HUGH BLAKER IS CHIEFLY REMEMBERED as advisor to the Davies Sisters of Gregynog. It was his taste that influenced Gwendoline and Margaret in the formation of their internationally-renowned collection of nineteenth-century French art now held by the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. It was on Blaker’s recommendation that the Davieses purchased many of their works by Daumier, Corot, Millet, Rodin and Monet, as well as a small number of Old Master paintings. However, Blaker’s role as consultant has overshadowed his many other activities. He was also a painter, author, critic, museum curator, collector, dealer in Old Masters and, against overwhelming public opinion, an indefatigable advocate of avant-garde tendencies in art.
It was Jane Blaker who introduced her brother to Gwendoline and Margaret ‘Daisy’ Davies. She was the sisters’ governess from 1895 until the young women came of age. She then became companion to their stepmother who was living at Broneirion, Llandinam. Passionate and opinionated, Hugh Blaker ridiculed official conservatism in his support and promotion of young artists. ‘I am trying to do something for the moderns’, he protested, ‘but they won’t let me!’ Since my 2004 essay for the Oxford University Press Journal of the History of Collections, I have explored Blaker’s hugely important, yet largely unrecognised, contribution to the course of art history in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century.
Hugh Blaker : Advisor to Gwendoline and Margaret Davies
While the sisters consulted other collectors, advisors and dealers, it was Hugh Blaker’s artistic tastes and preferences that largely shaped the Davies Collection. He directed them toward artists and movements that he admired. Blaker was charismatic, confident and passionately outspoken, the sisters’ opposite in so many ways. Both sisters were artistically sensitive. Gwen played the violin, Daisy painted. In his 1969 book Spiritual Pilgrims, Ian Parrott described the sisters as so ‘self-effacing, timid, shy and undemonstrative that they seemed to fade from view.’
Like other turn-of-the-twentieth-century collectors, Gwendoline and Margaret initially favoured eighteenth century portraits by Thomas Lawrence, Henry Raeburn, George Romney and landscapes by Richard Wilson, Thomas Gainsborough, David Cox, and J. M. W. Turner. It was not until 1912, four years after they began collecting, that Hugh Blaker finally persuaded them to buy Impressionist paintings.
Perhaps a little cautious at first and in need of reassurance, Gwendoline was soon writing to Blaker requesting that he ‘look out for Impressionist works’ on his next visit to Paris. She found it easier to buy through Blaker, at least until she made her own contacts with Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris and the Leicester Galleries in London.
The sisters first bought Impressionist paintings at a time when such works were not widely accepted in Britain. The most important attempt to introduce the British public to modern French painting was the exhibition Manet and the Post Impressionists staged by Roger Fry at the Grafton Gallery in 1910. The Times critic was offended by the ‘simplicity of the work which has a blatant disregard for skills past artists had acquired and bequeathed, and a rejection of all that civilisation had done.’ His was not a lone voice. Public institutions – including the Tate – were no more open-minded.
Hugh Blaker, however, had studied in Europe. He was a self-professed ‘modernist’ and wholly sympathetic toward artistic developments on the Continent. He knew that collectors in Germany and the United States of America were more enlightened than the British toward Impressionism. Blaker derided The Times critic and others for their ‘ponderous stupidity’, insisting that ‘cultured London is composed of clowns.’ He prophesised that those who then condemned would in twenty years’ time pay large sums of money to possess these paintings. ‘How insular we are still,’ he exclaimed.
In his 1916 Journal, Blaker noted that he had ‘inspired the Davies girls to buy Rodin’s Eve thus adding one more glorious Rodin to their collection. Also some early John paintings, and two drawings.’ Gwendoline Davies also made outstanding purchases independently of Blaker. In 1918, for example, she bought the first of her three Cézanne canvases. Eager to claim some credit, Blaker points out in his 1922 Journal that is was some ‘ten maybe fifteen years ago, [that he] was begging Miss Davies to buy Cézanne.’
The sisters bought relatively few pictures through the London or Paris salerooms. They had an apartment at Buckingham Gate and from there they could attend auction viewings. Since picking up a bargain was not a necessity, they generally liked to go through dealers who guaranteed a painting’s pedigree. However, the dealerships were not perceived to be the domain of women and so it was useful to have Blaker negotiating on their behalf.
Gwendoline and Margaret bought a small number of Old Masters on the advice of Blaker who considered himself to be expert at discovering ‘sleeper’ masterpieces. The question of attribution, however, was all too risky to the uninitiated. Blaker sold paintings to the sisters that he had ascribed to Botticelli, Constable, El Greco, Hals and Van Dyck all of which now have School, Circle or Follower status. Buying contemporary artworks was much less problematic. Some of the sisters’ newly acquired Impressionist paintings had been painted just a few years earlier. Authorship was almost certainly guaranteed.
Blaker became the public voice of the Davies collection. He sprang to its defence when it was subject of criticism or prejudice. The first loan exhibition was to the fledgling National Museum of Wales in Cardiff in 1913. The collection was then only partially formed yet those involved foresaw it as a milestone for art in Wales. Writing in his Journal, Blaker anticipated that the exhibition would ‘educate the population in the love of art’, adding that the ‘Rodin’s are great enough to found a school of sculpture in Wales.’
The sisters sought to encourage and support interest in the arts in Wales. They were concerned that the people of Wales had been starved of the visual arts. They looked on the French collection as a means to introduce Wales to the best of the European tradition and to encourage high standards among indigenous artists. They wanted to see a Renaissance in Welsh art.
Gwendoline and Margaret remained anonymous. Blaker handled the organisation, gave public lectures and invited guest speakers. While the English and Old Master paintings were admired, the Impressionist canvases prompted a strong outcry. The Western Mail critic wrote of the ‘slapdash’ impressions that are ‘of more use to the author than anyone else, and ought never to have been framed, let alone exhibited.’
In 1921 Gwen Davies proposed the loan of two Cézanne oils to the Tate Gallery. The offer was turned down on the grounds of limited space. Blaker took the refusal personally. As architect of the Davies collection, he felt it reflected poorly upon him. Blaker suspected that the Trustees were questioning Cézanne’s importance and the paintings’ merit. In an open letter to The Observer, Blaker made the issue public. A debate ensued on the need for Cézanne to be represented in Britain’s national collection.
Letters between Blaker and Tate trustees were published in the Saturday Review and the Burlington Magazine. Blaker was insistent. After all, Cézanne was already on public display throughout Europe and the USA. In June 1922, Tate Trustee D. S. MacColl approached Gwendoline Davies to arrange a loan. He admitted to having rated the painting ‘too low.’ In so doing, François Zola Dam became the first Cézanne to hang in a public gallery in Britain.
With faith in Blaker and their own convictions, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies went against overwhelming public opinion to form a collection of nineteenth century French art that twenty years later they would not have been unable to afford.
Hugh Blaker : Connoisseur and Collector
Hugh Blaker was himself a collector. He used his modest income from investments in West India Rubber to buy from contemporary English and French artists as well as speculate on Old Masters at the salerooms. He seriously considered becoming an independent dealer for he had made many useful contacts at London galleries and salerooms as a consequence of his dealings on behalf of the Davies sisters.
Since Blaker did not have the financial means to indulge his passion for the work of Cézanne or the other modern French painters in the Davies Collection, he looked ahead of the other dealers and bought works by then underrated artists such as Maurice de Vlaminck and Amadeo Modigliani. Blaker claimed to be the first person in Britain to buy Modigliani’s painting, ‘the only man in London to give a tuppenny damn about them.’ Jane Blaker presented Modigliani’s The Little Peasant to the Tate in memory of her brother.
When Blaker began dealing in Old Masters, however, he entered the risky domain of connoisseurship. He made many speculative investments in Old Master paintings. He bought and sold canvases by Holbein, Rubens, Hals, Gainsborough and Turner. He expected it to be a lucrative market given his self-professed ‘instinctive sense’ for the Masters. In 1913 he purchased from a ‘Somerset nobleman’ what he believed to be an earlier version of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. His most important discovery was made at Christie’s in 1921 when he suspected that a painting attributed to the School of Zurbaran, St John in the Wilderness, was in fact an early work by Velasquez. He purchased it for 60 guineas and resold it to a private collector in the United States for £14,000. It is now in the Art Institute of Chicago.
On the whole, Blaker bought paintings by modern British and French artists. He admired works by those associated with the New English Arts Club, Camden Town Group, and the Fitzroy Street Group. He owned oil paintings by Whistler, Sickert, Orpen, John, Gilman, Gore, Ginner, William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, Burra and Gertler. Earlier British artists were also represented in Blaker’s collection: Constable, Millais, Cotman, Burne-Jones, Clausen and Leighton among them. In his 1930 touring exhibition Modern British Paintings and Drawings from the Hugh Blaker Collection there were no fewer than twenty-eight works by Augustus John represented. Gwendoline Davies had bought many John artworks at Blaker’s suggestion. He had long admired John before they met for the first time at a Chelsea bar on 28 September 1916.
Hugh Blaker : The Museum Curator
In July 1905, with a testimonial prepared by the sisters’ brother David Davies, Blaker was appointed Curator of the Holburne of Menstrie Museum in Bath. There he was responsible for the large collections of ceramics, antiquities, miniatures and paintings bequeathed to the city by Sir William Holburne. At the first meeting of the Trustees, Blaker doubted the attributions of many of the Old Master paintings. With the assistance of Ayerst H. Buttery of London’s National Gallery he undertook a reclassification of 258 paintings. They deemed them to be ‘Very Good (11), Good (33), Fair (59), and Bad (159).’ 125 of the paintings were subsequently put into storage. Blaker’s undermining of the Holburne Bequest provoked scathing attacks from both local and London press.
Once the controversy subsided, Blaker appears to have lost interest in his role as curator. He made frequent requests to the Trustees for leave of absence to pursue other activities. He wished to experience the contemporary art scene in London and Paris in order to educate members of the Bath and West Country Society of Artists and rescue them from their conservative and insular views. ‘I am Art in Bath!’ he insisted.
The rift between the Holburne Trustees and Blaker widened following the publication of his 1910 book Points for Posterity in which he attacked many established conventions and beliefs. The contempt he expressed for Trustee-controlled provincial art galleries must surely have been read as an assault on his employers. ‘There is hardly a member of a provincial art gallery committee,’ he wrote, ‘who knew enough about a painting to judge whether an Old Master was genuine or not […] or who had sufficient knowledge of art to prevent his fellow members buying the stupid popular stuff which every year finds its way into permanent collections.’
Hugh Blaker : Gregynog
Blaker was not only the Davies sisters’ picture advisor. He also assisted them in their various art and crafts initiatives. In 1920 they set about turning Gregynog Hall near Newtown, Powys into a rural centre for arts and crafts. Both sisters had worked in Red Cross canteens in France during the World War I. They intended that Gregynog Hall, its formal gardens and beautiful estate, could be used for the rehabilitation and training of soldiers and those affected by war.
Advocates of William Morris’s tenet of good craftsmanship and the importance of hand-made objects, the sisters hoped to nurture a crafts revival in Wales. Hugh Blaker recommended Robert Ashwin Maynard to lead on the arts and crafts venture at Gregynog. Blaker felt strongly that they should appoint an artist rather than a craftsman. He considered Maynard to be a brilliant watercolourist, though he knew nothing of the crafts. Maynard was selling cattle medicines in Shrewsbury at the time.
Maynard was sent to London’s Central School of Art and Crafts to learn craft techniques where he developed a particular affinity for wood engraving and fine printing. In 1922 he moved to Gregynog and set up a print shop and composing room in the stables. The first Gregynog Press book, The Poems of George Herbert, was published in December 1923. However, the residential crafts centre initiative was abandoned in 1924 when Gregynog Hall became the sisters’ home.
Fine printing continued at the Gregynog Press. Maynard’s typography and high standard of printing attracted widespread recognition. When in February 1930 Maynard resigned as Controller, Blaker recommended Blair Hughes-Stanton who was already a well-known wood engraver. Stanton is ‘distinctly modern’, he wrote Gwendoline Davies, and ‘his modernism is all to the good.’ Painter-sculptor William McCance joined as Press Artist. Stanton and McCance were allocated Estate properties where they were joined by their wood-engraver wives Gertrude Hermes and Agnes Miller-Parker.
Stanton, McCance, Hermes and Parker exhibited brilliant technical mastery, meticulous detailing and remarkable imaginations. Between 1930 and 1933 they were responsible for some of the finest illustrated books ever produced by a private press. However, the private press book market was in the doldrums. Britain was in the grip of mass unemployment and an economic slump. There were no more resident Controllers at the Press after 1933. The Press gradually ran down. Work was suspended at the start of World War II and the last book was published in August 1940.
Blaker : The Artist
Hugh Blaker studied at art school in Teddington, London, at the Académie Julian in Paris, and Antwerp School of Art. On his death in 1936, the contents of his Isleworth studio passed to his sister Jane at Gregynog. After Jane’s death in 1948, some 140 Blaker artworks remained at Gregynog until Margaret Davies died at which point they passed to the University of Wales in 1963 and to Aberystwyth University in 1989.
The early life drawings bear the labels of the South Kensington School System Examining Board and were probably made around 1895. They are executed in the traditional academic manner and attest to the fashion for charcoal on a laid Michallet paper. The ink pen illustrations suggest that Blaker once attempted to make a living from his work. Judging by the inscriptions, they were intended for publication. Stylistically they vary from the sketchy manner of George du Maurier and Charles Keene for Punch magazine to more consciously arranged areas of black and white recalling the artworks of Charles Robinson and the Edwardian gift Book illustrators.
In search of a style, Blaker used a wide range of materials and explored different techniques. His attempts to be ‘modern’ led him in unexpected directions stylistically. He emulated the work of painters whom he admired, borrowed from their vocabulary, adopted their means of expression, and often their subjects too: from Franz Hals (Le Lion Comique) and Théodore Rousseau (Kew from the Thames at Isleworth) to the French Symbolist Carriere (Jack, 1912 and Woman Reading), painted in the year that Gwendoline Davies bought her first Carrieres. The correspondences between the paintings that Blaker acquired for the Davies sisters, and his own stylistic experiments, are especially evident in his paintings influenced by Daumier (A Conversation and Two Men at an Easel) whose works the sisters collected between 1912 and 1922.
Blaker was very much a product of his generation, excited by the challenges presented at the turn of a new century. Traditional values in British art represented by the Royal Academy of Arts were being challenged as artists attempted to come to terms with modernism from the Continent. While many still believed in the values formed during the last sixty years of Victoria’s reign, Blaker was against the establishment and officialdom.
Blaker’s ‘squarist’ paintings and drawings are probably the most resolved of his experiments with modernism. There appears to be evidence of a sustained effort to interpret the principles of the Vorticists, adopting the angular simplification of English painters such as Percy Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts and David Bomberg. ‘Squarist’ paintings such as Woodsmen are somewhat more cuboid than Cubist. Blaker never took the contemporary idiom as far as the Vorticists by abstracting or rearranging the objects in a non-representational way. He goes no further than to impose their angularity on to an otherwise traditional subject without interrupting the arrangement of the objects.
Hugh Blaker was endowed with all the advantages necessary to succeed as a painter – natural ability as a draughtsman and an art school training in Britain and abroad. He had many influential and wealthy friends in the art world. He was self-confident and determined with enormous faith in his convictions. However, he was not blessed with a single-mindedness of vision, which is probably why his painting did not develop or mature beyond the experimental. His personality, despite creating fascinating biography, took him in too many different directions at the expense of his commitment to becoming a painter.
As he reveals in a Journal entry dated 25 February 1932:
‘The cause of my failure to “make good” in any single branch of knowledge is that I have too many interests. Had I been isolated in my youth at a time when there was demand for artistic expression, I should have been an artist of repute. I was dumped into a generation which did not care a damn for art – apart from popular art. I just happened. I was an Old Master, born centuries late. No kid ever had greater equipment. No kid ever faced greater frustration. Centuries ago I would have been apprenticed to a painter – as a boy well fitted to make good in a prosperous trade. Instead, at that period of my development, I was the veritable curse of damn-fool schoolmasters at my “public school”, Cranleigh. I was a wondrous fair kid, strong, and good at games. I got something out of them. In the gym I builded up a body as strong and fair as that of any sweet boy of the ’80s.’
Aberystwyth 1991 & 2018
Hugh Blaker 1873-1936
Robert Meyrick. ‘Hugh Blaker and the Old Masters: The connoisseurship of the man who discovered the Isleworth Mona Lisa’ in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa: New Perspectives (Fielding UP, 2019) pp. 118-135.
Robert Meyrick. ‘Hugh Blaker: Doing his bit for the Moderns’. Journal of the History of Collections Vol.16, No.2 (Oxford University Press, 2004). pp. 173-189.
Robert Meyrick. Hugh Blaker 1873–1936: Artist, Collector and Connoisseur. Gregynog Festival Exhibition No.2. (Aberystwyth: School of Art Press, 1991). 12pp
Robert Meyrick. Hugh Blaker 1873–1936: Artist, Connoisseur and Curator.
Gregynog Festival Exhibition No.2, Gregynog Hall, Newtown (1991)
National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (1992)
Holborne of Menstrie Museum and Art Gallery, Bath (1993)
Catherine Lewis Gallery, Aberystwyth University (September 1995 – 30 April 1996)