Augustus John

Augustus John

Last updated: 10 January 2011

Augustus John 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.

Flamboyant bohemian artist Augustus Edwin John was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire in January 1878.

The younger son and third of four children in the John family, Augustus attended the Slade School of Art in London in 1894 (until 1899), and was joined there a year later by his older sister Gwen. The pair shared lodgings during their time at the school.

In 1897 Augustus suffered a serious head injury whilst diving into the sea that affected a change in his character, and critics have argued, resulted in the stimulation of his artistic growth. In 1898 he won the Slade Summer Composition prize with Moses and the Brazen Serpent, and after his graduation from the school he studied in France.

Early in 1900 Augustus married Ida Nettleship and they had five children together. Ida died tragically young aged just 30 in 1907 and he soon after married long time mistress Dorothy 'Dorelia' McNeill.

Augustus enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle, and was deeply influenced by the Romany tradition, lifestyle and language; he spent time travelling with gypsy caravans in Wales, Dorset and Ireland.

Augustus first visited Paris in 1900, and began exhibiting at the New English Art Club in the same year. He became a member of the NEAC in 1903 and staged his first one-man exhibition at the Carfax Gallery that year. Augustus was also an art instructor at the art school affiliated to the University College at the turn of the century.

In August 1911, John, Dorelia and children moved to Alderney Manor in Dorset and turned it into a bohemian commune, in which guests would stay in gypsy caravans parked in the grounds for often lengthy periods. Augustus continued in this promiscuous lifestyle, entertaining numerous affairs and expanding his celebrity circle of friends.

In 1911 he also stayed near the Arenig mountain range in southern Snowdonia with his friend and fellow artist JD Innes.

At the outbreak of World War One Augustus, by now a well-known British artist, gained a commission in the Canadian Army as a war artist with the help of his friend Lord Beaverbrook. However, the latter had to intervene as after spending two months in France the artist was involved in a brawl with a fellow officer and sent home in disgrace.

Though well known and celebrated in the earlier part of his career for his brilliant figure drawings and oil sketching, by the 1920s Augustus was the leading society portrait artist in Britain. Noteworthy figures such as Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, T E Lawrence, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, W B Yeats, David Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald and Winston Churchill all had their portraits painted by John.

Augustus had become one of the most famous British artists of the day, his talent compared to Michelangelo, Gauguin and Matisse.

In 1927 the John clan moved to Fryern Court, Fordingbridge, which became a kind of open house for travelling artists. In his later life and as his artistic career entered its twilight phase, Augustus became increasingly interested in politics, supporting the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment and pushing government officials on the topic of travellers' rights.

Later, John helped to form the Artists International Association in response to the growth of fascism across Europe. And in wartime, along with the likes of Benjamin Britten, E. M. Forster and George Orwell, sponsored the Freedom Defence Committee. Augustus received the Order of Merit in June 1942.

Augustus John lived out the last years of his life with Dorelia in Dorset, having travelled widely in his lifetime in Europe, America and Jamaica. The King of Bohemia died in 1961 at the age of 83.


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