The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

September 18, 2016

September 18, 1939

Gwen John and her brother Augustus were students at the Slade together. Michael Holroyd is concerned to appreciate their accomplishments as a family unit rather than a means of denigrating one or the other in some sibling comparison.

Holroyd writes of the brother:

His drawings were passed from hand to hand at the Slade. They were extraordinarily precocious, remarkable for the firm, fluent, lyrical line, for vigour and spontaneity. At the turn of the century Augustus John seemed to promise a new force in British art.

Though Gwen John did not stand out at the Slade, she was never underrated by her brother. Behind her serene pictures lay a struggle for composure that fascinated him. "I was born to love," she wrote. But she was pessimistic about human relationships and trained herself to direct the energy of loving into her work.

Some of Augustus's praise of his sister was a form of self-criticism. At first sight no two people could have looked more different. He was athletic; she seemed fragile. She dressed carefully, often in dark colours, and appeared socially ill-at-ease. But she had a core of self-esteem, whereas Augustus was always trying to outpace his uncertainties. He wanted to banish isolation from his world. His life before the first world war became a crowded story of two wives, Ida and Dorelia, many children and two cities, London and Paris. When he entered the Café Royal, young models (it was said) had to be carried out fainting; while in Chelsea he patted children's heads in case, he said, they were some of his.

Gwen John (June 22, 1876 to September 18, 1939) though, was reclusive. When the Tate purchased the painting below, she was recently dead, and her reputation had not yet soared.

"Cat" was painted sometime between 1904–8,  with graphite and watercolour on paper.

Per the Tate:
Gwen John adored her cats, and depicted them frequently. This one, a tortoiseshell named Edgar Quinet, appears in most of her cat drawings, sometimes with her kittens. The name was taken from the address where John lived in 1904 when she first had the cat, 19 boulevard Edgar Quinet in Paris. When Edgar Quinet ran away in 1908, John was devastated. In a letter to a friend, Ursula Tyrwhitt, she wrote, 'when the cats make love I run to see if my sweet is one of them'. She composed a poem to her loss, 'Au Chat', which she sent to Rodin.

Gwen, according to Holroyd, 

shared her brother's sense of isolation but she did not rebel against it - she tried to make a friend of it, turn it into a long-term asset. "I should like to go and live somewhere," she wrote, "where I met nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not affect me beyond reason." It was this single-mindedness that set her apart from Augustus.
.... [I]n their prime their work had subtly complemented each other's, in such a way that knowledge of one can lead to greater understanding of the other.

For instance, both her cat and her brother were given to tumultuous romances.

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