Tuesday 15 April 2014

Gwen Raverat talk by Frances Spalding - 3rd April 2014

A few weeks ago CLG met for a lively talk by art historian and Newnham College alumna Frances Spalding on the subject of the artist Gwen Raverat.

We were fortunate enough to be able to use the Old Library at Darwin College as our venue, highly appropriate as it was once the front room of Gwen Raverat's family home, then called Newnham Grange. Primarily known for her wood engravings, Gwen was also an illustrator, painter, author and journalist. Frances illustrated her talk with quotes from Raverat's autobiography Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. These charming, and often very funny snippets took us back to the late nineteenth century, when as Gwen wrote, "nearly all the life of Cambridge poured back and forth over the bridge outside our house". One of my favourite anecdotes was of Gwen's eccentric aunt Etty, who was a bit of a hypochondriac and fashioned her own anti-germ mask out of a tea-strainer stuffed with antiseptic-soaked cotton wool, which she wore over her mouth and nose!

As a member of the very tight-knit Darwin clan, the presence of her grandfather Charles Darwin was there throughout Gwen's life, despite Charles having died three years before she was born. The Darwin family were often viewed by others with some scepticism, which perhaps led to the tighter-than-normal family bond.

Gwen taught herself the art of wood-engraving while at the Slade School in London, where she also met her husband Jacques Raverat, who had been a mathematician until doctors advised him to give up mathematics for his health, and take up art instead! Sadly, Jacques' health continued to deteriorate, and he was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The Raverats decided to move to France in the hopes that the warmer climate would help. While in France, they continued to keep in touch with friends at home, in particular with Virginia Woolf, who wrote to Jacques often and kept him up-to-date with news and gossip.

After Jacques died in 1925, Gwen decided to return to Cambridgeshire, and in her final years was often seen sitting by the Backs in her wheelchair, painting.

I knew very little about Gwen Raverat before hearing Frances' talk, and I found the evening thoroughly enjoyable. As always it was great to catch up with other librarians, and Period Piece is now next on my 'to-read' list!

By Annie Gleeson, Senior Library Assistant at Homerton College