Miss Gwendolen Davies

Gwendoline-Davies.png
Gwen Davies in 1937

Gwendolen Elizabeth Davies, 51, (1882-1951) and her sister Margaret, were arts philanthropists, inheriting wealth from their industrialist father. Before and during the War they helped find refuge for Belgians fleeing the conflict and then, following their brother David, who was with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, they worked for the Red Cross in France. These experiences inspired their later work in the arts. In 1920 they purchased Gregynog Hall (at Tregynon, nr. Newtown, Montgomeryshire, and now owned by the University of Wales) from their brother (who became an MP), where they built an important art collection (much of which they donated later to the National Museum Wales) and which attracted many visitors from the world of the art, music and politics. An amateur violinist, music was Gwen’s passion (art being Margaret’s).  The first of their notable Music and Poetry Festivals at Gregynog, which are still hosted annually, was in preparation for June 1933.

SEATED BESIDE

Perhaps beside Tom Callaghan, himself also a benefactor of the National Museum Wales, and beside Mrs Arnold Lupton. They might all discuss good causes. Unless the other mystery guests would have made better partners for the evening. We may find out one day.

WHAT’S ON HER MIND?

Gwen was three months away from the first main Festival of Music and Poetry at Gregynog, so I’m pretty sure that would have been mentioned. The dinner would have been a good time to promote it, even though the two sisters were said to be generally reticent.

GWEN’S STORY SO FAR

Gwendolen[1] Elizabeth Davies was born at Llandinam, Montgomeryshire, on 11th February 1882, daughter of Mary Jones, the daughter of Rev. Evan Jones of Llandinam, and Edward Davies (1852 – 1898) the only son of David Davies, industrialist and philanthropist. Her sister Margaret Sidney Davies was born on 14th December 1884. Their elder brother David was born on 11th May 1880, became Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire and was elevated to the peerage the year before the dinner, becoming the 1st Baron Davies. He died on 16th June 1944. Their mother Mary died in 1898, when the children were all in their teens, and their father Edward married his wife’s sister three years later. Gwen and Margaret were both educated at Highfield School in Hendon, North London.

Gwen, who played a Stradivarius, passed the Intermediate level examination of the Incorporated Society of Musicians at Wrexham in 1897, the certificate indicating that this did “not qualify the holder to practice as a Professional Musician”. She played the organ, accompanying the singing of their friend Dora Herbert Jones (herself a well-known traditional singer and broadcaster) who they met on war duty in Troyes, France. In her BBC Wales review, Dr Rhian Davies observes that “A recital under the auspices of the University College of Wales Musical Club at Aberystwyth in 1911 proves that she was capable of a public performance”. In 1914 Gwen had agreed to provide £3,000 pa to establish a School of Music for Wales at Aberystwyth but the scheme was stymied by the War and by objections that the backbone of the staff were to be French – provoking the response: “Could there not be found one English or Welsh ewe-lamb capable of teaching Welsh lambs how to baa?”. [2]

Davies-sisters.png

The Davies sisters with the Red Cross, the two ladies centre right, with their new friend Dora Herbert Jones who became their secretary at Gregynog.[3]

During WW1 the sisters served at Red Cross canteens for soldiers in France, at Troyes, a transit camp for soldiers on their way to the front, Gwen from 1916, Margaret from 1917. In 1918 they moved closer to the front, catering for the wounded, at the “Dépôts d’Eclopés et d’Isolés”. As for many who served, war made a deep impression on them.[4] It was also the time when Gwen started her collection of art, occasionally visiting Paris and buying a few paintings.

The sisters’ philanthropy for music started again after the War and in 1919 Henry Walford Davies was created the first Gregynog Professor of Music at Aberystwyth and first Director of Music for Wales, positions endowed by the Davies sisters. He began to bring his students to Gregynog Hall on retreat, which led to the billiard room being dedicated to music and the elaborate fireplace giving way to an organ. In 1920 the sisters bought Gregynog Hall from their brother.

Gregynog Hall
Gregynog Hall[5]
The sisters intended to set up an arts and crafts centre – the outcome was a successful printing venture, the Gregynog Press – particularly driven by one Thomas Jones. Their entry in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography describes them as follows: “The life style of the sisters, rooted in a strong Calvinistic background, was in no way conventionally aristocratic. They were both reticent and modest and, for many years, strongly influenced by their formidable stepmother. Gwen was, however, the bolder and perhaps more imaginative personality, with some liking for luxuriance and variety, for instance in gardening. Though unassuming, they had ideals, together with the means and will to realise them”.[6] [7]

On 14th July 1924 a concert was given by ‘a contingent of the Welsh Symphony Orchestra’ with other professionals. In 1929 the Gregynog Choir, made up of estate workers and other locals, sang in the Hall, in 1932 Vaughan Williams directed one of compositions, leading to the Festival itself in 1933.

On 27th April 1931, a “Concert of Chamber and Vocal Music”, included Vaughan Williams, Mass in G minor, and on 11th April 1932, “A Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music”, was given by Vaughan Williams and others and on 16th July 1932, a concert given by Miss Elsie Suddaby and Mr C. Clements. Walford Davies and Adrian Boult participated in all these events.[8] All this set things up for the first “Festival” in 1933, which also included poetry.

WHAT GWEN DID NEXT

The 1933 Festival ran from 23rd to 26th June. The Festivals ran until 1938. A second series ran from 1951 to 1961, followed by a one-off Festival in 1972 and the current series running since 1988. Gwen was made a Companion of Honour in 1937.

Gregynog Hall still has a significant collection although the sisters donated more than 260 works, which included many Impressionist paintings, to the National Museum Wales. The donations were made between 1951 and 1963, so presumably bequeathed in the sisters’ respective wills. Intending to set up an arts and crafts centre, the sole activity was a nonetheless successful printing venture, the Gregynog Press – particularly driven by one Thomas Jones. Their entry in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography describes them as follows: “The life style of the sisters, rooted in a strong Calvinistic background, was in no way conventionally aristocratic. They were both reticent and modest and, for many years, strongly influenced by their formidable stepmother. Gwen was, however, the bolder and perhaps more imaginative personality, with some liking for luxuriance and variety, for instance in gardening. Though unassuming, they had ideals, together with the means and will to realise them”.[9] [10]

Gwendolen Elizabeth Davies died at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford on the 3rd July 1951. Margaret died in 1963.

BACK TO TABLE 15


[1] Gwendoline seems to be the current fashion in spelling her name, though I prefer the Welsh spelling as in the guest list. Equally she is often referred to as Gwen so I have used that form which hopefully pleases everybody. 

[2] Dr Rhian Davies, The Musical Sisters, BBC Wales on the Gregynog Festival, 2008 accessed 23.2.2019

[3] Source: Gregynog.org website: The Davies sisters at the Front. Accessed 23.2.2019

[4] Gregynog.org website The Davies sisters at the Front. Accessed 23.2.2019

[5] Gregynog.org website

[6] Gregynog.org website Gregynog and the Sisters, accessed 11.1.2018

[7] Glyn Tegai Hughes, (2001), Davies, Gwendoline Elizabeth, Dictionary of Welsh Biography online, accessed 11.1.2018,©Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales

[8] Concert programmes Gregynog

[9] Gregynog and the Sisters, website accessed 11.1.2018

[10] Glyn Tegai Hughes, (2001), Davies, Gwendoline Elizabeth, Dictionary of Welsh Biography online, accessed 11.1.2018, ©Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales

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