Welsh Art patrons: Winifred Coombe Tennant and Gwendoline and Margaret Davies

Winifred Coombe Tennant – a life through art

by Peter Lord, Aberystwyth 2007, ISBN: 978-1-86225-065-9, £30
Exhibition at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea – 13 December 2008 – 15 February 2009

Things of Beauty: what two sisters did for Wales

edited by Oliver Fairclough, Cardiff 2007, ISBN: 978-0-7200-05820

The relevance of Winifred Coombe Tennant, an Englishwoman who lived in Wales for many years, is that she was an avid patron of 20th century Welsh artists.  That makes her reasonably unusual.  As Peter Lord’s book indicates, she was also other things, including having what seems to an English reader as rather a bad dose of acquired ‘Welshness’, appearing at Eisteddfods in robes designed by herself.  In any event, as the daughter and mother of Old Etonians she was at least typical of the class that supported modern British art in the mid-20th century.

The relationship between geography and art is a complex subject.  Looking at the work of the artists she favoured – most of them little known today in the London art world, with the exception of Kyffin Williams and, maybe, John Elwyn – the only thing Welsh about it is sometimes the subject matter.  Welsh landscape scenes are sometimes easily identified as Welsh, although if the artist and the title of the work was not known one might be forgiven for thinking that the scenes were of the Lake District, Ireland or Scotland.  Certainly it would be hard to identify something Welsh about the way the pictures were painted, as distinct from the local subject matter.  There were Welsh art schools, at Cardiff, Swansea and Carmarthen, but they did not produce artists who were distinctively Welsh and, in any event, a number of the artists she supported trained in London and had their principal shows there.

The same difficulty faces those seeking to promote Irish and Scottish art independently of British art: it didn’t exist.  Mid 20th century British artists worked in London, if they wanted to be exposed to the most cosmopolitan artists, and they worked in France.  Maybe they travelled to Italy to paint.  But overall most artists in the British Isles trying to make a living from painting at this time had no choice but to eschew geography and work where they could, as British artists.  Their chosen subject matter is usually all that distinguishes them.  It may be that they were all encompassed in a ‘British’ as against a ‘French’ or ‘German’ style, but even that is dangerous territory (where does Joseph Herman belong?  Polish, Jewish, Welsh?).

So, Mrs Coombe Tennant’s life work of supporting Welsh art was in some sense a mirage.  There was nothing to be supported except local boys (for some reason, no girls) struggling to emerge from the economic gloom of Wales in the 1930’s by exercising their artistic skills.  They certainly needed all the help they could get in that bleak world and her achievement lay in giving a number of them real and significant support.  For she knew the tiny Welsh art world pretty well and knew – at least in Swansea – how to draw the work of young artists to the attention of the right people, especially those who might make institutional purchases of the work.  She herself made many personal purchases, although she never seems to have been particularly well off and her buying power was, for example, totally eclipsed by that of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies at Gregynog and probably by another strange woman, Frances Byng Stamper, at Manorbier Castle.

Still, she did her best.  Like most art supporters at the time, she loathed anything abstract, but luckily for her there wasn’t much of that to be seen in Wales.  The nearest she got to finding a Welsh artist to hate was poor Ceri Richards, who was really a London artist who happened to be Welsh.  She also wasn’t too keen on Sir Cedric Morris, who was rich enough not to have to kow-tow to her or care whether she supported him or not.  So what she particularly liked were working class men who really did need her and who  painted in a fairly safe way, preferably portraits or Daubigny–like landscapes.  The revelation to me was the work of Evan Walters (1893-1951).  Born near Swansea, a miner’s son, he attended Swansea School of Art, went to work in America and then in London for 20 years.  His work spans quite a range of styles, but there was undoubtedly enough about him for him to be well-regarded in London art circles.  Mrs Coombe Tennant bought a large number of his works, commissioning him to paint a beautiful portrait of her in 1920 and a grotesquely inappropriate monster portrait (91″x36″) of one of her sons dressed in full Eton garb, including top hat and tails, holding a cane with tassels and carrying kid gloves.  Quite what the Welsh thought of that picture is, thankfully, not recorded, although one gets a hint of what even the English may have thought by means of a contemporary cartoon of the picture in Punch.

Another attractive artist she patronised was J. Cyrlas Williams from Porthcawl.  Some of his work shown in the exhibition and illustrated in the book was exquisite.  The problem of ‘Welshness’ in artists is well illustrated in his case, as he had studied at Newlyn under Stanhope Forbes, travelled to Australia and studied in Paris.  As an example of how she helped young artists, Mrs Coombe Tennant introduced him to Grant Murray, who was a key figure in the Welsh art world in the period (although Scottish).  He was Principal of Swansea School of Art 1910-1943 and Director of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery 1910-1950, so not a lot went on in the Swansea art scene without his involvement.  She also introduced Williams to the Welsh art mafia in London – Evan Walters and Sir Cedric Morris – in case they could assist him.

Apart from Kyffin Williams who was really successful without her help, the most significant artist she helped was John Elwyn, towards the end of her life (she died in 1956).  Elwyn (1916-1997) was born in Cardiganshire and attended Carmarthen School of Art, Bristol College of Art and the Royal College of Art (an interesting example of the need for artists from Wales to move East!).  Mrs Coombe Tennant latched on to him in the late 1940’s and again introduced his work to Grant Murray, who promptly bought a picture for the Glynn Vivian.  She also bought pictures for herself and wrote long letters of detailed encouragement to the artist over the remaining years of her life.  She also introduced his work to John Steegman, who was the Keeper of Art at the National Museum in Cardiff, and to David Bell, who was the art officer of the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council.  These were the sort of people that young Welsh artists needed to meet if their work was to receive official promotion.

This exhibition was well presented and absolutely fascinating, at least to an English visitor largely ignorant of a number of the artists represented.  All credit to the gallery for putting on such an intelligent show about an important Welsh art patron, who seems to have worked hard for many years to promote young Welsh artists who might otherwise never have progressed and developed in the wider art world.

Peter Lord’s book is similarly interesting, presenting the development of Mrs Coombe Tennant’s art patronage simply and clearly and wisely not focussing too hard on some of the other aspects of her life.

Put simply, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies enriched the cultural life of Wales in the 20th century.  Using their great inherited wealth following the death of their industrialist father in 1898, they supported many artistic activities, established the Gregynog Press, buying pictures (in earnest from 1912 onwards), supporting musical events and rural arts and crafts and so on.  In the early years, both sisters bought pictures by a wide variety of artists, but it was Margaret who went on to form a collection of modern British art, which she was to leave to various local institutions following her death in 1963.

Part of her collection was of work by local artists and the sisters clearly played a prominent part in the contemporary Welsh art world.  For example, both sisters were present at the inaugural meeting of the Contemporary Art Society for Wales in 1935 and Margaret was the Society’s buyer in 1954.  During those years, Margaret bought pictures by Kyffin Williams, Sir Cedric Morris and JD Innes, as well as work by Gilman, Sickert, Vanessa Bell, Paul and John Nash, Spencer, Piper, Wydham Lewis, Hitchens and Frost.   Some of her purchases were encouraged by John Steegman, mentioned earlier.

The book is an attractively presented mélange of pictures and articles about the varied aspects of the sisters’ activities.  It wasn’t intended to be comprehensive, but gives an introduction to their cultural interests.

With books such as these, and others by Peter Lord, (and, for example, a forthcoming biography of the maverick second Viscount Tredegar), we are starting to get an opportunity to see the Welsh art world of the mid-century in greater detail. This is important – not, I hasten to add, because it will suddenly make us all think that the Welsh art scene was more ‘important’ than we had ever realised – but because art history can only properly flourish on the basis of detailed facts.  It has been easy to dismiss areas of the national cultural historical life which have had little written about them, but it isn’t so easy to do so if the materials are available.  The Welsh cultural scene needs to be better understood and fine books like these will help to get us there.  Without them, historians of 20th century British art have had an excuse to ignore the Welsh contribution.  Not any longer.