You are here: Home / News / Notable Society members of the past - Gwen Raverat

Notable Society members of the past - Gwen Raverat

Gwen Raverat, (1885 - 1957) Cambridge Artist. A Cambridge Drawing Society member from 1900 to 1957. President of the Society from 1932 to 1949.


Gwendolen Mary Raverat (née Darwin), usually known simply as Gwen, is the Society's most well-known and well-documented member.  She was born in Cambridge in 1885, the first child of Sir George and Lady Maud Darwin.  Sir George was a son of the great Charles Darwin and was appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at the University of Cambridge shortly before Gwen's birth.  Her mother, Martha Du Puy - known as Maud - came from Philadelphia and met George Darwin during a visit to an aunt in Cambridge. They lived at Newnham Grange on Silver Street which is now part of Darwin College.


With the support of a recommendation from Cambridge artist Mary Charlotte Green, who had taught her since she was a child, Gwen entered the Slade School in 1908, to study under the surgeon-painter Henry Tonks (1862-1937) and Philp Wilson Steer (1860-1942) .  Here she would have followed the normal art school curriculum of the time, with an emphasis on drawing and painting.  She learned the basics of wood engraving from a relative, Elinor May Darwin but was mostly self-taught.  Her style  was influenced as much by the French Impressionists as by contemporary English colleagues, such as Eric Gill or C. F. Tunnicliffe.  One of Gwen's first wood engravings to be published was entitled Lord Thomas and Fair Annet in The Open Window (1911) and in 1915 her work was used to illustrate Spring Morning by Gwen's cousin the poet Frances Cornford, another Darwin grand-daughter and Cambridge resident.

In 1911 Gwen married Bedales-educated Frenchman Jacques Raverat who, having left the Sorbonne, was in Cambridge to continue studying mathematics, though he later abandoned his studies in favour of fine-art and joined Gwen at the Slade.  The son of a wealthy French businessman, Jacques was a member of the Marlowe Society and an intimate friend of Rupert Brooke.  He first met Gwen in 1909 at rehearsals for a production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus at the ADC Theatre, in which he took the role of Mephistopholis and Gwen the part of Lechery.

The friendship between Gwen's father and Sir Leslie Stephen meant that Gwen had close links with the Bloomsbury set and she was a friend of Sir Leslie's daughters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf; she was secretary of Vanessa's Friday Club, and exhibited at the club's exhibitions in 1910 and 1911. 

LaPlace en Ete, Ven...(Raverat)

The Raverats' first home was in Croydon, near Royston and later, after a short period in le Havre to be near Jacques' parents, they returned to England and lived, among other places, at Weston, near Baldock.  They had two daughters, Elisabeth (1916) and Sophie (1919).  However, Jacques health began to fail (multiple sclerosis would eventually be diagnosed) and in 1920 the family moved to Vence in the South of France where, it was hoped, the climate would improve Jacques' condition. It was not to be, however, and the harrowing effects of his disease made life in Vence increasingly difficult and distressing.  In spite of this, Gwen made many striking woodcut images of Provençale life and Jacques continued to paint for as long as his condition would allow.

In 1920, Gwen was a founder-member of the Society of Wood Engravers, a group whose aim was to promote original white-line wood engravings, designed and engraved by the artist, as opposed to the wood engravings of the nineteenth century, which had been engraved by skilled craftsmen to a design of the artist.

When Jacques died in 1925, Gwen returned to England and settled in Bloomsbury.  It was in 1931while she was living in London that she designed the sets and costumes for the first performance of Job, A Masque for Dancing, a ballet to music by her second cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams based on a concept by Geoffrey Keynes and choreographed by Ninette de Valois.  She would go on to make costume and set designs for other theatrical productions, including the famous triennial Cambridge Greek plays.

In 1928 she moved to the Old Rectory at Harlton, near Cambridge, which would be her home for the next eighteen years.  Frances Cornford's son Christopher wrote: "The hub of [Gwen's home] was her studio which was also - for she made no barriers between art and life - the general sitting room. We would gather round the fireplace reading or chattering or listening to the gramophone whilst she, two or three feet away, sat paring delicately away at her boxwood under an Aladdin lamp."

In the 1930s, Gwen's engravings were often used to illustrate limited-edition books by Cambridge friends and associates.  In 1932 she provided engravings for Kenneth Graham's Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children, published by the Cambridge University Press, at that time famous for the high quality of its printing.  This was followed by many other publications, including Farmer's Glory by A. G. Street, perhaps her most celebrated work in this genre.  She also illustrated a number of books with line drawings, including Over The Garden Wall by Eleanor Farjeon (1933), Mustard, Pepper and Salt by Alison Uttley (1940) and Crossings by Walter de la Mare (1942).

In 1934, Gwen was elected a Fellow of the Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers.  Though her reputation rests on her work as a wood engraver, Gwen continued to paint throughout her career, making oil sketches en plein air in Cambridge and the surrounding country.  She was also a shrewd and witty (if rather conservative) art critic for Time and Tide magazine. 

During the war of 1939-45, she moved to a flat in Cambridge and worked as a draftsman on an Admiralty project based at the Scott Institute in Lensfield Road.  Since 1915, the Geographical Section of Naval Intelligence had been producing handbooks containing comprehensive details of the physical geography of various countries.  It had been found that line-drawings offered a clearer delineation of topographical features than photographs, and with the onset of war the production of these guides was stepped up and aimed to include any country in which British servicemen might find themselves operating.  At first, Gwen's work lacked the precision required but with practice she adapted her style to the needs of the project and was given the task of rendering Ordnance Survey Maps into three dimensions.  She described the work as "queerly absorbing" and ended up mapping the entire coastline of Greece in 3D, not to mention a great many of the Pacific Islands.

After the war she moved to The Old Granary in Silver Street, next to her birthplace, Newnham Grange.  Here she wrote Period Piece, a memoir of her childhood in Cambridge at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Illustrated with her own line-drawings, it was in instant success and has never been out of print since it first appeared in 1952.  In 1951 she was forced to give up wood-engraving after she was left partially paralysed by a stroke.  Her creative instincts remained undimmed, however and she continued to paint, mostly views of Coe Fen and Lammas Land, done from the balcony of her home.

Gwen Raverat died by her own hand in 1957 and is buried with her father at Trumpington Extension Cemetery.

Frances Spalding has published a biography Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family & Affections, published by Harvill.

Sources: (i) CDS records, (ii) 'Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections' by F. Spalding, (iii) Wikipedia, (iv) notes by Christopher Cornford for the catalogue of a retrospective exhibition of Gwen's work held in Royston in 1987 (in the CDS archive), (v) The Oxford National Dictionary of Biography.