A Most Remarkable Woman: Gwen Raverat (1885-1957)

Gwendolen (Gwen) Darwin was the grand-daughter of the great Charles Darwin. In 1911 she married a Frenchman, Jacques Raverat and one of their daughters, Sophie, married my father’s elder brother Mark. Dr. Mark Pryor was a very distinguished zoologist and Senior Tutor at Trinity College, Cambridge. Gwen was an artist of very considerable talent and was particularly well-known for her prints and wood-cuts. I met her several times when I was a youngster (she died when I was just twelve) and I well recall her going upstairs in the evening to work in her studio. She was very self-disciplined. When I knew her she lived at the Old Granary in Silver Street, Cambridge. The house was next door to the Newnham Grange, where she had spent her childhood, and both houses are now part of Darwin College. A couple of years ago I went to Darwin for dinner, and I have to say the college gardens, which retain the old property boundaries that run down to the river, are simply stunning. In other respects the place has changed enormously, but the balcony at the back of the house, which over-hangs  the river,  is still there and I have fond memories of me and my cousin William Pryor (Sophie’s son) trying to grab hold of the tops of the punt poles of passing student punters – in the (vain) hope that they’d fall into the river.

Gwen was a member of the Bloomsbury group and carried on a long correspondence with Virginia Woolf – and happily these letters survive.  But she is probably best known for her book Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, which she both wrote and illustrated. It’s a wonderful, warm, humorous and affectionate book and is still as popular as ever. The Edwardians haven’t had a very good press: most of us think of them as stuffy and rather stuck-up. But they certainly weren’t in her family, or indeed in academic circles. It reads rather like a modern person has been transported back over a hundred years and it’s impossible not to identify with the young Gwen. It’s one of my favourite books.

My cousin William and others have just set up a new website devoted to Gwen: http://www.raverat.com/ All sorts of activities are being planned, including concerts and exhibitions. So give it a click.

I thought I’d include her print ‘Horses at Night’. It was in my room at school and university and I’m very attached to it. Despite her name, Gwen was, I think, very English.

Horses at Night

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