Augustus John


Augustus Edwin John OM (January 4, 1878 – October 13, 1961) was a Welsh painter.

He was born at Tenby in Pembrokeshire. He studied at the Slade School of Art UCL in London and even before his graduation had proven to be the most talented draughtsman of his generation. His sister, Gwen John, was also a talented artist.

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 in his portraits, many of which were considered “cruel” in the truth of the depiction. Lord Leverhulme was so upset with his portrait that he cut out the head and returned the rest of the picture. John painted many distinguished contemporaries, including Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats, 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.

During WW 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 show that it might have been his greatest large-scale work. Alas, like so many of his monumental conceptions, it was never completed.

He was, throughout his life, particularly interested in the Roma people (whom he referred to as Gypsies), and sought them out on his frequent travels around the British Isles and Europe.

It was said that after the war his powers diminished as his bravura technique became sketchier and sketchier. However, from time to time his inspiration returned, as it did on his 1937 trip to Jamaica.

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 filmed with Alec Guinness in the part.

By his first wife, Ida Nettleship (1877-1907), he had five children, and by his mistress Dorothy “Dorelia” McNeill, who later became his second wife, he had two children. By Ian Fleming’s mother, Evelyn St. Croix Rose Fleming, he had a daughter, Amaryllis Fleming (1925-1999), a noted cellist. At one time it was quite popular for women to suggest that their liaison with the painter had produced offspring.

In old age, though 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.

Michael Holroyd published a biography of John in 1975.