The Davies Collection: The Story of Impressionist Art in Cardiff

Do you ever find yourself in a museum or gallery looking at a painting and feeling yourself disappear into the canvas? You like it. No, you love it. It speaks to you, but you don’t know why – and the why is what you want to understand.

One of the things that irks me most about the choices we must make in our school days, is that we can find ourselves being forced to chose one direction, abandoning the other. In my case it was a path of maths and science. I think that’s why I fill my spare time with creative interests. It’s also why I adore losing myself in art galleries.

Read more: Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery

They are places in which I feel simultaneously soothed and inspired. But I am aware of my ignorance through my lack of education, and so my thirst for learning more led me to take the opportunity to tour the galleries of Cardiff’s National Museum with their Keeper of Art, Andrew Renton.

The-National-Museum-in-Cardiff

The National Museum in Cardiff

I wanted to better understand the National Museum’s Impressionist paintings because I find myself drawn to works from artists like Monet and Renoir whenever I head for museums and galleries on my travels. But I got more than I bargained for. You see, the background to how this particular collection of art – the Davies Collection – came to be at home in Cardiff’s National Museum is what really intrigued me. It’s the tale of two sisters, and their story is a fascinating one.

The inheritors of their grandfathers great fortune, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies were devout Christians who sought to use their wealth to help those who had suffered the impact of the First World War, during which they had both served with the French Red Cross. Generous in nature, these women who had cultivated their own deep love of music and art, set about developing initiatives that would culturally and socially benefit the people of Wales. Together they founded an arts and crafts community that would go on to serve as a cultural centre, today forming part of the University of Wales.

The-Davies-Sisters

The Davies Sisters

But alongside their philanthropic endeavours, the sisters also began to build a collection of art, based entirely on personal taste rather than what was necessarily deemed to be accomplished work at the time. Some of their choices were controversial for the day. They weren’t afraid to purchase pieces others would initially disapprove of, and ultimately this saw them amass one of the most influential collections of impressionist and post impressionist art in Britain, bequeathing it in its entirety to the National Museum, where over the years it has served to enrich and add world-class variety to the work on display.

The Davies sisters have left Wales a wonderful legacy and their collection doesn’t just tell the story of the innovative, ahead of their time impressionist artists, it tells something of their story.

San-Giorgio-Maggiore-by-Monet

San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight – Monet

Following our tour, I wandered the gallery alone, taking in every piece on display. My personal favourites were Monet’s impressions of Venice – a place I’ve visited twice and love dearly. The feelings those brushstrokes evoked were much more real than the simple memories I recall when I look at a photograph. It’s funny how a snapshot can’t compare with the power of painting in bringing a moment to life.

The-Blue-Lady-by-Renoir

La Parisienne (The Blue Lady) – by Renoir

Once I had taken the time to immerse myself in every work on display, I thought I’d try to see the collection through the Davies sister’s eyes. What would their most prized piece have been? I found myself wishing it was Renoir’s Blue Lady. Daring to peep out her toe from underneath her vibrant dress, her look is daring disguised as demure.

Did Gwendoline and Margaret Davies see a little of themselves in her? I secretly hoped so.

Useful Info

The National Museum in Cardiff is home to much more besides the Davies Collection. You can see what’s on at this family friendly attraction here. Entry is free but donations are welcomed and the museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 5pm (it’s closed on Mondays). Highlights of Art guided tours commence daily at 12:30

My tour was part of my weekend in Cardiff to attend travel blogging conference, Traverse.

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