gigatos | June 2, 2022
Augustus Edwin John (January 4, 1878, Tenby – October 13, 1961, Fordingbridge) was a British painter and printmaker.
Augustus was born in Tenby, Wales. At the age of seventeen he briefly attended Tenby School of Art, then left Wales for London, studying at the Slade School of Art, University College London under Ford Madox Brown. He became the star pupil of drawing teacher Henry Tonks and even before graduation was recognized as the most talented draughtsman of his generation. His sister, Gwen was with him at Slade and became a major artist in her own right.
In 1897, John was struck by submerged rocks while diving into the sea at Tenby, suffering a serious head injury; the long convalescence that followed seems to have stimulated his adventurous spirit and accelerated his artistic growth. In 1898, he won the Slade Prize with Moses and the Bronze Serpent. John then studied independently in Paris, where he seems to have been influenced by Puvis de Chavannes.
The need to support Ida Nettleship (1877-1907), whom he married in 1901, led him to accept a teaching position in art at Liverpool University.
Augustus John and his pupil James Dickson Innes spent two years painting in the Arenig Valley around 1910, especially on Arenig Fawr Mountain. In 2011, this period was the subject of a BBC documentary entitled The Mountain to be Painted.
Sometime in 1910, John fell in love with the town of Martigues in Provence, located halfway between Arles and Marseilles, and saw it for the first time from a train en route to Italy. John wrote that Provence “had for years been the goal of my dreams” and Martigues was the town for which he felt the greatest affection. “With the feeling that I was going to find what I was looking for, at last an anchorage, I returned from Marseilles and, changing at Pas des Lanciers, took the little railroad leading to Martigues. On arrival, my premonition proved correct: there was no need to look any further.” The connection with Provence continued until 1928, at which time John felt the town had lost its simple charm, and sold his home there.
Throughout his life, he was particularly interested in the Roma (whom he referred to as “Gypsies”), and sought them out on his frequent travels throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. For a time shortly after his marriage, he and his family, which included his wife Ida, mistress Dorothy (Dorelia) McNeill, and John”s children by both women, traveled in a caravan, Gypsy fashion. Later, he became the President of the Gypsy History Society, a position he held from 1937 until his death in 1961.
During World War I, he was attached to the Canadian Forces as a war artist and made a series of memorable portraits of Canadian infantrymen. The end result may have been a large mural for Lord Beaverbrook, and the sketches and drawings suggest that it may have become his largest large-scale work. However, like many of his monumental conceptions, it was never completed.
As a war artist, he was allowed to keep his facial hair, and thus he and King George V were the only Army officers in the Allied forces to have beards, apart from pioneer sergeants and those who could not shave for medical reasons. After two months in France, he was sent home grounded after engaging in a fight. Lord Beaverbrook, whose intervention saved John from a court-martial, sent him back to France, where he undertook studies for a proposed Canadian War Memorial image, although the only major work to result from the experience was The Fraternity. In 2011, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge finally unveiled this mural at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. This unfinished painting, The Canadians Opposite Lens, measures 12 feet high by 40 feet long.
Although at the turn of the century John gained renown for his paintings and etchings, the vast majority of John”s later work were portraits, some of the best of which were of his two wives and his children. He was known for the deep psychological analysis expressed in his works, several of which went so far as to be considered “cruel” because of the truth they expressed. Lord Leverhulme was so angry with his portrait that he cut off its head (since only that part of the whole could be hidden in his safe) but when the rest of the painting was returned to John by mistake, voices were raised in several capitals against such an act of desecration.
In the 1920s, John was Britain”s leading portrait painter. Most of his works were portraits, characterized by great vividness and deep psychological analysis. John painted many distinguished contemporaries, including T. E. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Lady Gregory, Tallulah Bankhead, George Bernard Shaw, the cellist Guilhermina Suggia, the Marquise Casati, and Elizabeth Bibesco. Perhaps his most famous portrait is of his compatriot, Dylan Thomas, to whom he introduced Caitlin Macnamara, his occasional lover who later became Thomas”s wife.
It was said that after the war, his powers diminished as his technique became more schematic. One critic has stated that “the pictorial brilliance of his early work degenerated into flashes and bombast, and the second half of his long career contributed little to his achievement”. From time to time, however, his inspiration returned, as it did on a trip to Jamaica in 1937. The works done in Jamaica between March and May 1937 evidence a resurgence of his powers, and amount to the “St. Martin”s summer of his creative genius.”
Of his method for painting portraits, John explained.
“Make a blob of paint on your palette consisting of the predominant color of your model”s face and ranging from dark to light. After you have sketched the features, keeping the proportions in mind, apply a coat of paint from your preparation, varying the mixture with enough red for the lips and cheeks and gray for the eyeballs. The latter will need touches of white and probably some blue, black, brown or green. If you stick to your stain (assuming you prepared it correctly), your portrait should be finished in about an hour…”
In early 1901, he married his first wife, Ida Nettleship (1877-1907). The couple had five children. After his death in 1907, his mistress Dorothy “Dorelia” McNeill, an icon of Bohemian style, became his partner; they lived together most of the time from 1904 until his death and had two children, but never married. One of his sons (by his first wife) was the prominent British admiral and first Sea Lord Sir Caspar John. His daughter Vivien John (1915-1994) was a noted painter.
From Ian Fleming”s widowed mother, Evelyn Ste Croix Fleming, née Rose, he had a daughter, Amaryllis Fleming (1925-1999), who became an outstanding cellist. Another of his children, by Mavis de Vere Cole, wife of humorist Horace de Vere Cole, is television director Tristan de Vere Cole. His son Romilly (1906-1986) was in the RAF briefly, then was a poet, author and amateur physicist. Poppet (1912-1997), John and Dorothy”s daughter, married Dutch painter Willem Jilts Pol (1905-1988). Willem Pol”s daughter Talitha (1940-1971) from a previous marriage was a London fashion icon in the 1960s, and married John Paul Getty Jr. Their daughter Gwyneth Johnstone (1915-2010), of musician Nora Brownsword, was an artist. Augustus”s promiscuity gave rise to rumors that he had fathered as many as 100 children.
In later life, John wrote two volumes of autobiography, Chiaroscuro (1952) and Finishing Touches (1964). In old age, although John had ceased to be a living force in British art, he was still highly revered, as the great spectacle of his work mounted at the Royal Academy in 1954 proved. He continued to work until his death in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, in 1961, his last work being a three-part studio mural, the left side of which showed a Falstaff figure of a French peasant in a yellow vest playing a hurdy-gurdy as he walked down a village street. It was Augustus John”s final farewell.
He joined the Peace Pledge Union as a pacifist in the 1950s and was a founding member of the Committee of 100. On September 17, 1961, just over a month before his death, he joined the Committee of 100”s anti-nuclear weapons demonstration in London”s Trafalgar Square. At the time, his son, Admiral Sir Caspar John, was first sea lord and chief of naval staff.
He is said to have been the model for the Bohemian painter depicted in Joyce Cary”s novel, The Horse”s Mouth, which was later made into a 1958 film of the same name with Alec Guinness in the title role.
Michael Holroyd published a biography of John in 1975 and it is a mark of the public”s continuing interest in the painter that Holroyd published a new version of the biography in 1996.