NWR Issue 77

Compass Points

Among the celebrations marking the centenary of the National Museum of Wales this year is a major exhibition of work donated to the museum by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, daughters of the self-made industrialist David Davies. The sisters have previously suffered something of a bad press, since it was taken for granted until very recently that their money was spent on their behalf by their better informed, well-connected male advisors. The latest research on their art-collecting and other philanthropic pursuits, however, presented for the first time in 'Things of Beauty': What Two Sisters Did for Wales, a book published to accompany the exhibition, shows two welleducated, highly intelligent and strong-minded women who were far less dependent on their male advisors than was previously assumed. 'Things of Beauty' offers a compellingly revisionist yet accessible history of the various aspects of the Davies's work, from their pioneering art-collecting to their fine-book press, Gwasg Gregynog, which is still in production today. The beautifully composed austerity of the book's design itself mirrors the Arts and Crafts ideals which motivated much of the sisters' work.

The book's various contributors explore the sisters' patronage of, among other things, the National Museum's collection of fine art, the School of Art at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and the development through activities at Gregynog of the arts more generally,
especially music. It is also, however, a biography of sorts, and most striking - as is often the case with Victorian and Edwardian women whose lives only come to public attention in any kind of detail many
years after their death - is the extent to which they lived independent lives and developed their own tastes, and how their experience of art as young women informed the philanthropic ideals which they held
throughout their lives.

It was following the time they spent engaged in voluntary work in France during the First World War that the sisters' focus turned from the purchasing of works of art for the nation to developing Gregynog, their country house near Newtown, as a centre for the arts. As with their previous projects, such as their pioneering collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art, the Davies sisters were concerned to bring the world to Wales, specifically to Gregynog, in order to nurture the country's artistic output. Their international outlook had been fostered by extensive European travel and educational influences such as Margaret's studies at the Slade School of Art, and in their forward-thinking attitudes they were in some ways the closest Wales came to forming its own Bloomsbury group. (By a fortunate coincidence, the work of their contemporary Dorothy Edwards, who was associated, if marginally, with Bloomsbury, is coming back into print this autumn for the first time in over two decades. In this issue, Claire Flay looks at recently rediscovered letters and diaries which add much to our understanding of
Edwards's life and work.)

If the Davies sisters' Calvinist Methodist teetotal habits made them less progressive than Virginia Woolf and her contemporaries, they were all the same determined to move the culture of Wales forward into the twentieth century and to enhance the culture's artistic aspirations. These ideals were open to criticism from those who felt the sisters and their cronies were attempting to impose alien external influences on the indigenous Welsh scene, but they were ideals to which the sisters remained committed and on which they were robust. As one of their advisors noted: 'Any conspiracy against variety is a crime. Any failure to set the highest possible value on home products is a crime.' It is arguably this creative tension between the local and the international which continues to inform the best patronage of the
arts in Wales. Think of the Artes Mundi Prize for example, or the Wales Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, or Academi's Cardiff International Poetry Competition.

This issue of New Welsh Review follows the compass north and south out of Wales, from the cultural politics of documentary photography in the Outer Hebrides to the continuing fall-out from war on the Falkland Islands. In his 'Falkland Diaries', from which is published in this issue, Des Barry writes about his need to mark the twenty-fifth year since the Falklands conflict by creating a piece of work that would attempt in its own way to heal the wounds of war. The issue comes full circle back to Wales with Jasmine Donahaye's article, which explores the cultural ramifications of the Assemblyfunded Library of Wales classics series. Mindful of the spirit of the Davies sisters, which lives on in the rather more complex civic and corporate structures of funding which hold up the arts in Wales today, I would echo Jasmine Donahaye's plea that the series should continue to attract substantial funding from new Heritage Minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas, so that the best of Welsh writing in English is preserved and presented to a new generation of readers.


previous editorial: Free For All
next editorial: Dead Poets' Society


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