I love books on art and creativity as well as hybrid narratives where the boundaries between genres are blurred – recent case in point being Nathalie Leger’s superb Suite for Barbara Loden. Celia Paul’s gorgeous work Letters to Gwen John, therefore, ticked all the right boxes for me.

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, aging and loneliness.

It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

THE SIMILARITIES – A SMORGASBORD OF ASSOCIATIONS

Celia begins her narrative by highlighting the four postcards of paintings that are her personal favourites; one of them being the work titled The Convalescent by Gwen John (“Just one look at this reproduction of Gwen John’s painting and my breathing becomes easier”), and which also caught my attention because it graces the cover of my Virago edition of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  

We learn that both Gwen and Celia were students at the prestigious Slade School of Art. Gwen, particularly, came from an artistically inclined family. Her mother Augusta, an artist, named her younger brother who she loved dearly Augustus, and later there would be Auguste Rodin in Gwen’s life. Augustus was the first to gain entry into this prestigious art school, and Gwen subsequently followed.

The two men in Celia Paul’s life (first Lucian Freud and then her husband Steven Kupfer) had girlfriends called Kate before they met Celia, and Celia has a younger sister Kate who she is closest to, while Steven’s mother was called Kathe. And then Lucian was named after his mother Lucie because “she sensed a special bond with him at first sight.”

LOVE, BURNING PASSION AND YEARNING

Celia Paul then goes on to elaborate how both women fell deeply in love with and were profoundly influenced by men – the sculptor Auguste Rodin for Gwen and the artist Lucian Freud for Celia.

Gwen’s passion for Rodin is all consuming and claustrophobic. Initially posing as a model for him, that professional relationship quickly transforms into an affair. The passion that Gwen feels for Rodin is so intense, that when he is not around, the pining and yearning for him destabilizes her to the detriment of her art.

Celia experiences something similar. She meets Lucian while still studying at the Slade and a passionate affair soon develops. His absences keep her on tenterhooks; the debilitating longing for him affects her art. Disillusioned by the painting techniques taught at the Slade, Celia draws inspiration from Lucian in many aspects while attempting her paintings. And yet it’s a relationship fraught with awkwardness. Celia outlines the contrasting attitudes of the two women while posing as models for their paramours; Gwen is uninhibited while sitting for Rodin and posing comes naturally to her. But for Celia it is sometimes a momentous effort, partly because she is disconcerted by Lucian’s objective, piercing gaze.

There are differences also in how these relationships play out. Gwen’s intense feelings for Rodin finds an outlet in a frenzy of letters she sends to him where she unabashedly writes about how his lengthening spells of absences torment her. The single-minded nature of her emotions alarm Rodin to the point that he is concerned for her, but is also gradually driven away. Celia’s relationship with Lucian goes one step further; she has a son with him named Frank. But this is a romance that also peters out, a development that Celia gratefully welcomes with a sense of relief as time rolls on.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN

Letters to Gwen John is a book about women artists establishing their own identity in a field often dominated by men. Although encouraged in her art by her brother Augustus, Gwen often feels smothered by his proximity and influence and longs to get away so that she can blossom on her own and evolve independently as the artist she wants to be.

Both women strive for personal space, a physical domain they can truly call their own, a stamp of their monk-like personality. More importantly, it is free from the influence of their lovers, Auguste and Lucian, who can enter this private world as mere visitors and nothing more, the sharing of space strictly forbidden.

This desire is born out of the need for freedom to pursue their art (“We can be free if we are unseen. We are like nocturnal animals”), as well as a way to connect with their inner world (“Your aim has, always, was to lead a more and more interior life. We remain remote”).

SOLITIDE OR COMPANY?

Celia Paul has very eloquently painted a picture of the conflict that rages inside her – the aching need for solitude to practice her craft…

The peace is profound and it enters your soul to the extent that, even when you step outside, all sounds seem to be at a remove. The silence of the great ancient yew trees surrounding the tower seems to be at one with your own inner silence.

…which battles with the craving for company to ward off loneliness and old age.

I often think of those old women whom I have painted, my mother included, and I wonder at their quiet patience, and what inner reserves of strength they must draw on to keep up their courage and power to endue, riven as they all must be by memories and fear of the approaching dark.

ART & MOTHERHOOD – A DELICATE BALANCING ACT

One of my favourite books some years ago was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a fragmentary novella that dwells on the loss of identity and the mundaneness of new motherhood, where the protagonist laments that “she wanted to be an art monster.” Celia Paul experiences something of that as well. She wants to be a mother, Lucian encouraged it as well (although his relationship with their son Frank remained awkward and distant), and when the baby is born, Celia realizes that the demands of motherhood often clash with the discipline and quiet required for her art. And she struggles with this knowledge.

As a single parent of an angry adolescent son, I was in the spotlight, out of the shadows. Everything about me was exposed and judged. This exposure, and the world’s judgement that came with the exposure, is what prevented me from working truthfully. I was judged by Lucian, by my son, by my mother, by Bella. I lost confidence. 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.

AN ODE TO THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I also loved the sections of the book that emphasized on the intricacies of the art-making process – the mixing of exotically named paints (Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Blue and so on), the challenges of the finished painting aligning with the artist’s vision, that ‘a-ha’ moment when you know that it has shaped up the way you had visualized it.

Painting is different from writing. A notebook or a laptop is a compact space for creativity. In order to paint you need paraphernalia: a palette, brushes, canvases, easel, and a room to yourself where it’s possible to be uninhibited – you need to be unconcerned about drips of paint landing on the carpet or staining the walls. We use words all the time. But painting is an acquired language that you need to practice every day, like playing an instrument: if you don’t, you lose your gift.

Akin to an image that quickly emerges from the deft strokes of a brush, these nuances of the artistic process are revealed to us in the later letters which focus on two of her paintings – “Copper Beech, Hampstead Heath” and “Weeping Willow”. Celia expertly illustrates the trials of completing these paintings, sometimes working on one painting only to move on to the other one and the unwavering focus required bringing it to fruition. And how the nature of the painting itself changes along the way.

BEAUTIFUL BOOK, WONDERFUL WRITING

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. Through her frank, unadorned, graceful narrative style, Celia Paul draws us into her solitary world where the sea that “gently washes and laps like milk tilted from side to side in a bowl”, and the incoming waves that “obediently follow each other, like sheep brought home to the fold”, has as much of a calming effect on the reader as it does on Paul. A fabulous fusion of biography and memoir, the book is an illuminating depiction of two female artists, their ascetic personalities, the desire to assert their independence while making art, and how their art becomes a steadying force and pillar of strength while navigating personal difficulties and turbulence in their lives. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

In a nutshell, the rich palette of themes, the quiet confessional tone of Celia Paul’s letters and the melancholic beauty of the artworks meld into a unique form that is a work of art by itself; the stillness and peace captured becomes a joy to truly savour.

10 thoughts on “Letters to Gwen John – Celia Paul

  1. Sounds wonderful. The point about identity in a world dominated by men really stood out. I’ve been dipping in and out of an art and ideas course in which one aspect they discussed was how Frida Kahlo recreated and depicted her identity at different points, earlier when she was overshadowed by Diego Rivera and then after her divorce.

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    1. I agree, both Gwen John and Celia Paul were in passionate relationships with successful men, but were also focused on evolving independently as artists. I liked that very much.

      Your arts and ideas course sounds great, Frida Kahlo has always fascinated me.

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  2. This sounds like such an interesting book – I spotted it in Waterstones yesterday, after noticing your review, and was very tempted to bring it home with me. I have added to my wishlist, anyway.

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    1. It’s a wonderful book, Simon. A lovely hardback with beautiful artworks and some great writing. It’s an effortless blend of genres, just the kind of thing I like. Would heartily recommend.

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