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 Augustus Edwin John  (1878 - 1961)

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Lived/Active: United Kingdom/England/France      Known for: society portrait painting, figure drawing, teaching, war artist

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Dorelia in a hat
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Augustus Edwin John OM, RA, (4 January 1878 – 31 October 1961) was a Welsh painter, draughtsman, and etcher*. For a short time around 1910, he was an important exponent of Post-Impressionism* in the United Kingdom.

"Augustus was celebrated first for his brilliant figure drawings, and then for a new technique of oil sketching. His work was favourably compared in London with that of Gauguin and Matisse. He then developed a style of portraiture that was imaginative and often extravagant, catching an instantaneous attitude in his subjects."

John was born at Tenby in Pembrokeshire, the younger son and third of four children in his family. His father was Edwin William John, a Welsh solicitor; his mother, Augusta Smith from a long line of Sussex plumbers, died young when he was six, but not before inculcating a love of drawing in both Augustus and his older sister Gwen.  At the age of seventeen he briefly attended the Tenby School of Art, then studied at the Slade School of Art* in London (his sister, Gwen, was with him at the Slade and became an important artist in her own right), where he became the star pupil of drawing teacher Henry Tonks, and even before his graduation was recognized as the most talented draughtsman of his generation.

In the summer of 1897, John was seriously injured while swimming, and the lengthy convalescence that followed seems to have actually stimulated his adventurous spirit and accelerated his artistic growth.  In 1898, he won the Slade Prize with Moses and the Brazen Serpent.  John afterward studied independently in Paris where he seems to have been influenced by Puvis de Chavannes.

Some time in 1910, John fell in love with the town of Martigues, in Provence, located half-way between Arles and Marseilles, and first seen from a train en route to Italy.  John wrote that Provence "had been for years the goal of my dreams" and Martigues was the town for which he felt the greatest affection. "With a feeling that I was going to find what I was seeking, an anchorage at last, I returned from Marseilles, and, changing at Pas des Lanciers, took the little railway which leads to Martigues. On arriving my premonition proved correct: there was no need to seek further." The connection with Provence continued until 1928, by which time John felt the town had lost its simple charm, and he sold his home there.

He was, throughout his life, particularly interested in the Romani people (whom he referred to as "Gypsies"), and sought them out on his frequent travels around 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, travelled in a caravan, in gypsy fashion.  Later on he became the President of the Gypsy Lore 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 number of memorable portraits of Canadian infantrymen. The end result was to have been a huge mural for Lord Beaverbrook and the sketches and cartoon for this suggest that it might have become his greatest large-scale work. However, like so many of his monumental conceptions, it was never completed. As a war artist, he was allowed to keep his facial hair and therefore, he and King George V were the only officers in the Allied forces to have a beard.  After two months in France he was sent home in disgrace after taking part in a brawl. Lord Beaverbrook, whose intervention saved John from a court-martial, sent him back to France after he had produced a series of studies for the prospective Canadian War Memorial picture, although the only major work to result from the experience was Fraternity.

Although well-known early in the century for his drawings and etchings, the bulk of John's later work consisted of portraits, some of the best of which were of his two wives and his children. He was known for the psychological insight of his portraits, many of which were considered "cruel" for the truth of the depiction. Lord Leverhulme was so upset with his portrait that he cut out the head (since only that part of the image could easily be hidden in his vault) but when the remainder of the picture was returned by error to John there was an international outcry over the desecration.

By the 1920s John was Britain's leading portrait painter. John painted many distinguished contemporaries, including T. E. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Tallulah Bankhead, George Bernard Shaw, the cellist Guilhermina Suggia, the Marchesa Casati and Elizabeth Bibesco. Perhaps his most famous portrait is of his fellow-countryman, Dylan Thomas, whom he introduced to Caitlin Macnamara, his sometime lover who later became Thomas' wife.

It was said that after the war his powers diminished as his bravura technique became sketchier. One critic has claimed that "the painterly brilliance of his early work degenerated into flashiness and bombast, and the second half of his long career added little to his achievement." However, from time to time his inspiration returned, as it did on a trip to Jamaica in 1937.[19] The works done in Jamaica between March and May 1937 evidence a resurgence of his powers, and amounted to "the St. Martin's summer of his creative genius".

Of his method for painting portraits John explained:
“Make a puddle of paint on your palette consisting of the predominant colour of your model's face and ranging from dark to light. Having sketched the features, being most careful of the proportions, apply a skin of paint from your preparation, only varying the mixture with enough red for the lips and cheeks and grey for the eyeballs. The latter will need touches of white and probably some blue, black, brown, or green. If you stick to your puddle (assuming that it was correctly prepared), your portrait should be finished in an hour or so, and be ready for obliteration before the paint dries, when you start afresh."

Early in 1900, he married his first wife, Ida Nettleship (1877–1907); the couple had five children. After her death in 1907, his mistress Dorothy "Dorelia" McNeill, a Bohemian style icon, became his partner and later became his second wife, with whom he had two children. 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 notable painter.

By Ian Fleming's widowed mother, Evelyn Ste Croix Fleming née Rose, he had a daughter, Amaryllis Fleming (1925–1999), who became a noted cellist. Another of his sons, by Mavis de Vere Cole, is the television director Tristan de Vere Cole noted for his contributions to TV series from the Sixties to the Eighties.  His son Romilly (1906–1986) was in the RAF, briefly a civil servant, then a poet, author and an amateur physicist. Poppet (1912–1997), John's daughter by his second wife, married the Dutch painter Willem Jilts Pol (1905–1988) whose daughter Talitha (1940–1971), a fashion icon of 1960s London, married John Paul Getty, was famously photographed in Marrakesh by Patrick Lichfield, and, after a brief hedonistic life, died of a drug overdose. His daughter Gwyneth Johnstone (1915–2010), by musician Nora Brownsword, was an artist.

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 moving force in British art, he was still greatly revered, as was demonstrated by the huge show of his work mounted by the Royal Academy in 1954.

He continued to work up until his death in Fordingbridge, Hampshire in 1961, his last work being a studio mural in three parts, the left hand of which showed a Falstaffian figure of a French peasant in a yellow waistcoat playing a hurdy gurdy while coming down a village street. It was Augustus John's final wave goodbye.

He joined the Peace Pledge Union as a pacifist in the 1950s, and on 17 September 1961, just over a month before his death, he joined the Committee of 100's anti-nuclear weapons demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London. 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 lead role.

Michael Holroyd published a biography of John in 1975 and it is a mark of the public's continued interest in the painter that Holroyd published a new version of the biography in 1996.

He became a leader of the New English Art Club, where he chiefly exhibited. With his vivid manner of portraiture and his ability to catch unerringly some striking and usually unfamiliar aspect of his subject, he superseded Sargent as England's fashionable portrait painter.  In 1921 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy* and elected a full R.A. in 1928. He was named to the Order of Merit by King George VI in 1942.  He was a trustee of the Tate Gallery* from 1933 to 1941 and President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters* from 1948 to 1953.


* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Augustus John was born in 1878 in Tenby, on the Welsh coast. His father was a prosperous and eminently proper lawyer. When John insisted on going to art school, his father dubiously packed him off to the Slade School of Art in London with a tiny allowance and a heavy load of advice. Out of sight of home, John grew a beard, took to parting his russet hair in the middle and wearing golden earrings. He visited Paris in 1898 and returned there every year.

John remembers that in his student days at London's Royal Academy, he was "enslaved" by two famous Americans who had great successes in London, Whistler and Sargent. John learned from both and came to paint personalities just as brilliantly, charmingly and revealingly as his masters had. He placed his technique at the service of his subject matter, and this instinct, which most modern painters scorn, is the first essential of portraiture.

In 1901 he married Ida Nettleship; from 1901 to 1902 he taught art in Liverpool. In 1903 he met Dorelia McNeil who joined John and Ida in a menage-a-trois, until the death of Ida in 1907. He had a total of nine children, and at first carried his growing family about with him in a caravan. He made a habit of dropping in on gypsy encampments; the gypsies represented everything his father had tried to warn him against.

To the most militant admirers of modern art, there is something baffling in John's brilliance: his painting was a whole lifetime behind the times. He lived all his life across the Channel from Picasso and Matisse, and yet he was never influenced in any way by their modern art.

In 1903 he had his first exhibition, shared with his sister, Gwen. From 1901 until 1904 he served as Professor of Painting at Liverpool University and from 1911 until 1914 he worked with George Inness in Wales. In 1921 he was elected an Associate Royal Academician; in 1928 he was named Royal Academician, but was always out of step with their conservatism. In 1938 he resigned and in 1940 he was re-elected.

His enemies called him a great ham actor; his cronies bedecked his name with legends, most of which centered around his prowess in pub and boudoir. He lived in Manhattan for a while, lunching regularly at the Colony Restaurant, partying all over town at night.

John tried to be indifferent to money, but it bothered him; it would keep pouring in. His genius for portraiture was evident from the start; the wealthy and the near-great begged for the chance of being immortalised by him. His posh commissions enabled him to set up his family in a rambling guest-filled country house on the Avon River. He died in 1961.

Written and submitted August 2004 by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources include:
Time Magazine, May 31, 1948
20th Century Painters and Sculptors (English) Francis Spalding

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