretania.

At Gregynog photographs show Jones with Bernard Shaw and Lascelles Abercrombie. Fishlock deftly records the ownership and the particularity of its architecture “a masterpiece of disguise.” He celebrates the garden of “towering Wellingtonia, oak and red cedar, cypress and purple sycamore, Norway spruce, pine and poplar, monkey puzzle and Japanese larch.”

The lives of the Davies sisters end as they were conducted. Two names feature on small stones in Llandinam churchyard. A curator, opening an exhibition in Paris in 1980,described the collection simply as “a consequence of acts of love.”