Davies, Gwendoline and Margaret

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Davies, Gwendoline and Margaret

Welsh philanthropists, art collectors, patrons of art, fine printing and music who were known as The Ladies of Gregynog.

Davies, Gwendoline (1882–1951). Name variations: The Ladies of Gregynog. Born Gwendoline Elizabeth Davies in Llandinam, Montgomeryshire, Wales, on February 11, 1882; died in Oxford at the Radcliffe Infirmary on July 3, 1951; daughter of Edward Davies (1852–98) and Margaret Jones Davies (d. 1888); educated at Highfield School, Hendon, and privately; never married; no children.

Awarded Companion of Honor (1937).

Davies, Margaret (1884–1963). Name variations: The Ladies of Gregynog. Born Margaret Sidney Davies in Llandinam, Montgomeryshire, Wales, on December 14, 1884; died in London on March 13, 1963; daughter of Edward Davies (1852–98) and Margaret Jones Davies (d. 1888); educated at Highfield School, Hendon, and privately; never married; no children.

Awarded Hon. LL.D. (University of Wales), 1949.

Collected art from 1908; were major benefactors of charities and cultural institutions in Wales (c. 1914–50); ran canteen for allied troops at Troyes and Rouen (1916–18); purchased Gregynog Hall, Mont-gomeryshire, as an art center (1920); organized concerts and festivals of music and poetry (1921–38); founded Gregynog Press (1922); founded Gwendoline and Margaret Davies Trusts (1934); Gwendoline Davies Bequest to National Museum of Wales (1951); gift to National Library of Wales (1951); gift of Gregynog Hall to University of Wales (1960); Margaret Davies Bequest to National Museum of Wales (1963).

Gwendoline and Margaret Davies were born in Llandinam, Montgomeryshire, Wales, in 1882 and 1884, respectively. They were the granddaughters of David Davies of Llandinam (1818–1890), a self-made man who had amassed a fortune from contracting, coal-owning, and building railways and docks, and was elected a Liberal Member of Parliament in 1874. Their brother David Davies (1880–1944; created Baron Davies in 1932) was also a Liberal MP, parliamentary private secretary to the Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1916–17, a founder of the League of Nations, and the greatest Welsh public benefactor of his day, closely associated with Aberystwyth University College, the National Library of Wales, and the campaign against tuberculosis. Following the early death of their mother Margaret Jones Davies in 1888, their father married their mother's sister, Elizabeth Jones (1853–1942). After his death ten years later, in 1898, their stepmother was responsible for the upbringing of the sisters. Elizabeth Jones Davies was active in public affairs, became the first woman magistrate in Mont-gomeryshire, and was a supporter of numerous charities and good causes.

In their youth, the Davies sisters lived with their stepmother at Plas Dinam, Llandinam, and in their London flat at 3 Buckingham Gate, SW1. They were educated at Highfield School, Hendon, and at home, and brought up in the family faith. As Calvinistic Methodists, they were teetotal and strict sabbatarians. Their upbringing forbade dancing and the opera, but permitted tennis, riding, and even fox-hunting. Neither enjoyed good health, and from 1924 onwards Gwendoline suffered increasingly from a blood disease. She was a competent violinist—the owner of a Stradivarius violin—and played the organ. Margaret sang and played the harp; she also briefly attended the Slade School of Art in London as an external pupil, and later received private instruction in painting. The sisters enjoyed travel, initially in the company of their governess Jane Blaker . After leaving school, Gwendoline visited the United States, and both sisters regularly traveled abroad, usually for periods of a month during the spring, frequenting Paris and Italy, and venturing further afield to the Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Middle East. Neither made close personal attachments and were generally uncomfortable in the presence of strangers.

By 1907, the joint fortune of the Davies sisters was around £1,000,000, partly invested in family businesses. During the booming years before the First World War, their annual income may have exceeded £40,000. Such means did not compare with those of millionaire collectors such as Henry E. Huntington or William Hesketh Lever, but the sisters were among the wealthiest young women in the United Kingdom. They inherited a family tradition of philanthropy, and in 1911 shared with their brother in the gift of £150,000 to endow the campaign against tuberculosis. In 1914, David Davies and his sisters jointly contributed £5,000 to the building fund for the recently founded National Museum of Wales in Cardiff; a gift that Gwendoline and Margaret repeated in 1916.

The tragedy is that we have so much to give that is not money.

—Gwendoline Davies, March 26, 1929

The Davies family had little interest in works of art, and the sisters were introduced to collecting by Jane Blaker's brother Hugh (1873–1937), an artist and critic, who was curator of the Holburne of Menstrie Museum in Bath from 1905. In 1908, Gwendoline and Margaret began to collect through Blaker's agency, spending over £13,850 on a pair of sea scenes by J.M.W. Turner and £4,930 on two oils by Corot. The following year, they spent over £18,000 on four paintings by Romney, Millet, Corot, and Anton Mauve. The conservative tone of these purchases of works by well-established British and French artists is confirmed by Margaret's diary of the sisters' visit to Paris in 1909: "There is a very good collection by Corot … some very beautiful tiny gems by Millet of peasant life … and also many I do not care for, they are too impressionist to suit me." In 1910–11, the sisters spent over £37,000 on 20 paintings of similar character. This included four Turners, a Raeburn, and a small Meissonier, as well as two large works by Millet, The Sower and The Peasant Family. Writing in July 1910, Blaker acknowledged his indebtedness and requested to provide any future services without a fee. Thereafter, he seldom acted formally on their behalf but remained an adviser.

In 1912, the Davies sisters visited Italy, and almost certainly viewed Claude Monet's exhibition of recent Venetian views in Paris on the return journey. Blaker wrote approvingly: "I … am delighted that you think of getting some examples of the Impressionists of 1870. Very few English collectors, except Hugh Lane, have bought them at all, although much of their best work is in America." While their expenditure in 1912 remained fairly constant, at £19,343 on 25 works of art, its range widened considerably to include a monumental Auguste Rodin bronze of The Kiss and three Monet oils of Venice, as well as a small Manet, a trio of works by Millet, two Daumiers and a group of Turners. At the suggestion of the painter Murray Urquhart (1880–1972), a friend of Blaker and their brother, the sisters exhibited their collection at their own expense, at Cardiff and Bath between February and May 1913. Few comparable displays of French art had been seen in Britain, causing Blaker to exclaim that "the exhibition is the greatest artistic event in the history of Wales." The year 1913 proved a milestone in the history of the Davies collection, in which they spent over £30,000 on 18 works. These included five Monets, Rodin's St. John the Baptist, Renoir's The Parisienne, purchased from the distinguished Rouart collection, and a Mathis Maris. The following year, their collecting activities were much more modest, and ceased altogether with the outbreak of the First World War.

Following the German invasion in August 1914, the Davies sisters and their mother financed the travel and resettling in Wales of 91 Belgian refugees "of the better class." These included the sculptor George Minne (1866–1941), the painters Gustave van de Woestijne (1881–1947) and Valerius de Saedeleer (1867–1941), and several musicians, including the brothers Marcel and Nicholas Lavoureux. Gwendoline had recently founded a School of Instrumental Music at Aberystwyth University College, and the sisters sought "to invite Belgian artists to come to Wales, where they would not only be able to continue their work but also to bring a specific talent to the Welsh people." This transplanted colony helped foster appreciation of the visual arts in Aberystwyth, where an Arts and Crafts Department was later established, with the support of the Davies sisters. In the summer of 1916, Gwendoline purchased Rodin's life-size bronze Eve for £1,500 and spent £2,350 on ten oil paintings and a drawing by Augustus John. The latter purchase was probably inspired by Blaker, who had recently published an article on John, a Welshman widely regarded as the leading progressive painter in the United Kingdom. In appreciation, the artist agreed to present a complete set of his etchings to the National Museum of Wales.

Two of the Davies sisters' cousins had died in combat and their brother David had served two years in France before the failure of the British offensive in 1916 dashed allied hopes of an imminent end to the war. That year, like many other upper-and middle-class women, they decided to make a personal contribution to the war effort by opening a Red Cross canteen. Gwendoline remained until the end of the war at the "Cantine des Dames Anglais" at Troyes, catering for French troops, who were notoriously poorly supplied. After working with her sister for a while, Margaret moved on to work at a canteen in Rouen. In 1917, now in direct contact with the leading French dealer Emile Bernheim, Gwendoline spent £8,440 on six paintings, including Manet's The Rabbit and Monet's Rouen Cathedral: setting sun. Early the following year, she broke entirely new ground with the purchase from Bernheim Jeune for £3,750 of two major oil paintings by Cézanne, Midday, L'Estaque and Provençal Landscape, followed by Daumier's Don Quixote Reading, acquired for £811 from the collection of Edgar Degas. As Paris was within range of German artillery, these new acquisitions were dispatched to the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, where they remained on display until 1920.

In 1918, the Davies sisters endowed the new museum in the Arts and Crafts Department at Aberystwyth University College with a sum of £5,000, and from 1920 until 1936 they funded the architect and designer Sydney Greenslade (1866–1955) to purchase studio pottery, prints and applied art for it. At the end of the war, the sisters once again employed Blaker as an agent. In 1919, they spent £10,900 on a miscellany of pictures, including a Raeburn and a religious scene by Rembrandt's pupil Gebrandt van den Eeckhout, as well as Turner watercolors and Augustus John drawings. Mindful of the financial difficulties of the National Museum of Wales, Gwendoline purchased John's portrait of the Welsh poet W.H. Davies for £550 with the specific intention of lending it to the national collection and offered help towards the purchase of his monumental Canadian War Memorial cartoon. Even with her assistance, its purchase price remained well beyond the museum's means. The following year, the sisters spent over £29,000 on paintings and drawings, more than in any other years except 1910 and 1913. These acquisitions included Cézanne's Still Life with teapot, Van Gogh's Rain—Auvers and Manet's Argenteuil, as well as two groups of work by Camille Pissarro and Maurice de Vlaminck. Much the most expensive purchases were a Botticelli workshop Virgin and Child and a Dutch school Portrait of a Woman attributed to Frans Hals, bought from Hugh Blaker at a cost of £5,000 and £9,000, respectively. Thereafter, their collecting tailed off rapidly. In November 1921, Gwendoline expressed her inability to continue buying works of art "in face of the appalling need every-where—Russian children … ex soldiers, all so terribly human. After all, it is humanity that needs help & sympathy." She made a few further acquisitions, such as Turner's Beacon Light at £2,625 in 1922 and a pair of Degas bronzes for £800 and an El Greco workshop Disrobing of Christ at £6,000 in 1923, but stopped entirely after 1926. Margaret continued to make modest purchases, mainly of paintings by recent British painters, such as Gilman and Sickert, until 1939. Her principal acquisition during the interwar years was Millet's The Gust of Wind, which she obtained from Blaker in 1937, apparently in settlement of a debt.

The immediate reason for the curtailment of the Davies sisters' activities as art collectors was their purchase in July 1920, for £33,599, of Gregynog Hall and its adjoining estate of 311 acres. Gregynog is a large property, essentially of mid-19th-century date, situated a few miles northeast of the Davies family home at Plas Dinam. As early as 1916–17, Gwendoline had speculated on the possibility of making Gregynog the home of a community of artisans, but this project only became feasible with the end of the war, which provided the additional motive of the rehabilitation of ex-soldiers. For advice and practical assistance, the sisters turned to an old friend, Dr. Thomas Jones (1870–1955), then assistant secretary to the Cabinet and editor of the current affairs magazine The Welsh Outlook, who became closely associated with the new art center. Gwendoline confided to him: "Gregynog must have an atmosphere of its own if it is to be what we hope it will be … so any decoration or furniture must have this end in view; it must be beautiful, but the beauty of simplicity & usefulness." The sisters initially intended the house to serve as a center for cultural activities, and it was several years before family circumstances required them to vacate Plas Dinam and move into residence at Gregynog. In April 1924, Gwendoline wrote "we have never looked upon it as 'home' before," and a month later noted that "All our pictures & other treasures have been moved to Gregynog & will remain there in future."

Even before the purchase of Gregynog was finalized, in April 1920 Gwendoline was assembling a library of "1000 and one volumes … for the education of plumbers and paper hangers" and purchasing four baby grand and five upright pianos. Shortly after, the sisters commissioned suites of arts and crafts furniture from the leading cabinetmaker Peter Waals (1870–1937), who was also consulted on the possibility of adding furniture-making to the curriculum at Gregynog. In February 1921, on Blaker's recommendation, the sisters engaged the painter and architect Robert Ashwin Maynard (1888–1966) as controller at Gregynog and sent him to London to study printing, wood engraving, and pottery, before taking up his position. Although progress was delayed by the sisters' promise to contribute £58,000 to a trust for improving housing in Wales, a printing workshop was ready by June 1922. Six months later, the Gregynog Press was inaugurated with an edition of 120 Christmas cards.

Gwendoline acknowledged from the outset that "anything like a commercial enterprise at Gregynog would be quite impracticable, even if it were desirable," and that the press should specialize in "small editions & small books … specimens of fine workmanship & also of literary value." Its first book, published in December 1923, aptly fulfilled these criteria: a volume of the poems by the 17th-century Welsh author George Herbert in an edition of 300 copies on hand-made paper. The following July, Gwendo-line defined the primary objective of the press as "to unlock the door of the treasure house of Welsh literature, romance & legend & make it accessible to the English speaking public … that it must inevitably attract attention & win for the little country that tardy recognition of cultured nations…. But we must bring to this task a strong critical sense & permit nothing which is not of the best."

Under Maynard and his successors Blair Hughes-Stanton (1902–1981) and James Wardrop (1905–1957), the Gregynog Press published 45 books and over 200 pieces of ephemera between 1923 and 1940. Editions were small, between 150 to 475 copies, many illustrated with wood engravings by leading artists including David Jones (1895–1974) and Gertrude Hermes (1901–1983). Deluxe copies were provided with hand-made bindings by the master binder George Fisher (1879–1970). Their subject matter ranged from poems by historic and contemporary Welsh authors to Milton and Cervantes, and from Euripedes to Omar Khayyâm. Eight books were in Welsh and eleven others had Welsh authors or were otherwise associated with Wales. Prices varied from 10s. 6d. to £10. 12s. for standard editions and from £1. 11s. 6d. to £21 for specially bound copies. The sisters took no part in the running of the press and declined "to make any personal profit out of the books," while hoping that "some day the press will be able to pay its own way." On account of the high production costs of hand-made books and their limited demand, which was exacerbated from 1929 by the Depression, it remained dependent upon their financial support. Thanks to their belief that "it is worth while producing a beautiful thing for its own sake," the Gregynog Press earned an international reputation for its standards of craftsmanship and design.

From 1921, Gregynog served as a center for student retreats and the residential conferences of bodies such as the Welsh School of Social Service, the League of Nations, and the Council of Music for Wales, whose founding director was the organist and choirmaster Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869–1941), Gregynog Professor of Music at Aberystwyth. Informal concerts and services were held frequently to coincide with such events, and in 1929 the Gregynog Choir was founded. Comprising the Davies sisters, their family, friends and neighbors, it held annual Easter concerts of choral music, which gradually attracted the participation of conductors and composers of international repute, including Sir Adrian Boult (1889–1983) and Dr. Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872–1958). These essentially amateur gatherings were succeeded, between 1933 and 1938, by annual Festivals of Music and Poetry on themes such as "The Commemoration of Famous Men." The Gregynog Summer festivals were performed by professional musicians and singers before invited audiences of around 200 visitors. Held in a country house with a superlative art collection in a rural setting, when opportunities to hear musicians of the highest class were severely restricted, the Festivals made a great impact. Although reviewed in the press and frequently recalled by visitors and participants, these performances remain the most elusive area of the Davies sisters' patronage. As an art form in which they directly participated—as singers and musicians—their significance for Gwendoline and Margaret was undoubtedly profound.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 marked the end of the Gregynog Press and the Festivals of Music and Poetry. The house provided refuge for evacuees and was requisitioned as a Red Cross convalescent home. By the time peace returned, Gwendoline was too ill to make major new initiatives, although Margaret resumed purchasing works of art in 1948, seldom spending more than £500 in a year on established British artists such as J.D. Innes and Jacob Epstein and moderately progressive younger painters including Ivon Hitchens and John Piper. The sisters had given a group of works, including sculptures by Rodin and paintings by Augustus John to the National Museum of Wales in 1940, but it is unclear when they decided to leave the bulk of their art collection to the nation. Following Gwendoline's death in 1951, her collection of 109 paintings, drawings, and sculpture was bequeathed to the museum, whose Annual Report observed: "By this princely benefaction the character of the Department of Art has been transformed, so that it now takes a high place among the major art-collections of Great Britain." In May 1960, Margaret presented Gregynog Hall to the University of Wales as "a centre for the appreciation of the visual arts, music, and dramatic art," together with an annual endowment of £12,000. The same month, she sold Monet's Grand Canal, Venice and a number of minor works by Daumier, Pissarro, and Vlaminck at auction for £48,870. Over the following two years, advised by John Steegman, a former curator at the National Museum, she spent almost the whole of this sum on artists previously unrepresented in the Davies collection, including Marquet, Bonnard, Sisley, Utrillo, and Mathew Smith. Early in 1963, Margaret died, bequeathing 151 works of art to the museum, and reuniting the spectacular collection that she and Gwen-doline had assembled.

The Davies family had become rich through the Victorian industrialization of Wales, and Gwendoline and Margaret had a profound sense of indebtedness to the working classes upon which their wealth depended. Following a mining accident in 1927, Gwendoline wrote: "We must do something for these brave men who risk their lives by day & night & keep us in luxury. We've got to build Jerusalem somewhere or other in the Rhondda." Together with their brother David, they sought to repay this debt through donations to causes such as the campaigns against tuberculosis and to improve working-class housing. Because the sisters were recognized as extremely generous towards good causes, they constantly received appeals for aid, and in 1924 Gwendoline ruefully observed: "we are fast coming to the conclusion that indiscriminate, wholesale giving of money or things is bad in the extreme & does much more harm than good." The sisters were earnestly concerned that their money should be well spent, and went to some length to ensure this. A minor but characteristic instance occurred when they resolved to help a young Welsh soldier who had tried to save the life of their nephew Mike, who was killed in action in Holland in 1944. Visiting the soldier's mother, they ascertained that he was fond of gardening and set him up in business as a market gardener. Notwithstanding the sisters' wealth, their expenditure seems to have remained fairly constant and was probably limited to the interest of their investments.

Although Gwendoline and Margaret regularly consulted Hugh Blaker, he was not the architect of their collection, but rather an adviser who facilitated access to the art world and confirmed their developing tastes. In January 1925, shortly before she ceased acquiring works of art, Gwendoline observed "the great joy of collecting anything is to do it yourself, with expert opinion granted, but one does like to choose for oneself. All the time we have been collecting our pictures we have never bought one without having seen it or at least a photograph before purchasing." The greatest financial investment that the sisters made in an individual artist was the £26,732, which they spent on eight oil paintings by J.M.W. Turner. Fashionable Barbizon school painters were almost as expensive; six oils by Corot cost £15,156 and eight by Millet £18,788. The prices of contemporary French artists were more modest, and the sisters spent £12,845 on six Rodin sculptures and £11,530 on nine Monet oils. At a time when the reputation of the Post-Impressionists remained hotly debated, they secured a trio of oils by Cézanne for £5,750, and a major landscape by Van Gogh for £2,020. By comparison, the generally indifferent old master paintings that the sisters acquired from Hugh Blaker in 1919–22 seem distinctly expensive. The French pictures and sculpture constitute but one major element in the Davies collection, but its reputation as a whole is ultimately dependent upon them. With the exception of the collection of Realist and Impressionist paintings assembled by the Irishman Sir Hugh Lane in 1905–13, the Davies sisters formed the first collection of avant-garde French art in the United Kingdom. Samuel Courtauld, who began his own remarkable collection in 1923, acknowledged his debt to their example.

In their settlement of a colony of Belgian refugee artists in Aberystwyth and their development of Gregynog Hall as an arts center, the Davies sisters were inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which flourished in late Victorian England. Designers such as E.W. Gimson and C.R. Ashby established workshops in rural settings from 1895 to 1902, providing precedents for such a foundation, while the Gregynog Press itself was modelled upon the Kelmscot Press, founded by William Morris in 1890. Although there were antecedents for many of the Davies sisters' activities, their range remains extraordinary. Gwendoline alluded to their cultural aspirations for the Welsh people in July 1924: "We have led the Welsh horse to the clearest brook we could possibly get, yet he has only tossed his head & walked straight through, stirring up all the mud & stones he could in doing so—He is so self-complacent, so self-sufficient—so ignorant—how are we ever to convince him that he is thirsty?" In short, the Davies sisters sought nothing less than to reform the entire artistic life of Wales through the visual arts, music, and literature. They were only partially successful in this objective, but their achievements were spectacular and their ambition remains an inspiration.


Charles, R.L., and John Ingamells. Catalogue of the Margaret S. Davies Bequest. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 1963.

Evans, Mark. Impressions of Venice from Turner to Monet. Cardiff and London: National Museum of Wales/Lund Humphries, 1992.

Gregynog. Edited by G.T. Hughes, P. Morgan, and J.G. Thomas. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1977.

Harrop, Dorothy A. A History of the Gregynog Press. Pinner, Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, 1980.

Ingamells, John. The Davies Collection of French Art. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 1967.

Parrott, Ian. The Spiritual Pilgrims. Narberth & Tenby, Pembrokeshire: H.G. Walters, 1969.

Shen, Lindsay. "Philanthropic Furnishing: Gregynog Hall, Powys," in Furniture History. Vol. 21, 1995, pp. 217–235.

Steegman, John. Catalogue of the Gwendoline E. Davies Bequest. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 1952.

Unpublished papers at the National Library of Wales and the National Museum of Wales.

Vincintelli, Moira. "The Davies Family and Belgian Refugee Artists & Musicians in Wales," in The National Library of Wales Journal. Vol. 23, 1981–82, pp. 227–232.

—— and Anna Hale. Catalogue of the Early Studio Pottery in the Collections of University College of Wales Aberystwyth. Aberystwyth 1986.

White, Eirene, Lady. The Ladies of Gregynog. Newtown, Powys: University of Wales Press, 1985.

Dr. Mark L. Evans , Assistant Keeper (Fine Art), Department of Art, National Museum and Gallery of Cardiff, Cathays Park, Cardiff, Wales

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