In an article published in The Burlington Magazine, October 1942, LXXXI, no. 475, pp. 237-8. Augustus John describes his sister: 'Of an extreme timidity in a social sense she was always capable of demonstrating a dauntless courage and a formidable strength of will. Her pride, honesty and devotion to what she took to be her duty, combined, under the compulsion of a sufficient motive to transform her into an irresistible force. This gentle soul was then adamant in resolution.... Few on meeting this retiring person in black, with her tiny hands and feet, a soft, almost inaudible voice, and delicate Pembrokeshire accent, would have guessed that here was the greatest woman artist of her age, or, as I think, of any other.'
It was in 1903 that Gwen John undertook a journey to walk from London to Rome. She went in the company of Dorothy McNeill and in fact they did not make it beyond France. Dorothy or 'Dorelia' had become her brother's mistress earlier that year and it seems likely that she agreed to join Gwen on her impetuous journey in a bid to escape the increasingly difficult relationship between John and his wife, Ida (for a portrait of Dorelia see lot 119).
The present drawing closely relates to another self-portrait in pencil and wash dated to 1903 and featured in Davis and Long's retrospective exhibition of Gwen John's work in 1975, no. 100. For a photograph of the artist see lot 116.