Reviews /

Gwen: The Colourful Life of Gwen John

Authored by Casia Wiliam
Illustrated by Gwen Millard
Published by Broga Books

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Gwen: The Colourful Life of Gwen John, is the story of the Welsh artist’s life. The story of a quiet girl who loved to paint and followed her dream to be an artist.

Gwen John, is now considered to be one of Wales’s finest painters. However, during her life, Gwen’s artistic talent was often overlooked and overshadowed by her brother, Augustus John, who became a famous painter too. What we find out about Gwen in this picture book is that despite being poor she was determined to become an artist and lived in both London and France to do this so she could learn from the best artists, painting portraits mostly of unknown women.

The illustrations by Gwen Millard in this picture book are beautiful and capture the essence of the places we see perfectly. The colourful seafront image of Tenby where Gwen grew up and the street scene of Gwen painting in France in front of iconic French city buildings are just two examples. It’s also a real strength of Gwen Millard’s talent to illustrate the original paintings as they are seen within art galleries today and to do this so successfully.

This picture book will be a fantastic addition to primary classrooms and libraries for both looking at biographies and for a topic with a focus on art and famous painters. Within Wales, it will also support the curriculum looking at Welsh heritage and culture. This picture book is a wonderful way to introduce the work of Gwen John to young readers within the early years and KS1 (Foundation Phase in Wales) while also providing interest to older KS2 readers who may then want to do further research and find out more about Gwen John and her paintings. Some of her best and most well-known paintings can be found in the National Museum in Cardiff and in Tate Britain in London so for those readers nearby, there is an opportunity to visit and see the original paintings. For KS2, Gwen John’s story could also be a springboard and stimulus to discuss how her brother Augustus John was much more popular and widely known when they were alive and why this might have been so as both produced such brilliant works of art, exploring how women and men may have been viewed differently as artists in the late 19th and early 20th century.

If there’s one wish I had when I finished this book it’s that I would have loved to have seen some real photographs of Gwen John and some extra factual information that wasn’t included in the story at the end of the book. An afterword if you will: seeing her at work in her studio, where she lived throughout her life and some real images of her paintings. I think this would be great for readers wanting more and for teachers who may be using this within an art or history-based topic in the primary classroom.

Gwen’s talent was often overlooked during her life but despite this, she kept going. Thanks to her determination, sensitivity and artistic skill, she is now considered one of Wales’s finest painters. Gwen John’s life story also provides an opportunity to show children how the determination to follow your path from an early age can develop the skills needed to achieve and become successful within your chosen field. So, it’s a book to inspire as well as inform.

The Welsh Wonders series is an exciting new set of publications coming from new Welsh publisher, Broga Books. There are currently three in this series published in both Welsh and English language – Gwen: The Colourful Life of Gwen John; Shirley: The Dazzling Life of Shirley Bassey and Cranogwen: The Pioneering Life of Sarah Jane Rees. We are promised more and I look forward to seeing what Welsh Wonders come next.