Catalogue essay by Susanna Avery-Quash, Senior Research Curator (History of Collecting) at the National Gallery, London
In this enchanting, memorable scene, Gwenda Morgan depicts a smiling young woman with bobbed hair, wearing a plain round-necked garment, filling the foreground – given the title of the work, it is likely to be a self-portrait. The figure is busy adorning a log with wintry foliage including holly and ivy; a smaller branch awaits her attention. Through an archway two other female figures stand at a table, one holding a branch, presumably about to embark on similar activity. A large picture window gives onto hills, roof-tops and a church spire around which a flock of birds is circling.
Being an indoor scene dominated by a single large-scale, statuesque figure makes this an unusual work in the artist’s oeuvre; most of her woodcuts illustrate landscapes or exteriors of buildings, many peopled with little, bustling figures. If it is a self-portrait, this might explain its distinctive qualities? In other ways, it is a characteristic work. For one thing,Morgan produced numerous scenes evocative of the seasons especially winter and summer such as Summer Flowers (1934) and Summer Kaleidoscope (1964-65), Christmas Morning (1955) and Midwinter (1962). The title suggests that the scene depicted the artist’s home environment. Morgan spent her life in and around Petworth, West Sussex, and the local people, buildings and landscape constantly provided inspiration and staffage for her art, as when she incorporated 31 wood-engravings commemorating her time spent working on a farm on the South Downs in her Diary of a Land Girl, 1939-1945 (published in 2002).
The print is produced from a woodcut, which shows her distinctive employment of bold areas of contrasting light and shade, broken up by diverse pattern making of lines, dashes and dots. Morgan was tutored in wood engraving from 1930 at the newly established Grosvenor School, London, by the art school’s co-founder, the wood engraver Iain Macnab. His liberal spirit dictated that there should be no compulsory classes apart from one in lino-cutting, and that printing from woodblocks and lino should be encouraged as comparatively affordable and therefore democratic processes. As well as Macnab, Morgan’s work is clearly influenced by that of fellow Sussex-born painter, designer, book illustrator and wood-engraver Eric Ravilious.
Morgan exhibited work at the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers & Engravers, among other prestigious venues, and was elected an Honorary Member of the Society of Wood Engravers. Some of her woodcuts became well-known as book illustrations, for instance, in editions of Gray’s Elegy and Grimms’ Other Tales, both published by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1946. In 2015 her work was celebrated alongside that of fellow Grosvenor School alumna, Sibyl Andrews in an exhibition, ‘A Study in Contrast: Sybil Andrews and Gwenda Morgan’, held at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Canada. Examples of Morgan’s prints are found in major UK public art collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum and British Museum, London as well as at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Nine of her engravings adorn Leconfield Hall, Petworth’s community hall, to which Morgan left a generous bequest for its refurbishment and upkeep.
Gwenda Morgan was a wood engraver, painter, and book illustrator who studied at Goldsmiths’ College (1926-29) before going to the Grosvenor School to study engraving under Iain Macnab (1930-36). She worked for a number of private presses, including the Samson Press and the Golden Cockerel Press. Her work drew upon the landscape and buildings around her hometown of Petworth and the neighbouring South Downs. Throughout the Second World War, she worked as a Land Girl just outside Petworth and her record of those years was published in 2002 as The Diary of a Land Girl, 1939-1945. She was elected an Honorary Member of the Society of Wood Engravers and a Member of the National Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers. n 2015 an exhibition, “A Study in Contrast: Sybil Andrews and Gwenda Morgan”, was held at theArt Gallery of Greater Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada