Exhibition of wood engravings by Gwen Raverat

Not Just Darwins: The Intertwined Art of Gwen Raverat, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frances Cornford: An Exhibition of Prints, Paintings, Poems and Music at Leith Hill Place Friday to Sunday 7 September to 21 October.

The Darwin family has had more than its fair share of observers of nature. Charles wasn’t the first Darwin to develop a philosophy drawn from decades of close observation; his grandfather Erasmus wrote poetry to propound an early theory of evolution. And then Darwin’s own children and grandchildren used the same dogged and repeated observation of the world around to develop their science and art.

A family of achievers

Charles Darwin had ten children, seven of whom survived beyond childhood. Their children, mostly born after the great man died, included the poet Frances Cornford and the wood-engraver, painter and writer, Gwen Raverat. Ralph Vaughan Williams, their contemporary, was the grandson of Darwin’s sister Caroline and her husband (and brother-in-law) Josiah Wedgwood the third.

The most recent generation of the Darwin-Wedgwood clan has produced 3 painters, one potter, 4 poets, several novelists, a film director, 3 or 4 musicians, a sculptor and numerous professors and PhDs.

Gwen & Frances - early inspirations

Gwen and Frances grew up in Cambridge, the daughters of academics and granddaughters of the God of Science. They both broke away from science, becoming independent “New Women” and artists: Gwen (1885 – 1957) was one of the first women to insist on and achieve professional training as an artist at the Slade School of Art in 1908, while Frances (1886 – 1960) published her first volume of poems in 1910. Gwen’s first engravings of 1909 already reveal a painterly use of light.  Gwen became a highly individual artist whose contribution to the revival of wood engraving as an original art form at the beginning of the twentieth century was, from the outset, widely acknowledged and admired. While studying at the Slade in the Edwardian era, her friendship with Virginia Woolf led to her becoming the Secretary of the Bloomsbury Friday Club. In 1920 she was the only woman amongst the group that founded the Society of Wood Engravers, a group that included Lucien Pissaro and Eric Gill.

Poetry please

Frances Cornford enjoyed early success; her use of rhyme and at times very simple phrases create a powerful tension between the meaning of her poems and her imagery. Cornford often discussed hardships of a woman’s life, she also turned to such topics as war and death in her later years. In 1957 she was awarded the Queen’s Prize, a year after Siegfried Sassoon and followed by John Betjeman.

Gwen illustrated three of Frances’s poetry collections: Spring Morning, first published in 1915; A Christmas Song in 1931; Mountains & Molehills in 1934. A selection of these poems with accompanying Raverat illustration will be shown at Leith Hill Place.

Gwen & marriage

Gwen discovered and developed her art and her writing in various milieu of intense creativity peopled by the likes of Stanley Spencer, Rupert Brooke (and his Neo-Pagans), André Gide, Paul Valéry, Geoffrey and Maynard Keynes, Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury Group. In 1911 she married French painter - and fellow Slade student - Jacques Raverat. When he tried to join the French army in 1914 his mystery illness was diagnosed as sclérose en placques or MS. In late 1920 they moved to Vence, near Nice, in the hope that the climate would help his increasingly weak state. Despite – or because of - nursing Jacques and bringing up two daughters, Gwen’s Vence prints and paintings are amongst her best work. They also kept up an extraordinary epistolary relationship with Virginia Woolf from Vence.

Gwen & Ralph Vaughan Williams

After her husband's death in 1925 Gwen moved back to London and re-invented herself as an art critic, professional wood engraver, book illustrator and theatre designer. In 1927 she started designing what was to become the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing with her cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ninette de Valois. In October 1927, Vaughan Williams wrote to Raverat: I amused myself with making a sketch of Job – I never expected Djag (Sergei Diaghilev had turned down the opportunity for his Ballets Russes to stage it) & I’m glad on the whole… - the “reclame” (skill at getting publicity) wd have been rather amusing – but it really wdnt have suited the sham serious really decadent & frivolous attitude of the R.B. (Ballets Russes) towards everything – can you imagine … that dreadful pseudo-cultured audience saying to each other ‘my dear have you seen God at the Russian Ballet’. No – I think we are well out of it….

Later life

Gwen moved back to Cambridge before the Second World War; her war work was to draw 3D maps for the Admiralty. In 1946 she moved into the Old Granary, in the grounds of her childhood home, Newnham Grange, in Cambridge, now Darwin College. In 1952 Faber published her bestseller Period Piece, which has never been out of print since first publication. Gwen dedicated the book to her best friend Frances Cornford.  Gwen Raverat died in 1957, a Cambridge institution. Vaughan Williams died the following year, while Frances Cornford died in 1960.

" It was tantalizing to see old Gwen for such a second, but the best of these Darwins is that they are cut out of rock, & three taps is enough to convince one how immense is their solidity (to which Gwen has added; I thought, some vein of wisdom, & sweetness of temper which I rather envy her - I like seeing women weather the world so well)."
- Virginia Woolf quoted in 'Virginia Woolf and the Raverats', edited by William Pryor

Find out more

Visit the Raverat Archive homepage for more information on Gwen Raverat, her family and her work. On Saturday 13 October William Pryor, grandson of Gwen Raverat, will be giving a talk about the creative links between his relations, which will include musical excerpts. Click here for full details and to book tickets.