Museum Secrets

Rules for Life

May 14, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins Season 2 Episode 8
Museum Secrets
Rules for Life
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode we take a look at an understated little painting by the artist Gwen John, which hides complex depths. Gwen was one of the greatest and least known artists of the 20th century, who lived a life according to her own rules – literally. Her memos to herself are a guidebook for finding joy in solitude, and living largely and deeply on your own terms.

The Convalescent, by Gwen John – Find out more

If you want to take a closer look at painting in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer and Presenter: Lucie Dawkins

About Museum Secrets: Welcome to season 2 of Museum Secrets. Every week Lucie Dawkins will  take you behind the scenes at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. There are a million objects here in the Museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. Join us every week for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: Welcome to Season Two of Museum Secrets. I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every week I’ll be taking you behind the scenes at the Ashmolean. There are a million objects here in the museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times.

If you visit gallery 63 of the Ashmolean, you will find it full of late 19th and early 20th century work by the artist Walter Sickert and his circle. This room is packed with paintings clamouring for our attention. Over here, a slate grey horse charges across frame as a stable hand sprints to keep up, and over there, clowns perform on Brighton Pier, their vibrant costumes stark against a thunderous, dusky sky. Elsewhere an elderly couple in a sickly yellow room stare at opposite walls, in a stifling image of boredom in close confinement. It’s a room which bubbles with drama, and at one glance you immediately understand why the writer Virginia Woolf described Sickert as a ‘novelist in paint’.  Sickert and his friends was masters of theatricality.

There is a painting in the Ashmolean which belongs to this group of artists, but which doesn’t quite fit in amongst all of this high drama.

It’s a pale little canvas, of a girl in a blue dress in a wicker chair. She sits with quiet dignity, her downcast eyes fixed on a paper in her lap, a pale pink teacup at her elbow, all in muted, hazy colours, as if we are looking at her through a veil. The deep introspection and shyness of the girl always makes me want to tiptoe out of the room as if I have interrupted a private moment.

For now, the painting isn’t up on the wall, but here behind the scenes, being carefully wrapped by the registrars, ready to be sent off to the Broadway Museum, in the Cotswolds, where it will be on display until October. As a result, we have an unusual chance to look at it up close.

We are looking at a picture by one of the greatest and least known artists of the 20th Century, the Welsh painter Gwen John. 

Gwen was particularly remarkable for her time, as one of the few women to be accepted into the prestigious Slade School of Art, where she won awards for her virtuosic paintings. However, Gwen was not only John at the Slade. Her brother Augustus was in the year above. The siblings were very close. Their mother had died young, leaving them in the care of a repressive father. From a very young age, Gwen and Augustus found comfort in painting and drawing together, and turned out to have a natural talent. By the time they graduated from the Slade, they had both won great acclaim, and held their first professional exhibition together as brother and sister.

Despite their closeness, the two had characters like chalk and cheese. Augustus was known for his flamboyance and vibrant compositions, whereas Gwen hated the limelight and made extraordinarily restrained paintings. As her life went on, her colours became paler and paler, as if fading away. She preferred to live alone, and was frugal in the extreme. She often ate only fruit and nuts, so that she could afford paints and food for her cats. She sold what she could to survive, and simply gave many of her paintings away to friends.

Augustus, partly due to his notoriously outrageous behaviour and many affairs, became one of the great celebrities of his age, while Gwen disappeared in his shadow. Augustus, however, was in awe of his sister’s talent, remarking that one day, he would only be famous as the brother of Gwen John. 

And he was right. Gwen was an astonishing genius. Her deliberately limited colour palette was an masterclass in radical restraint, with every tiny brushstroke earning its place on the canvas. She took a mathematical approach to her paints, creating her own numerical code for colours and tones and matching them to each other with scientific precision. She developed a unique method of applying paint in dabs, with minute flecks of deep saturation hidden among the pale overtones. When you look twice at her at her pictures, like this one at the Ashmolean, you find yourself staring into unexpectedly complex depths. The apparent tranquillity of the surface seems to glimmer with a barely-concealed vibrancy.

And in this way, Gwen herself was much like her paintings. Beneath her withdrawn, quiet facade was a woman of awe-inspiring fervour.

She loved both women and men with a fierce desire which often bordered on obsession. This included the artist Auguste Rodin - a small version of his famous sculpture The Thinker is also housed in the Ashmolean. When he rejected her, Gwen wrote to him every day for ten years. In middle age, she converted to Catholicism, throwing herself into it with the same single-minded focus as she did with all her passions. Her sketchbooks started to fill with reflections about God, connecting her creative process to almost transcendental religious experience. 

Her solitude was in itself an act of defiant independence, living alone at a time when this was almost unheard of for single women. In her youth, she and a friend set off to walk across Europe, sleeping outside and earning enough to eat by singing and drawing portraits. For a pair of young Victorian women, this was daring behaviour. Gwen refused to be shaped by the expectations of her time, and she lived as she pleased. As she wrote in a letter to a friend, ‘I am a young woman, with a longing and a hope to be good, not caring for the opinion of anyone, not afraid of obscurity or contempt.’ Her frugality and hermit-like seclusion were self-elected. Gwen wasn’t lonely, she just loved being alone, and dared to be so.

In a history of art dominated by a male gaze, Gwen’s paintings celebrate a powerful female perspective. The vast majority of her paintings show individual women and girls, alone in often private spaces, just like in the Ashmolean’s painting. She showed women as they are by themselves, removed from any social pressures and expectations.

He next most common subject was simply the interior of her own bare room. This too was radical in its own way. One of her favourite pieces of writing was Viriginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own, a feminist essay which argues that women need a space of their own, both real and metaphorical, in order to have equality in a male-dominated world. It seems that alone, in her lodgings, Gwen found a universe of inspiration, and carved out her space as female artist in her own terms. 

In short, Gwen refused to live life according to any other rules but her own. And in fact, she did, literally, write her own rules. Her notebooks are full of memos to herself, which she called her ‘rules for life’. Here are a few of them.


 You make your life. Let it be consciously, with fearlessness.

Live largely and deeply. Do not be afraid. You can do some good because you will it.

Rectify position and mentality several times a day. Meditation every day, be that inspiration. 

Be alone. Do not search for sympathy where it is not found.

Enter into Art as one enters into Religion.

Don’t think about what others think of you.

Do not be depressed by the idea of falling short - you can go the distance.

Don’t expect anything more from love, but know that you can get everything. Love the difficulties.

This year, we have all had to come to terms with loneliness and with the interiors of our own rooms. And when it has been a struggle, I’ve tried to remember this painting, and Gwen John’s Rules for Life. They are a reminder that there are some joys to be found in solitude, and that staying at home can liberate your imagination.  Being temporarily cut off from the world around us does not mean that we can’t live largely and deeply. And with that, I want to leave you with my favourite of Gwen’s Rules, and one which seems to be summed up by this painting, with its image of quiet reflection.  On the 17th October 1912, she wrote: 

‘Every moment is holy. Do not soil the moments.’

Thank you for listening to today’s episode. If you want to take a look at this painting, The Convalescent by Gwen John, simply follow the link in the podcast notes. She’ll be hanging in the Broadway Museum from the 22nd of May onwards, if you want to visit her in person. Join me next week, for a story about ancient ways of fighting disease. In the meantime, there’s great news. The Ashmolean is open again at last from Monday, and you can book a free socially distanced ticket online. We can’t wait to see you back.