REVIEW by Michael Nott

NWR Issue 104

A Gift of Sunlight: The Fortune and Quest of the Davies Sisters of Llandinam

by Trevor Fishlock

‘The supreme blessing is the love of a good woman; the next best is the friendship of half a dozen,’ wrote Tom Jones, one of the numerous supporting stars of Trever Fishlock’s enchanting account of the Davies sisters of Llandinam, Margaret (1884-1963) and Gwendoline (1882-1951). These women amassed one of the greatest, and most individual, art collections of the twentieth century, with paintings by Cézanne, Turner, Rodin, and Monet among others. The sisters, certainly, were two of Jones’ closest friends, and it is friendship and art that form the central strands of this family saga of love, courage, and philanthropy.

Fishlock’s biography is the first full account of the lives of the Davies sisters, and the scope and depth of his research is impressive. The book’s magnificent opening chapter succeeds in fusing the seemingly unlikely worlds of Impressionist France and industrial south Wales, and as Fishlock explores, the origins of the Davies sisters’ saga ‘lie in the epic of their grandfather’, the colliery owner, railway magnate, and Liberal politician, David Davies. Davies’ business ventures succeeded in making his granddaughters two of the richest women in Britain, and their inherited wealth, with its accompanying responsibilities, ‘became the commanding fact of their lives.’

While the scope of Fishlock’s biography is to be commended, an occasional tendency to jump around, especially in later chapters, can create bittiness and a lack of coherent narrative. That said, Fishlock’s prose is crisp and engaging, and he is artful in weaving together the various strands of the sisters’ story – no mean feat when one considers the range of their projects, both artistic and philanthropic. Around the central story of their art collection, great attention is paid to their sheltering of Belgian refugees during the Great War, their founding of the Gregynog Press in 1921 and the Gregynog Music Festival in 1933, and their continuing engagement with the family mining business.

Of particular interest are those who played understated albeit crucial roles almost on the periphery of the drama, most notably those who influenced the Davies sisters’ passion for art both in their upbringing – their governess, Jane Blaker – and later, when they became active collectors – such as art connoisseur Hugh Blaker, Jane’s brother, and the aforementioned ‘sartorially uncoordinated’ Tom Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet under four Prime Ministers. Fishlock draws these portraits insightfully and explores the sisters’ relationships with each, using hitherto unseen extracts from letters and journals. These lifelong relationships are cushioned with walk-on parts for renowned artists, writers, and musicians, attesting to the sisters’ wide social sphere, including George Bernard Shaw, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Adrian Boult.

While there would be a temptation, in a project of this nature, to focus solely on the art and merely rehash the already available histories of Impressionism and other artistic movements, Fishlock does an admirable job of portraying the sisters as people, as individuals, and telling their stories as much as the story of the collection. Much of this is achieved through letters – notably those of Gwendoline to Tom Jones – and Fishlock excavates the intensely personal story beneath both the art collection and the sisters’ unfailing philanthropy. Aside from the fact that they built one of the great art collections of Europe, this is a story of two shy, unassuming women with enormous wealth, whose generosity and determination improved education, healthcare, and culture in Wales, and whose lives were spent aiming towards something greater than themselves.

A Gift of Sunlight is generously illustrated with reproductions of paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the Davies collection, as well as family photographs and manuscript letters. A useful appendix details the extent of the Davies Collection in the National Museum of Wales, with the price paid and year of purchase for each work. Their bequest of more than 250 works of art, as Fishlock writes, ‘put Wales and its museum on the world map of art.’ In his biography, Fishlock is doing much the same for the two sisters, compiling and elucidating their story, in full, for the first time.

Michael Nott is a contributor to NWR online and in print.

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