Simon Brett on the wood engravings of Gwen Raverat

Artist of Earth and Sky

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Despite the aspirations Gwen Raverat expressed in her classic childhood memoir Period Piece (‘O happy Mrs Bewick!’ she declares at one point) and all the drawings in the book, many of its enchanted readers have discovered with apparent surprise that its author was an artist of some importance. Yet this may not be so remarkable; little had been written about her later life until Frances Spalding’s full biography in 2001, though Gwen and her husband Jacques did feature in Paul Delaney’s The Neo-Pagans (1987) as central members of the Cambridge circle surrounding Rupert Brooke. My own journey was in the opposite direction from most people’s. I knew Gwen Raverat as an artist long before I discovered Period Piece.

She seems to me to be perhaps the only artist in my own medium of wood engraving to whom the adjective ‘great’ could be applied. Obviously, if greatness consists in producing grandes machines, as those vast French exhibition pieces like The Raft of the Medusa are called, she is out of the running, for few of her works measure more than four or five square inches. But if greatness may consist in distilling and communicating with rare intensity and consistency the individual vision which most artists only attempt to define, then she might be in there with Rembrandt (whose etchings she kept beneath her pillow as a child) and Samuel Palmer.

Gwen Darwin took up wood engraving before and quite independently of the schools which promoted it in the 1920s; she taught herself to engrave in 1909 while she was at the Slade School of Art, in London. In 1911, she married Jacques Raverat, the English-educated and Anglophile son of a French industrialist. He had studied mathematics at Cambridge, where they met, but turned to the crafts as a printer, and then to art as a painter, on his doctors’ advice. I suppose they thought that, for an invalid, it was less intellectually taxing. Needing to make a life,

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About the contributor

Simon Brett edited the 1989 edition of The Wood Engravings of Gwen Raverat.

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