In her painting Soeur Marie Celine, Gwen John seems to have produced a restful image of a nun in a straightforward three-quarter length pose, her hands gently overlapping on her missal which lies on the bare table. But the portrait is disquieting. The background details which appear in related works have been eliminated: the subdued tones, shallow space and indeterminate lighting give the impression of an enclosed room, a cell. The restrained use of colours, brown, dusty-black and chalk-white, add to the atmosphere of detachment. Nuns often convey a sense of mystery. They are like us, but not like us; the habit, a mask to the outside world. This nun has no particular expression, she is distant but watchful and yet the image itself is expressive. She remains an enigma. 'People are like shadows to me and I am like a shadow', Gwen John once wrote to Michel Salaman. How then, did this small, sensitive painting become part of the Hayward collection?
In 1948, towards the end of a long Australian summer, Edward and Ursula Hayward were preparing for a much-delayed visit to the United Kingdom and Europe-a trip postponed due to World War II and Edward's war service. Before they left, they were guests of honour at a farewell dinner held by Edward Hayward's colleagues at John Martin's department store, a store which was owned by the Hayward family and of which he was a director. In the store bulletin, the event was described as 'happy', and in his reply to a speech wishing them 'bon voyage', Edward made a point of saying how proud he was to be going home to England as a member of the firm. The fact that he still described England as home shows how strong the ties were at that time between the two countries. They were to be away until November of that year and it is not difficult to imagine the couple looking forward to the break now that the war was over and Edward's days as a lieutenant-colonel in the AIF were well and truly behind him. They had properly settled into Carrick Hill and in spite of food rationing and some austerity, their life was gradually returning to normal. During their months overseas, in addition to Edward's business commitments, there would be the opportunity for them to visit art galleries, and perhaps add to the collection they had begun to build during their honeymoon in England in 1935.
It was during this 1948 trip that they bought Gwen John's unsigned, undated painting Soeur Marie Celine for £760 from A. Tooth & Co. It was the most expensive work they acquired that year from Tooth's, from whom they also bought three Epstein bronzes¬Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and George Bernard Shaw. It was Ursula in particular, who must have been delighted with the painting, because she liked 'modern' English artists. Gwen John had died nine years before and her work was increasing in popularity, in part due to two retrospective exhibitions of her paintings and drawings in 1946.
Gwen's brother, Augustus was a great admirer of her work. On the surface, the Johns, brother and sister, seemed absolute opposites both in personality and in their approach to painting. Augustus was seen as a flamboyant, temperamental character-the great draughts man and prolific artist in contrast to the shy, reserved Gwen, who produced a relatively small oeuvre during her working life. When they were at the Slade School, it was always Augustus who was the centre of attention. A fellow student was once asked if he had known Gwen, and he said, 'No, but I remember someone pointing her out to me as she crossed Gower Street, "That's Augustus' sister" '. In fact, underneath her apparent reserve, Gwen John had a strong will, a passionate nature and a single-mindedness and determination to succeed as an artist. Augustus once wrote that they were 'much the same, really' and in his old age said that fifty years after his death he would be remembered as Gwen John's brother. In 1903, when Augustus was twenty-five and Gwen was twenty-seven, he persuaded her to share an exhibition with him at the Carfax Gallery. There, although only two of the forty-eight exhibits were Gwen's, Augustus complained to William Rothenstein that the critics appeared to have overlooked her paintings and added'. . . the little pictures are almost painfully charged with feeling: even as their neighbours are painfully empty of it! And to think that Gwen so rarely brings herself to paint'. However, Gwen John found her brother's intense concern for her welfare stifling; she needed to be independent, away from his strong personality, and this was one of the reasons which persuaded her to leave for Paris in 1904, distancing herself from her brother's domination.
What were Gwen John's circumstances in the mid-1910s which led to the painting of the portrait Soeur Marie Celine? First of all, although she remained in France for the latter part of her life, the subjects Gwen John chose to paint were not particularly French. They came from the small, ordinary world of her everyday life: her beloved cats, friends, stilllifes and the interiors of her rooms. Her first eight years in France were occupied by a passionate love affair with the sculptor, Rodin. By 1912, the affair waned leaving a gap in her life which was filled by her conversion to Catholicism in 1913. The church not only gave her solace, it re¬channelled her emotional energy and provided her with new subject matter. 'Ma religion et mon art, c'est toute ma vie' [my religion and my art are my entire life] she wrote and said she intended to 'put all that energy of loving into my drawing'. She became friendly with the nuns at the Meudon convent near where she lived at 29 rue Terre Neuve. She found the Mother Superior a sympathetic confidante and was commissioned to do a portrait of the Order's foundress, Mere Poussepin (1653-1744). But from the beginning the commission had its difficulties. She began in 1913, using as a guide, a small 1911 prayer card which was based on a contemporary portrait of Mere Poussepin. She was continually worried and felt herself pressured by the demands of the commission. In mid-1913 she wrote in a note to herself, 'Very tired. Desire very much to finish my nun'. Her friend, Grilda (Maude) Boughton-Leigh, wrote to her in July of the following year, 'What a pity you cannot finish your portrait of the nun, surely it would be best to leave it and take a change'. In 1916, the nuns asked her to complete portraits of Mere Poussepin for every room in the convent and she tried to do them all at the same time. During this period, her problems with 'the nun' or 'my nun' were the excuses she offered her patron, the American, John Quinn, for failing to complete other paintings she had promised. She found it difficult to scale up the image from the small memorial card to a large painting and she wrote at a later stage: 'I can only do little pictures here because of the light and low ceiling. I had to go to Brittany to do Mere Poussepin'. To make matters worse, according to Jeanne Foster (John Quinn's companion) there was also the problem of the costume: 'She started to study, starved herself to hire models, painted-painted-painted. The convent refused to lend her a nun's costume. She bought the cloth and had one made. Twice it was ripped apart and re-made before it was right. Then she pretended to work very slowly. She painted and re-painted seven Mere Poussepins, hiding or destroying all of them. Seven years of agony passed. She never had a portrait she dared show the priest. Finally he lost his patience and said, "Are you, or are you not going to paint Mere Poussepin?" Then desperately she began this painting and the miracle happened, the technique born of seven years travail and grief and love had been perfected-she was an artist'. Although Jeanne Foster may have exaggerated, it does seem likely that John used live models for the portraits-Jeanne Foster claimed to have sat for one of them which, ironically, was the only portrait to be owned by the convent, where it was seen hanging in 1920. A year later it was acquired by John Quinn.
The commission certainly caused problems for this slow, shy artist, but it also allowed her to explore, refine and develop versions of an image simultaneously.
And from Mere Poussepin, she moved on to the sequence of portraits of nuns of which the Carrick Hill painting is a part. It is possible that this later series may have begun as portraits of the foundress. Eight of the eleven known paintings use the same model with the same dark, arched eyebrows who may have posed for the original Mere Poussepip commission.
But Carrick Hill's painting is the only one which was named and it was known as Soeur Marie Celine from 1943 onwards and was certainly bought under that name in 1948. Gwen John painted her nuns wearing the same seventeenth-century veil as Mere Poussepin's, not the starched and stiffened cornette that was in use at the beginning of the twentieth century and which Gwen John had drawn many times as she sat in the church or convent. Another inconsistency has led one expert, Dr Mary Taubman, in her book on Gwen John published in 1985, to cast doubt on the identification of this sitter as Soeur Marie Celine. She noted that the archives of the Sisters of Charity of the Dominican Order of the Presentation of the Holy Virgin at Tours show that a sister of that name was Maltresse de classe at Meudon between 1921 and 1946 and that her age in 1921 would have been fifty-two. Doctor Taubman felt such a dating would appear to invalidate the identification of Carrick Hill's picture. As its early provenance is not known, it has also been suggested that it could be a 'lost' painting, entitled The Novice which was first exhibited in Brussels in 1929 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts.
Although the sitter may never be positively identified, there is something of a self-portrait in the painting. It seems as if, after so many portraits of her nuns, a process of transfer has occurred. All the concentration and emotional energy expended over the years, and all the anguish, have combined the essence of subject and artist. John, with her austere, solitary, interior world, full of hardship and suffering, driven by her commitment to her art and comforted by her religion, has produced a painting that can be seen as a metaphor for her life.