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The Davies sisters were wealthy women with a passion for fine art & philanthropy. Helen Morgan from Abergavenny Local History Society reports

Gwen & Marget Davies

Gwen & Marget Davies

Gwendoline and her sister Margaret were two of the richest single women in Edwardian Britain. They had a combined personal fortune of £1 million and an annual income of around £40,000 to spend on French Impressionist paintings and sculpture.

Their wealth came from their grandfather, David Davies of Llandinam in Powys, popularly known as Davies the Ocean in reference to his hugely profitable Ocean Coal Company. As well as being one of the great self-made men of the Victorian era, he was also a committed philanthropist. Gwendoline (1882-1951) and Margaret (1884-1963) inherited his strong sense of social responsibility as well as  his money. They were  Calvinist Methodists and led sheltered, restricted lives until the outbreak of war in 1914. As with other  upper and middle class women, war gave them the chance to show their worth. In 1916 they opened a canteen near Troyes in Champagne where they scrubbed tables, sang songs and came face to face with their military customers. They were in their thirties and, for almost the first time in their lives, could be themselves. “They were also part of a team with comrades on whose strength or weakness the fate of their enterprise depended,” says  their biographer Baroness White.They visited Paris and acquired two Cezannes, Midday L’Estaque and Provencal Landscape which were shipped to Britain to save them from German artillery which was bombarding the city.

Part of the sisters’ collection in Cardiff in 1913

Part of the sisters’ collection in Cardiff in 1913

For the most part, though, they were socially awkward, lifelong teetotallers who did not dance or go to the opera. Indeed, they found their wealth a burden and spent much of it supporting charitable causes,  says Oliver Fairclough, keeper of the art gallery at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. “Both had a passion for art and music, and believed that culture was a right which transformed lives.”

By the early 1920s, however, they had  concluded that buying art was no longer a luxury that they could afford in the face of post-war deprivation. In their latter years they turned their Montgomeryshire home, Gregynog, into a privately funded conference centre.

Today, their most visible legacy today is their collection, rich in French 19th century paintings and sculpture that they formed between 1908 and 1925 and gave to the National Museum.

Oliver Fairclough’s talk on the Davies sisters at the Borough Theatre on March 19th starts at 7.30pm. Non-members may join on the night. For further details, visit

Helen Morgan

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