Blog # 114: Virginia Woolf and Doctor Who—Part Three: Gwendolen Mary John

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

This entry might be viewed as an example of false advertising. It has very little to do with Doctor Who, and the connections to Virginia are tangential at best. Nevertheless, if a skilled neural anatomist were to map the topography of my mind, linking contours could be found, in much the same way that Chris Anderson and David Sally trace a plausible connection between England’s recent football victory over Montenegro and the development in the 1960s of the electronic calculator by the Japanese company Sharp. It is my contention that Virginia linked people, objects and events in similar granite and rainbow welding ways, and so I will allow the title to stand.

In the absence of a qualified neural anatomist, I will map the Who, Woolf, and John part of my mind from the inside out. Indeed, the mapping is as easy as it is random and tenuous. Butterflies on cathedral arches have more substance and purpose. Doctor Who’s only connection to Gwen John is that, through my daughter, he drew me to Cardiff. If Bentley were not passionate about Doctor Who, I would not have come to Cardiff at a time when my Virginia Woolf obsession cast burning colours over so much of what I saw and thought. Not content with thoughts about Scott and Ianto’s shrine, I decided to seek out Gwen John in the National Art Museum. I had looked for her in the National Gallery in London, without finding as much as a sketch. Van Gogh’s rush-bottomed chair had impressed me, yet it was Gwen’s wicker chair I wanted to see.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned the possibility that in 1904 Gwen might have been present when (if Hermione Lee’s sources are correct, Virginia Woolf, chapter 10, note 111) Virginia was slapped by Auguste Rodin. If so, Virginia might have met and talked to Gwen and subsequently might have followed Gwen’s career. When going to see Vanessa’s paintings she would have had the opportunity to see Gwen’s paintings at the NEAC, as Gwen exhibited there from 1900 on (Nomadic Narratives, Visual Forces: Gwen John’s Letters and Paintings). She might have discussed Gwen with Gwen’s brother, Augustus John, and she may even have visited Gwen’s one-woman show at London’s New Chenil Gallery in 1926.

With personal and geographic intersections in Gwen and Virginia’s lives, with Virginia’s interest in art and in gossip, links are not hard to forge. Rainbow or granite, or fusion of both, such links anchor me to the past and allow me to dive deeper into Virginia’s London and into her novels. To see Gwen’s shadow behind Lily Briscoe is to see deeper into the varied spaces which women artists inhabited in Virginia’s imagination.

Even if the associations are factitious—products of obsession and of seeing Virginia as all encompassing—my speculations yield pleasure and profit. Gwen’s wicker armchair gives shape to Mrs. Ramsay’s, both when Lily observes Mrs. Ramsay in it:

For days there hung about her, as after a dream some subtle change is felt in the person one has dreamt of, more vividly than anything she said, the sound of murmuring and, as she sat in the wicker arm-chair in the drawing-room window she wore, to Lily’s eyes, an august shape; the shape of a dome.

and then later when Mrs McNabb rests in it:

They had everything they wanted (glibly, jovially, with the tea hot in her, she unwound her ball of memories, sitting in the wicker arm-chair by the nursery fender).

Beyond Virginia, there is also pleasure and possible profit in comparing Gwen’s wicker armchair to Van Gogh’s rush-bottomed chair:

Gwen John: A Corner of the Artist's Room

Gwen John: A Corner of the Artist’s Room


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