Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Gwen with Diana, Elizabeth and Pauline Gunn c.1924

Sir Herbert James Gunn (1893-1964)

Gwen with Diana, Elizabeth and Pauline Gunn, Sir Herbert James Gunn
Oil on canvas
20th Century
17 7/8 x 14 in, 45.5 x 35.5 cm
Edinburgh, Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Preston and Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Herbert James Gunn, 3 December 1994-February 1995, no. 28. London, The Fine Art Society
This charming portrait study depicts Gunnís first wife Gwen with their three children: Pauline, Elizabeth and Diana (the eldest, whose side-parted blonde hair is identifiable in other portraits from that time).

Gunn had married Gwendoline Hillman, widow of Guy Thorne, in 1919. However the marriage was dissolved in 1927, following Gwenís liaison with Sir Arthur Winney: a millionaire banker and one of Gunnís portrait subjects. They married in 1929. After Whinneyís death Gwen wed her fourth husband, Thomas Percival Croysdale.

Gwen was obviously a delight to paint. Her fine features and neat brown bob feature in the many portraits Gunn executed of her during the first years of their marriage. Of particular note is Gwen Sewing (Private Collection) which shows Gwen set against a graphic landscape of lozenge-like forms. A tendency to edit compositions down to stylistic abstraction characterises Gunnís work of the 1920s. His beach scenes, which sometimes feature a foreground group but more often utilise staccato marks to represent distant bathers, are uniquely stylish and evocative of their period.

The present work does not appear to relate to any fuller portrait. The authoritative rapidity of the brushwork suggests that it was executed on the spur of the moment Ė a memento of a happy time. The way that Gunn places the three children is particularly effective and persuasively natural. Diana sprawls, as only children can, malleable as a doll, on her motherís skirt. Pauline and Elizabeth stand to her right; their rounded forms most characteristic of children at that young age. The sharp deftness of Gunnís mark-making does not detract from the tenderness and the perspicuity of this portrayal. Gwen herself is the epitome of elegance in her simple black dress; her short bob reflecting the fashions of the period.

When Gunn and Gwen divorced, he was barred from seeing his children. He married again a decade later, to Pauline, and they also had two children; but the disassociation from the three daughters of his first marriage was a constant source of pain. On one extraordinary occasion, the artist spotted the trio playing in a London park, and painted them, under the patient vigilance of their nurse (see Bonhams, London, 12 March 2008, lot 96).

Gunnís style changed substantially in the 1930s. His portraits of Pauline, of which there are many preceding her death in 1950, show a lush and film star-like beauty, but they lack the subtlety of his early work. They aspire to photographic realism rather than more instinctive characterisation.

Gunn was a successful portrait painter in a professional context. He painted both the Queen and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. His most famous Royal Commission, however, is the wonderfully poised Conversation Piece at Royal Lodge, Windsor (1950, National Portrait Gallery). With its clear geometric lines and graceful arrangement it parallels the more austere Conversation Piece: Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and Maurice Baring (1932, National Portrait Gallery).

Gunnís work characterises an era: those post-war years when classicism rivalled modernity, and austerity was gradually succeeded by a reinvigorated sense of national identity. His portraits Ė whether executed for private purpose or public commission - are unanimously charismatic and memorable.

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