• 20th Century British Art auction at Christies

    Sale 5885

    20th Century British Art

    23 September 2009, London, South Kensington

  • Lot 67

    Gwen John (1876-1939)

    Cat grooming

    Price Realised  


    Gwen John (1876-1939)
    Cat grooming
    pencil and watercolour on card
    6 x 4¾ in. (15.2 x 12.1 cm.)

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    Pre-Lot Text

    Property of the late Joan Griffth (née Seddon)
    Joan Griffth - a Fine Enquiring Mind

    To me Frances Mary Joan Griffith was always plain Joan Seddon, though plain is not a word to be used of such a fine-boned fragile-seeming beauty. Two years my senior, we overlapped as students at the Courtauld Institute more than half a century ago, I as a simple art historian, she in the Technology Department as a pupil of Stephen Rees-Jones, relining canvases, stablising panels, tinkering disconnected fragments of paint into position, making moulds of canvas grain, analysing paint and developing techniques for seeing the invisible. She went on to do great things, none greater than her restoration of Mantegna's 'Triumph of Caesar' in the Royal Collection; these nine canvases almost three metres square were so overpainted and dirty that they were all but impossible to read when, in 1962, she and John Brealy began their campaign of discovery - in both the current and obselete senses of that word. It lasted twelve years and, as is the way of these things, to the woman fell the drudgery, the credit to the man.
    Those who put their difficult pictures in Joan's hands will not be surprised to learn that the Mantegnas took so long. Strict scruple dictated that she should solve problems rather than, for convenience, bury them in haste, and that science and aesthetics should have primacy over the commercial concerns of any art dealer wise enough to trust her; private owners were often dismayed to find that her forensic interest in an obstinately warping panel and its separating gesso ground outweighed any obligation they might suppose she had to finish and return their paintings - her record for treatment was fourteen years. Sensitive restorer, enquiring and pragmatic scientist, she was for a while, president of the British branch of the International Institute of Conservation. She was also, to her bones, a painter, her landscape unconsciously akin to the private works of Degas, her nudes influenced by Coldstream, though she was not his pupil. To her restoration she brought a painter's sensibility - not her own, but in some inspired sense, that of the painter on whose work she was engaged. She could be a Quattrocento Florentine, she could be Rembrandt, and she was herself as often as she could be - but not often enough, for the wounded patients in her studio were always on her mind.
    There were other siren calls - her related instincts as a collector and a gardener. As a student living in one room she nurtured Alpines, tiny glaucous little things on every ledge. As a young professional in a flat above the Moti Mahal restaurant in South Kensington, the fumes of curry blended with those of acetone and white spirit in her studio, but the Alpines flourished in her bathroom. With marriage to Gerald Griffith they moved to new quarters on Kew Green, and they were with her still at Wellbrook Manor in the last decades of her life. There gardening took over and her ambitions grew to rival Repton in the distances and Jekyll round the house, and the bantam hens that enlivened her tiny patch in Kew metamorphosed into sheep of rare breeds that played a Thomas Sidney Cooper role in the long view from her windows.
    She had collecting in her blood. Her uncle, Dyson Perrins, was a celebrated collector of illuminated medieval manuscripts, but Joan was passionate about too many things ever to be so contained. She was a voracious magpie, accumulating with Gerald more drawings and paintings than they could ever hang. Their shared interests were Modern British - Gilman, Ginner, Clausen, Maitland, Lucien Pissarro - but Joan was far the broader in her taste and could be as thrilled with unattributable portraits and drawings by esoteric old masters if she discerned in them some peculiarly convincing quality.
    She was a rescuer, a nurturer, a healer in her way; these abstractions embrace all her interests - in works of art damaged and discarded, in plants and trees (from nurseries she often bought the saddest specimens), in the cats she rescued, and in Titan, the gelding whom she rode, fearlessly, without a saddle. The long muscles of her thighs were iron hard and she was as proud of them as of her work on the Mantegnas. Brian Sewell, May 2009.