Davies Sisters, Art and World War I
Published: Saturday 22nd Mar 2014
Written by: Ginnie James
Sisters Gwendoline and Margaret Davies are famous for bequeathing their great art collection to the National Museum of Wales. Less, however, is known about the role these amazing women from Mid Wales played during the First World War.
The sisters were grandchildren of David Davies, industrialist and philanthropist responsible for much of the wealth that came into Wales through coal mining, the railways and docks in the Victorian era. They grew up in Llandinam in Mid Wales and, as well as their donations of art, displayed their generosity by helping artist refugees from Belgium – their first great project. Along with their grandfather, they were Calvinistic Methodists and believed that they should do something for their country.
When Germany invaded Belgium, more than a million Belgians left their homes and about 100,000 fled to Britain. Several Belgian artists and their families were helped to move to Wales and Gwendoline and Margaret hoped that this influx would encourage other artists to settle here and raise the standard of arts and crafts. But they were also keen to go and help more directly in the war, where their brother had fought in the trenches. They spoke French and so went to the French Red Cross and set up a canteen at Troyes, 60 miles SE Paris, for French soldiers.
As might be expected, the sisters saw a great deal of suffering; Gwendoline wrote afterwards that the war had ‘broken her to pieces’. However, they found time to pursue their love of art and Gwendoline bought great works in Paris, including two well-known landscapes by Cézanne. These were later bequeathed to the National Museum in Cardiff, with more than 250 works by artists like Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and Rodin. Visit the sisters’ property at Gregynog near Newtown when staying in cottages in Mid Wales.