The independent artist who did it her own way
One of the earliest memories William Pryor has of his grandmother, artist Gwen Raverat, is of her sitting in her wheelchair in the meadow opposite her house in Cambridge, painting, oblivious to the cows gathered around her.
By then Raverat had suffered a stroke and had had to give up her preferred medium – wood engraving. Fiercely independent she refused to retire and concentrated on what she could do – painting and writing. Her memoir of a Cambridge childhood, Period Piece, was a runaway bestseller in the fifties and sixties and is still in print. In 1909, aged 24, she made her first limited-edition prints from blocks of box wood she had engraved.
She went on to establish a significant reputation in this specialist medium, for stand-alone prints and book illustrations – her best, most lyrical work dates from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
She was one of the founding members of the Society of Wood Engravers and was instrumental in the 20th century revival of the medium.
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Now for the first time her work will go on show in Gloucestershire with an exhibition of her wood engravings being staged in October at the Winds of Change Gallery in Winchcombe.
Not only was she a grand-daughter of Charles Darwin and thus related to the Wedgwoods, Ralph Vaughan Williams the composer and Frances Cornford the poet, Gwen was also close to Virginia Woolf the writer and Rupert Brooke the poet.
Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury group and Rupert Brooke's Neo-Pagans were all her friends. "This milieu gave her a distinctly bohemian outlook on life," says William. "She was amazingly honest and always told it how it was, though it could get her into trouble sometimes."
Born in Cambridge in 1885, she grew up surrounded by intellectuals; her father George Darwin, was Professor of Astronomy and a college don.
She writes about drawing from the age of nine and was one of the first women to study at the Slade School of Art in 1908 at the same time as such artists as Eric Gill, Noel Rooke and Stanley Spencer.
In Period Piece she talks about her love of drawing and one unfortunate incident which led to her only spanking.
"I had been put to rest after lunch on my mother's bed. I found on the dressing-table a stick of red lip-salve," she wrote. "The white wallpaper was neatly framed by the bed-curtains; so I began a fine, bold wall painting, in enormous swoops and circles. It was like frescoing the walls of Heaven. But I was interrupted and my father was told to spank me with a slipper. It didn't hurt and I did not mind a bit."
In 1911 Gwen married Jacques Raverat, a Frenchman who had come to Cambridge to read mathematics but who ended up studying at the Slade. Just a few years later Jacques was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
They had two daughters, Elisabeth and William's mother, Sophie. In 1920, at the recommendation of doctors, they moved to Vence, near Nice where they stayed until Jacques' death in 1925. "Gwen had to fit in her wood-engraving with bringing up two small children and nursing a dying husband. Her letters acknowledge how difficult this was but typical of Gwen she said she simply had to keep going."
She returned to England as a young widow, living in Bloomsbury for the next three years. During that time she would design the sets and costumes for a new Vaughan Williams ballet, Job, a Masque for Dancing, and become a greatly sought-after illustrator.
In 1928 she settled into what would become her longest-lasting home, back in the Cambridge countryside, in Harlton.
The Old Rectory was an early Victorian house with a large romantic garden.
The hub of the house was Gwen's studio, simply a corner of the enormous drawing room.
"With the constant social whirl going on around her Gwen would be working in her corner, cutting her woodblocks," explains William. "She would use a kerosene lamp shining through a large glass sphere to light her work. It was like performing magic."
She drew much of her inspiration from the countryside.
Her work, because of her subjects, could have become sentimental but instead they are sharp and modern illustrations that reveal the love with which they were created.
In Period Piece she talks about learning to draw and to understand that an artist interprets what they see. "Nobody had ever told me that drawing is not copying and I should probably not have understood if they had, but it took me a long time to find it out for myself."
While working as an illustrator, Gwen also wrote for the feminist weekly magazine Time and Tide. She would carry on producing wood engravings until her stroke in 1951.
"She was very dogged and was determined to keep going. So she turned to painting and was encouraged by Walter de la Mare to write about her life," says William.
Period Piece has never been out of print since it was published in 1952. After Gwen's death in 1957 her work was exhibited in a small gallery in Cambridge until 2010.
On the death of his mother Sophie in 2011, William set up Raverat Ltd with his siblings to promote and protect the Raverat Archive.
Following an exhibition at the Gloucestershire gallery Winds of Change, Raverat Ltd is preparing for a major show next year at Vence. "For Gwen it will be like a homecoming and we are thrilled about it," says William.
It is only fitting that the last word goes to the artist herself as she described the trauma of youth and the joys of old age in Period Piece.
"When I look back on those years when I was neither fish nor flesh, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two, I remember them as an uncomfortable time, and sometimes a very unhappy one. Now that I have certainly attained the status of Good Red Herring I may at last be allowed to say: 'Oh dear Oh dear, how horrid it was being young, and how nice it is being old and not having to mind what people think'."
Engraving with Light – Gwen Raverat Wood-Engraving, at the Winds of Change Gallery, High Street, Winchcombe, from October 5-26. www.windsofchangegallery.co.uk or telephone 01242 603836.