The Davies Sisters during the First World War

Gwendoline Davies visited the damaged and largely empty French city of Verdun on 9 and 10 March 1917, where she acquired this postcard image as a souvenir. Private collection (Lord Davies)

The First World War had a profound effect on the lives of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, two sisters from mid Wales whose gifts and bequests completely transformed the range and quality of Wales's national art collection.

They lost much-loved relatives and served with the Red Cross in France, seeing the destruction first hand. They were deeply conscious of the horrors experienced by both British and French soldiers, and shocked at the suffering of civilian refugees.

While their brother David flung himself into the cause of international peace, the sisters hoped to repair the lives of ex-soldiers traumatized by the war, through education in the crafts and through music. Out of this grew the idea of Gregynog, as a centre for the arts, and for the discussion of social problems.

Bringing Refugee Artists to Wales

On 4 August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, precipitating the First World War. Over a million Belgians fled their homes.

The Davies family decided that Belgian artists should be brought to Wales, where they could work in safety, and inspire the country's art students. Major Burdon-Evans, their agent, and their friend Thomas Jones journeyed to Belgium where they assembled a group of ninety-one refugees, including the sculptor George Minne, and the painters Valerius de Saedeleer and Gustave van de Woestyne and their families.

All three artists were to spend the rest of the war as refugees, largely dependent on the Davies family for support. While their impact on the arts in Wales was limited, the work of all three was to be profoundly influenced by their Welsh exile.

The Sisters in France, 1916–1918

Initially the sisters undertook charitable work at home in connection with the war. They were keen to do more 'in the way of helping', but few women managed to go out to France. One way of doing so was to volunteer through the London Committee of the French Red Cross.

There was little provision in the French army for the welfare of the ordinary soldier, and the Committee sent women to operate canteens at railway stations, hospitals and transit camps.

In July 1916 Gwendoline was posted to a transit camp near Troyes. Margaret joined the canteen there in June 1917, and her journals record their lives at this period.

The sisters were deeply moved by the stoicism of the ordinary soldiers of the French army and by the suffering of exhausted, sick, and hungry refugees.

Wartime collecting

The sisters sometimes managed to add to their art collection during the First World War. Although wartime travel in France was difficult, trips to Paris on Red Cross business provided Gwendoline with opportunities to visit the Bernheim-Jeune gallery.

She bought a Daumier and a Carrière there in April 1917, and paintings by Renoir, Manet and Monet in December. In February 1918 she bought her two celebrated landscapes by Cézanne, The François Zola Dam and Provençal Landscape, which are among her most important and far-sighted purchases.

In February 1916, Gwendoline Davies spent £2,350 on ten oils and a drawing by Augustus John. Both she and Margaret went on to acquire more works by John, and they collected the work of no other artist on this scale.

Gwendoline was determined that the work of Augustus John be seen at Amgueddfa Cymru, later placing several of her own purchases on loan to the Museum.

Guide to the paintings

Paul Cézanne

(1839–1906), Provençal Landscape, oil on canvas, about 1887–8

Bought by Gwendoline Davies with Cézanne's The François Zola Dam in 1918, this picture cost half as much, £1,250. It was probably painted at his family's property outside Aix-en-Provence. Full of the shimmering colour of the South of France where the sisters had holidayed in 1913–14, it must have seemed a world away from war-time Paris in winter.

Amgueddfa Cymru (Bequest of Gwendoline Davies, 1951) NMW A 2438.

Paul Cézanne

(1839–1906), The François Zola Dam, oil on canvas, about 1879

This landscape is one of Gwendoline Davies's greatest pictures, bought in Paris for £2,500 in February 1918. The Troyes canteen was closed for repairs. She was in the city, then under intermittent German bombardment, on Red Cross business. She may have seen it on a previous visit, as in January Margaret had translated from the French the art dealer Ambroise Vollard's anecdotal account of Cézanne's life. Together with Provençal Landscape acquired with it, this was one of the first Cézannes to enter a British collection.

Amgueddfa Cymru (Bequest of Gwendoline Davies, 1951) NMW A 2439.

Camille Pissarro

(1831–1903), Sunset, the Port of Rouen (Steamboats), oil on canvas, 1898

Margaret Davies bought several works by Pissarro at the Leicester Galleries, London, in June 1920. This was the most expensive at £550. The previous year she had worked at a canteen in Rouen run by the Scottish Churches Huts Committee.

Amgueddfa Cymru (Bequest of Margaret Davies, 1963) NMW A 2492.

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