Gwen was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin, as was her closest friend and first cousin, the poet Frances Cornford. Gwen married the French painter Jacques Raverat in 1911. She became one of the leading wood engravers of the 20th Century. Her childhood memoir, Period Piece, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1952.
"All the elements of Gwen Raverat's mature style were established in the French landscapes and figure groups engraved between 1920 and 1925... The French painterliness which she so admired she now translated into her own impressionist language: her style, affected by the southern climate, gradually altered to reflect shimmering light and strong shadows." Joanna Selborne.
Raverat was one of the very first wood engravers recognised as modern. She went to the Slade School in 1908, but stood outside the groups growing up at the time, the group that gathered around Eric Gill at Ditchling and the group that grew up at the Central School of Arts and Crafts around Noel Rooke. She was influenced by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and developed her own painterly style of engraving. There was some similarity between her early engravings and those of Gill, and she did know Gill, but the similarity was based mostly on her black line style at the time, influenced by Lucien Pissarro, and the semi-religious themes that she then chose.
She would go on to become one of the founders of the Society of Wood Engravers. As it says on their website: The Society was founded in 1920 by a group of artists that included Philip Hagreen, Robert Gibbings, Lucien Pissaro, Gwen Raverat and Eric Gill. They held an annual exhibition that attracted work from other notable artists such as David Jones, John and Paul Nash, Paul Gauguin and Clare Leighton.
One of her first wood engravings to appear in a book was Lord Thomas and Fair Annet in The Open Window (1911), which also featured a wood engraving by Noel Rooke.
Balston credits her with having produced one of the first two books illustrated with modern wood engravings. This was Spring Morning by her cousin Frances Cornford, published by the Poetry Bookshop in 1915. It was accessioned at the British Museum Library in May 1915, which makes it the first modern British book illustrated with wood engravings, as the other contender, The Devil's Devices illustrated by Eric Gill, was accessioned in December 1915.
In 1922 she contributed two wood engravings to Contemporary English Woodcuts, an anthology of wood engravings produced by Thomas Balston, a director at Duckworth and an enthusiast for the new style of wood engravings. Much of Raverat's work was for friends from Cambridge and appeared in books with small editions. She found a wider public with the London Mercury, a popular magazine of the arts, which reproduced many of her engravings. The most famous are perhaps the engravings Six Rivers Round London which were produced for newspaper advertisements for the London General Omnibus Company.
Gwen also contributed art criticism, drawings and wood-engravings to Time & Tide, the feminist magazine edited by Lady Rhondda to whom she was introduced by Virginia Woolf.
Most of Raverat's commissions for book illustrations date from the 1930s. The first was for a set of engravings for Kenneth Grahame's classic anthology The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children (1932). This was published by the Cambridge University Press and printed at the press by Walter Lewis. The Cambridge University Press took almost as much care with their printing as a private press, and Lewis printed the wood engravings from the original blocks. He printed four more books for Raverat - Mountains and Molehills by Frances Cornford (1934), Four Tales from Hans Andersen (1935), The Runaway by Elizabeth A. Hart (1936) and The Bird Talisman by Henry Wedgwood (her great-uncle) (1939). Four Tales and The Bird Talisman were illustrated with colour wood engravings. Brooke Crutchley, Lewis's successor at the press, was responsible for printing, for Faber & Faber, the collection of Raverat's work by Reynolds Stone.
Her experience of a real private press, St John Hornby's Ashendene Press, was rather more mixed. Raverat spent a year producing 29 wood engravings for an edition of Les Amours de Daphnis et Chloe by Longus. It appeared in 1933, five years after the project started. The first edition had been printed on Japanese vellum, but was scrapped when the ink failed to dry properly.
In 1934 she produced a set of engravings for Farmer’s Glory by A. G. Street (1934), perhaps her best known work. Cottage Angles by Norah C. James (1935) reused engravings produced for Time and Tide. She illustrated A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne for Penguin Illustrated Classics in 1938. Her final wood engravings were for another private press, the Dropmore Press, for which she illustrated London Bookbinders 1780-1806 by E. Howe (1950). Joanna Selborne and Lindsay Newman published the definitive catalogue raisonne Gwen Raverat - Wood Engraver in 1996, which was republished by the British Museum in 2003.
Raverat had to give up wood engraving after a stroke in 1951.
She illustrated a number of books with line drawings, including Over The Garden Wall by Eleanor Farjeon (1933), Mustard, Pepper and Salt by Alison Uttley (1938), Red-Letter Holiday by Virginia Pye (1940), Crossings by Walter de la Mare (1942), Countess Kate by Charlotte M. Yonge (1948) and The Bedside Barsetshire by L. O. Tingay (1949).
Raverat played a significant part in the wood engraving revival in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century. By 1914 she had completed some sixty wood engravings, far more than any of her contemporaries. Her name recurs consistently in all contemporary reviews, and the first book devoted to a modern wood engraver was Herbert Furst's Gwendolen Raverat. She illustrated the first book illustrated with modern wood engravings, Spring Morning, and she exhibited at every annual exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers between 1920 and 1940, exhibiting 122 engravings, more than anyone else.
Apart from her studies at the Slade and the period from 1915 to 1928, which covered her life with Jacques and early widowhood, Raverat lived in or near Cambridge. In 1928 she moved into the Old Rectory, Harlton, near Cambridge. The house was the model for her engravings for The Runaway. In 1946 she moved into The Old Granary, Silver Street, in Cambridge; the house was at the end of the garden of Newnham Grange, where she was born. Both buildings are now part of Darwin College.
Her life revolved around her contacts in Cambridge. One aspect was her work for the theatre, designing costumes, scenery and programmes. Her first experience was in 1908, when she designed costumes for Milton's Comus at the New Theatre, Cambridge. Her brother-in-law Geoffrey Keynes asked her to provide scenery and costumes for a proposed ballet drawn from William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job to commemorate the centennial of Blake's death; her second cousin, Ralph Vaughan Williams, wrote the music to the work which became known as Job, a masque for dancing, the premiere of which took place in 1931. The miniature stage set that she built as a model still exists, housed at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. She went on to design costumes, scenery and programmes for some ten productions, mostly for the Cambridge University Musical Society. Raverat met one of her close friends of later life Elisabeth Vellacott, in the society's production of Handel's oratorio "Jephta". A pencil drawing portrait of Gwen by Vellacot can be seen at the Kettle's Yard Gallery in Cambridge.
Raverat had a keen interest in children's fiction. Three of her books were Victorian stories that she persuaded publishers to reprint - The Runaway, The Bird Talisman and Countess Kate. When she discovered that The Runaway had gone out of print, she persuaded the publisher Duckworth to reissue it in 1953.