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  Augustus Edwin John (1878–1961), self-portrait, 1913 [Portrait of the Artist in a Painter's Smock] Augustus Edwin John (1878–1961), self-portrait, 1913 [Portrait of the Artist in a Painter's Smock]
John, Augustus Edwin (1878–1961), artist, was born on 4 January 1878 at 50 Rope Walk Field, Tenby, Pembrokeshire, the third of the four children of Edwin William John (1847–1938), solicitor, and his wife, Augusta (1848–1884), daughter of Thomas Smith, plumber, of Brighton and his second wife, Mary. His father was Welsh and his mother, who was an amateur artist, English; they lived at Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, until Augusta's death from rheumatic gout when she was aged thirty-five and Augustus six. At the end of that year Edwin John moved his family to Victoria House, 32 Victoria Street, off the South Sands Esplanade at Tenby.

Childhood and education

Queen Victoria had gone into perpetual mourning after Prince Albert's death in 1861, and Edwin, who never remarried and who in his late thirties retired from practising as a solicitor, seems to have felt it proper to follow her example within the dark interior of Victoria House. The atmosphere in which his two sons and two daughters grew up was loveless and claustrophobic. As adolescents they appeared to be more at home swimming far out in the waters of Carmarthen Bay; and as adults they would all leave Wales to inhabit different countries: Thornton (b. 1875), the elder son, in Canada; , the elder daughter, in France; Augustus in England; and his younger sister, Winifred (b. 1879), in the United States. Edwin had cautioned his children never to go out on market days in case they were captured by the Gypsies. Augustus, who longed to be kidnapped and led away to an open-air life, was to make the Gypsies one of his artistic subjects and later improved his mother's maiden name of Smith to Petulengro, which, meaning ‘blacksmith’, might be taken as its Romani equivalent. ‘We are the sort of people’, he remarked to another Tenby-born artist, Nina Hamnett, ‘our fathers warned us against!’ (Holroyd, 58).

John's education was haphazard. As a child he received some tuition from a governess who was optimistically described as ‘Swiss’. Later he became a mutinous pupil at Greenhill School in Tenby, and then a lonely adolescent at a boarding-school near Clifton (not the college), Bristol, before attending St Catherine's, another school in Tenby. He was also given some drawing lessons by the Royal Academician E. J. Head, who persuaded Edwin John to send Augustus to the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1894, where his sister Gwen also went the following year.

Art school and marriage

John was a shy, neat, painstaking student noticeable mainly for his close studying of the old masters at the National Gallery. All this was to change following an accident in the summer of 1895 when, diving from Giltar Point outside Tenby, he smashed his head on a submerged rock and emerged from the waves, so legend insists, a ‘bloody genius’. It has been argued that perhaps the long convalescence at Victoria House lent him the extra impatience with which to outpace his uncertainties. Whatever the cause, he returned to the Slade as a wild, bearded, anarchical figure, his appearance well illustrated by a self-portrait etching of about 1899 called Tête farouche (National Museum and Gallery of Wales, Cardiff; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), and he was later described by Wyndham Lewis as ‘a great man of action into whose hands the fairies had stuck a brush instead of a sword’ (Holroyd, 44).

John lived and worked with feverish speed, and his drawings, remarkable for their fluent, lyrical line and their vigour and spontaneity, were passed from hand to hand with mounting excitement by his fellow students who included William Orpen and Albert Rothenstein (afterwards Rutherston). The best of these drawings were, in the opinion of the American painter John Singer Sargent, beyond anything which had been seen since the Italian Renaissance. Having won certificates for advanced antique drawing, and for head and figure paintings, John chose as his subject Poussin's Moses and the Brazen Serpent for the Slade summer composition of 1898. This bravura composition (Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London), 5 feet by 7, was a tour de force of eclecticism, done in competition style to illustrate his debt to the artists he had been studying, from Michelangelo and Tintoretto to Raphael and Rembrandt. This ‘Holy Moses treat’ (Holroyd, 56), as he called it, easily won the prize. On 24 January 1901 he married Ida Margaret (1877–1907), also a Slade student and the daughter of the animal painter and his wife, Ada, a dressmaker. For the first eighteen months of their marriage they lived in Liverpool, where John had taken a post in an art school affiliated to University College. Here he pursued his work as an etcher and made a lifelong friend of John Sampson, Gypsy scholar and adventurer. In 1902 the couple had their first son, David Anthony Nettleship, who later became a musician and postman.

John and his family then moved to London, where he founded, with William Orpen as co-principal, the Chelsea Art School (1903–7) in Rossetti Mansions round the corner from the Chenil Galleries in the King's Road, at which many of his early exhibitions were held. In 1903 he was elected to the New English Art Club—founded in 1886 as a salon des refusés in opposition to the Royal Academy—which included Philip Wilson Steer and Walter Sickert among its members. Also in that year his second son, , a ‘roaring boy’ (Holroyd, 123) who later became first sea lord, was born; and he met the legendary Dorelia. She became his femme inspiratrice and the subject of many of his best-known pictures, most particularly the large painting called The Smiling Woman (1908–9), a monumental and provocative Gioconda, which established his reputation as an oil painter in the great tradition. This was to be the first picture bought by the Contemporary Arts Society which in 1917 presented it to the Tate Gallery, making it also the first of his pictures to enter a national collection. Few people seeing this emphatic and unbuttoned model, whose enigmatic smile was likened by critics to that of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, would have guessed that she was a simple person of humble origins. Dorothy McNeill (1881–1969), who had been working as a junior secretary, was one of seven children of William George McNeill, a mercantile clerk, and his wife, Kate, daughter of a dairy farmer. In his pictures John re-created her in a similar way as the Pre-Raphaelites had re-created their models. He lifted her out of her class, changed her identity, and made her extraordinary as a symbol of nature and creativity, a mistress and a mother.

Between 1903 and 1907 John's life became a complex emotional tale of two cities, London and Paris, and two women, the remarkable Ida and the mythical Dorelia. With Ida he had three more sons: Robin (b. 1904), linguist, Edwin (b. 1905), boxer and watercolourist, and Henry (b. 1907), religious philosopher. With Dorelia he had Pyramus (b. 1905), who died of meningitis at the age of seven in 1912, the same year as their daughter Poppet was born; Romilly (b. 1906), poet and detective-story writer; and Vivien (b. 1915), painter.

After Ida's death from puerperal fever in Paris in 1907, Dorelia took charge of all the children (except the infant Henry who was brought up by the Nettleships) and made homes for them first in a castellated bungalow called Alderney Manor, near Parkstone in Dorset (1911–27), and from 1927 onwards at Fryern Court, near Fordingbridge in Hampshire, while John pursued his roving career.

Early works: the First World War

‘The age of Augustus John was dawning’, Virginia Woolf wrote of the year 1908 (Q. Bell, Virginia Woolf: a Biography, 1, 1972, 124). This brief period before the outbreak of war was distinguished by a series of small, simplified, open-air oil sketches. Some of these were painted in Wales in company with the Welsh artist J. D. Innes, others in France, England, and Ireland. These panels frequently show Dorelia planted in a landscape and seen against the sky or the waters of a lake or the sea, sometimes in company with the children (often at approximately the age John had been when his mother died) who are also the subjects of single portrait busts recalling Tuscan work of the late fifteenth century. These rapid, jewel-like impressions, sometimes drawn on wood in pencil and redefined over a thin skin of pigment, made the British palette brilliant with blues, greens, and crushed-strawberry pinks before Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman began similar experiments as part of the .

‘This is going to be bad for art’, John remarked to David Bomberg at the Café Royal in London the day war was declared (Holroyd, 401). Although this was not an accurate prediction for many contemporary artists, from John's protégé Henry Lamb to admirers such as C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash, who used the war to advance their painting, it remained true for John himself who felt increasingly distanced from the art movements of the twentieth century and cut off from life itself by his growing deafness and melancholia. In 1917 the Canadian war records office granted him a commission in the overseas military forces of Canada, and, attired as a major with an alarming likeness to George V, he patrolled the Somme and Vimy Ridge making accurately observed drawings of soldiers but never bringing them together beyond the cartoon stage (cartoon, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada) for a large decoration he planned called The Pageant of War. His most appealing war picture, Fraternity (Imperial War Museum, London), showing one soldier giving another a light for his cigarette, was in fact a studio painting taken from a mass-circulation postcard.

Major works; portraits

Throughout his career John drew and painted numerous portraits. But he never became a fashionable portrait painter and his formal studies of soldiers and statesmen were often dull and even incompetent. He excelled, however, at penetrating portraits of his fellow artists such as Jacob Epstein (National Portrait Gallery, London), William Nicholson (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), and Wyndham Lewis (British Museum, London); of writers he admired, including Thomas Hardy and Bernard Shaw (both Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), Dylan Thomas (National Museum and Gallery of Wales, Cardiff), and W. B. Yeats (Manchester City Galleries); and at women who excited and amused him such as the hypnotic, witchlike Alick Schepeler (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) and the fantastical Lady Ottoline Morrell (National Portrait Gallery, London), her head raised under a flamboyant topsail of a hat and her strings of pearls hung like rigging—altogether a splendid galleon which provoked much furore when it was first exhibited in 1920.

John's work between the wars was dominated by portraits, among which were two supreme ‘eyefuls’. The first of these (of which there are two versions) was The Marchesa Casati (1919, version in Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada), a masterly blending of irony and romance which shows a vampiric figure in pyjamas, with dramatically applied mascara, poised before a veiled view of Mount Vesuvius. The second, a swagger portrait in profile of the celebrated cellist Guilherminia Suggia (1920–23, Tate collection), was a spectacular essay in painterly rhetoric which occupied painter and sitter over some eighty sittings and which won first prize at the Pittsburgh International Exhibition of 1924.

Decline

From the late 1920s onwards John's talent went into a decline which, despite a number of journeys he made through Europe, Jamaica, and the United States seeking to revive it, was accelerated by his heavy drinking. The rebel artist had now moved from the roadside into London's West End where his work was irregularly exhibited from 1929 to 1961 at Dudley Tooth's gallery in Bruton Street. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1928 (resigning in 1938 over the academy's rejection of Wyndham Lewis's portrait of T. S. Eliot (Durban Art Gallery), then rejoining in 1940) and awarded the Order of Merit in 1942. ‘Everyone is agreed on the fact that Augustus John was born with a quite exceptional talent—some even use the word genius’, wrote the art critic Anthony Blunt in reviewing an exhibition of his latest paintings, including Jamaican pictures, at Tooth's Gallery in 1938, ‘—and almost everyone is agreed that he has in some way wasted it’ (‘Art: Augustus John’, The Spectator, 27 May 1938, 96). In his monograph Augustus John (1979), Richard Shone explained this wasting away of talent by likening his career to those of Thomas Lawrence, David Wilkie, and John Everett Millais. John's talent, Shone argued, was predominantly lyrical, and ‘this lyric mode belongs essentially to youth’ (Shone, 3).

But John was also misdirected as to the nature of his talent by a number of contemporary artists and critics, from Charles Conder, who believed that large decoration was his forte, to Roger Fry, who wrote that, like G. F. Watts, John was ‘a great monumental designer’ (Burlington Magazine, 15/73, 1909, 17). In fact, John's large-scale compositions, which often appear as artificial essays in the manner of Puvis de Chavannes awkwardly juxtaposed with some aspects of modernity, reveal his difficulties in organizing groups of people who do nothing in particular on a large scale. During the last fifteen years of his life he wrestled with a huge triptych celebrating the pilgrim mystery of the Gypsies. He was attempting to reassemble a fabulous past, but concluded at the end of his life that it was beyond his powers.

On Sunday 17 September 1961, in his eighty-fourth year, John went up to London to take part in a demonstration against nuclear weapons. He had been seriously ill and, unwilling to parade his infirmities, hid in the National Gallery until the demonstration began, when he walked into Trafalgar Square to join it. ‘No one knew of his plan to do so, and few recognized him’, wrote Bertrand Russell. ‘I learned of his action much later, but I record it with admiration’ (The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1944–67, 3, 1969, 118).

Death and posthumous reputation

Six weeks later, on 31 October 1961, John died of heart failure at Fryern Court and was buried at Fordingbridge. His death was treated by the newspapers as a landmark signifying the end of an era in which he had personified what Osbert Lancaster called ‘a form of life-enhancing exhibitionism which grew up and flourished before the Age of Anxiety’ (‘Last of the great unbeats’, Daily Express, 1 Nov 1961). John's bohemian reputation, which depended upon a powerful physical personality and the large quantity of sexual escapades with women which he enjoyed throughout his adult life, enriched many fictional characters in early twentieth-century literature, from the exuberant artist John Bidlake in Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point and the unlikely Judy Johncock in Ronald Firbank's Caprice, to Struthers, the ill-mannered painter in D. H. Lawrence's Aaron's Rod and Gulley Jimson, the artist also partly based on Stanley Spencer, in Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth.

Despite successful retrospective exhibitions at the National Gallery in 1940 and the Royal Academy in 1954, John's reputation as an artist was insecure during the last twenty-five years of his life, and it deteriorated after his death when much inferior work came on to the market. The art criticism of the late twentieth century, which dealt primarily with movements, had little place for such an isolated individualist, and he was placed further in the shade by the necessary revival of his sister Gwen John's reputation which, because it seemed to have been for so long eclipsed by his newsworthy career, was partly conducted at his expense. ‘Gwen and I were not opposites but much the same really’, John wrote, ‘but we took a different attitude’ (J. Rothenstein, Autobiography, 3.21). He was always an admirer of her work and, after almost half a century since his death, when the practice of demonizing him and victimizing her has abated, it is possible to see more clearly what he meant. Both of them worked in strong opposition to the melodramatic and sentimental story-telling in paint which dominated the art world during the late Victorian period. Their pictures tell no story. From Gwen's interiors showing empty rooms, or women alone in rooms, we come away with the image of a story ended. From Augustus's open-air scenes showing groups of women and children poised like ballet dancers in rehearsal before the curtain goes up, we are presented with the dramatis personae of a story which has not yet begun.

To judge by the critical response to a touring exhibition, ‘Themes and variations: the drawings of Augustus John, 1901–1931’, mounted by the National Museums and Galleries of Wales in 1996, Augustus John's artistic fortunes had risen in the late twentieth century. His standing rested on three genres of pictures: his virtuoso draughtsmanship in the late 1890s and early years of the twentieth century; the small, brilliant oil studies of his extended family, painted between 1909 and 1914; and the bravura portraits of men and women which, with sudden ‘fits of seeing’, he produced spasmodically throughout his career.

Michael Holroyd

Sources  

M. Holroyd, Augustus John: the new biography (1996) · A. John, Autobiography (1975) · W. Rothenstein, Men and memories: recollections of William Rothenstein, 2 vols. (1931–2) · J. Rothenstein, Autobiography, 3 vols. (1965–70) · J. Rothenstein, Modern English painters, rev. edn, 1: Sickert to Smith (1976) · R. John, The seventh child (1975) · M. Holroyd, M. Evans, and R. John, Themes and variations: the drawings of Augustus John, 1901–1931 (1996) [exhibition catalogue, Cardiff, London, and Conwy, 20 July – 1 Dec 1996] · M. Easton and M. Holroyd, The art of Augustus John (1974) · C. Dodgson, A catalogue of etchings by Augustus John, 1901–1914 (1920) · R. Shone, Augustus John (1979) · A. D. Fraser Jenkins, Augustus John: studies for compositions (1978) · M. L. Evans, Portraits by Augustus John: family, friends and the famous (1988) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1961) · NL Wales, Augustus John papers

Archives  

Lpool RO, letters · NL Wales, corresp. and papers; letters; letters and sketches · Ransom HRC · Tate collection, London |  BL, letters to lady Abergavenny, Add. MS 52556 · BL, letters to Lord D'Abernon, Add. MS 48934 · BL, letters to George Bernard Shaw, Add. MS 50539 · BL, corresp. with Marie Stopes · Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, Wyndham Lewis MSS · Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to Sir William Rothenstein · Hunt. L., letters to Alexandra Schepeler · King's AC Cam., letters to John Maynard Keynes · Lpool RO, corresp. with H. C. Dowdall and his wife · McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, corresp. with Bertrand Russell · NL Wales, corresp. with Gwen John; papers incl. letters from Ida Nettleship; letters to George Bilankin and Sean O'Casey · RA, letters to Royal Academy · U. Glas. L., letters to D. S. MacColl · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to H. J. Francis · U. Lpool L., letters to Gypsy Lore Society, etc.


Likenesses  

W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, c.1896–1897, BM · W. Rothenstein, double portrait, oils, 1899 (with his wife), Tate collection · A. E. John, self-portrait, etching, c.1899–1900, FM Cam. · W. Orpen, oils, 1900, NPG · W. Rothenstein, oils, c.1900, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool · A. E. John, self-portrait, chalk drawing, c.1901, NPG · G. C. Beresford, photographs, 1902, NPG · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1903, Bradford City Art Gallery · D. S. MacColl, oils, 1907, Man. City Gall. · M. Beerbohm, caricature drawing, 1909, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia · W. Orpen, group portrait, oils, 1911–12, Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris; copy, Café Royal, London · A. E. John, self-portrait, oils, 1913, NMG Wales [see illus.] · A. L. Coburn, photogravure photographs, 1914, NPG · J. Epstein, bronze head, 1916, NPG · A. E. John, self-portrait, etching, 1920, BM · E. Kapp, drawing, 1920, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham · J. Hope-Johnstone, three photographs, c.1922, NPG · M. Beerbohm, pencil and watercolour drawing, 1924, AM Oxf. · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1924, NPG · D. Low, pencil drawing, c.1926, NPG · A. M. Daintrey, oils, before 1928, Man. City Gall. · A. E. John, self-portrait, oils, c.1935–1945, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York · H. Coster, photographs, 1937, NPG · B. Seale, bronze head, c.1937, NMG Wales · A. E. John, self-portrait, oils, c.1940, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa · T. C. Dugdale, oils, 1943, NMG Wales · H. Rayner, drypoint etching, 1943, NPG · M. Smith, oils, 1944, Montreal Museum of Fine Art, Canada · B. Brandt, photograph, before 1946, NPG · A. Wysard, watercolour drawing, 1949, NPG; repro. in The Strand Magazine (1949) · Y. Karsh, photographs, 1954, NPG · E. S. Lumsden, etching (in middle age), NMG Wales · J. Melgrave, drypoint etching (after J. Melgrave), NPG · B. Partridge, pen-and-ink, and watercolour caricature, NPG; repro. in Punch's Almanack (1922) · A. P. F. Ritchie, print on cigarette card, NPG · I. Roberts-Jones (in middle age), NMG Wales · A. R. Thomson, pen-and-ink drawing, Athenaeum, London · F. D. Wood, bronze bust, RA · portraits, repro. in Holroyd, Augustus John

Wealth at death  

£90,788 3s. 1d.: probate, 14 Feb 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales