Keeping the World Away By Margaret Forster

Still lives and hidden passions
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The Independent Culture

At the height of his fame the flamboyant artist Augustus John predicted that "50 years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John's brother". It may have taken a little longer, but retrospectives at the Barbican and Tate have shown that it was indeed the quiet sister who was the real artistic innovator, and not the bravura brother with an eye for a finely drawn line and a well-turned ankle.

Introverted yet defiant, Gwen John modelled and painted in the bohemian circles of fin-de-siècle Paris, where she became the mistress of the much older and very famous Rodin. Her meditative paintings that include cats, nuns, self-portraits and empty attic rooms have a Zen-like stillness that masks the inner turmoil she experienced as she waited in the grip of obsession for her lover to visit, a lover for whom she was only ever a diversion from the main themes of his art and the long-standing relationship with his companion, Rose.

Painting the same subject again and again, Gwen John used the interior of rooms to explore abstract space. Her female figures become more expressionistic until they seem almost to dissolve towards abstraction. Reclusive after her disappointment in love, she moved to Meudon where her "Rules to Keep the World away" included not having more social intercourse than was strictly necessary.

Margaret Forster's novel takes as its starting-point the trajectory of a supposedly lost painting by John, which touches the lives of a number of women over a century. Beginning with Gillian, on a school trip to the Tate, the book ends with her becoming the guardian of the little painting which has been lost, stolen and almost destroyed during its journey from Paris to Hampstead and Chelsea, via a trip to Cornwall during the Great War and a brief sojourn in the wilds of Scotland.

Gillian is left the painting by a barely-known benefactress because she has understood its "real" meaning. It is then to pass from woman to woman, becoming an unlikely symbol of feminist solidarity. In clear prose, Forster creates essentially a series of short stories interlinked by the fate of the painting and the lives of the protagonists. Near the beginning we see something of Gus and Gwen's childhood in Tenby and her ill-fated relationship with Rodin. But for a book about a painter, there is never a real sense of what it means technically and intellectually to struggle to make a painting; something that preoccupied Gwen John.

Perhaps the most touching and finely drawn character is the lumpen but intelligent Edwardian daughter of Lord Falconer, Charlotte. After an educational trip to Italy with her enlightened father, she blossoms from ugly duckling to acceptably attractive bluestocking, realising that her desire to be a painter, like the unknown woman artist of the little canvas in her possession, is an unrealistic pipe dream.

Forster uses the lost painting to speak of women's lives and to create a metaphorical thread that links them. Well crafted, if a little contrived, the book lacks a certain passion in comparison with the wonderful biography of Gwen John by Sue Roe. It's all a bit safe, a bit middle-of-the-road and middle-class. I'm not sure that the fiercely individualistic, and truly bohemian, Gwen John would have approved.

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