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Augustus John, bohemian and painter

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:54 UK time, Tuesday, 15 February 2011

One of the most eccentric and fascinating characters ever to come out of Wales, the painter Augustus John, was a Pembrokeshire man through and through.

Augustus John

Augustus John

Even after he grew up and achieved international fame he often returned to the county of his birth, affording it a warm and fond place in his heart.

The third of four children, both Augustus and his older sister Gwen became celebrated and distinguished artists. Indeed, there are many who say that for all his posing and bohemian ways, Gwen was actually the better painter of the two. The jury, as they say, is out on that one.

Augustus John came from the county town of Haverfordwest where his father was a solicitor. However, he was actually born in the nearby seaside town of Tenby on 4 January 1878.

Late in 1877 there had been a serious outbreak of scarlet fever in Haverfordwest and, with the new baby due any day, Augustus' mother and her young family left their house in Victoria Place and decamped to Tenby. Augustus was born there a few weeks later.

Tenby harbour.  Image from https://www.istockphoto.com

Tenby was the ideal location for Augustus to grow up

Much of the future painter's childhood was spent in Tenby, the open sands and fine sea bathing making it an ideal place to grow up.

Even though his mother died when he was just six years old, it seems to have been a happy childhood. To begin with, at least, he was a mild and quiet child.

However, an accident while bathing - diving into water that was too shallow - resulted in an injury that became life changing. The simplistic view is that he dived into the sea, smashed his head on a rock or the sea bed and suffered a character change - the rampaging bohemian was born.

The truth of the matter is probably that the accident gave him a long period of enforced convalescence. During this time Augustus John sat and thought about life and art - and his role in it. The period certainly filled him with ideas and stimulated a passion for what can only be described as "adventure".

John's ability as an artist was soon noticed and he studied first at Tenby School of Art. Quickly outgrowing this, he went to the Slade School of Art in London where he became renowned as the an exceptionally able pupil of artist and teacher Henry Tonks.

Soon he was accepted as the most brilliant draughtsman the college had produced and, almost inevitably, won the Slade Prize in 1898. Leaving the Slade he went to Paris and then journeyed through France until he found the most perfect spot to live and paint in the Provence region.

Early in 1900 Augustus John married his first wife, Ida. Always passionately interested in the Romany way of life, for many years he travelled, together with his wife Ida, his mistress Dorelia McNeill and children from both women, around the countryside in a gypsy caravan.

It was a bohemian lifestyle that caught the public imagination and made his looming, bearded figure famous throughout the land.

When Ida died in 1907 Augustus continued to travel and live with Dorelia - all the while managing to keep a mistress or two in close company. He did later marry Dorelia.

The bohemian lifestyle did not seem to affect the children too much. One of the sons from John's first marriage, Casper, decided on a career in the Navy and rose to become First Sea Lord at the Admiralty.

During World War One John was appointed official War Artist with the Canadian forces. Together with the king he was one of the few soldiers (his position as War Artist meant that he was officially a serving soldier) allowed to keep his beard and other facial hair!

He did little painting, however, and after two short months in France he got himself involved in a brawl. Shipped home in disgrace, he managed to avoid a court martial - thanks to the intervention of Lord Beaverbrook - and he returned to France where he did actually manage to produce one or two paintings. The most famous of these is Fraternity, a depiction of three soldiers standing close together in front of a bombed out building.

In his early days Augustus John had been known as an exponent of Post Impressionism and for his abilities as an etcher and sketcher in oil.

After the war, however, he turned more and more to portrait painting and was soon regarded as Britain's finest artist in this field. Amongst others he painted people like Lawrence of Arabia, George Bernard Shaw and Dylan Thomas.

It was Augustus John who actually introduced Dylan Thomas to his future wife, Caitlin Macnamara. Caitlin was at that time John's mistress and in a famous episode during the return from a drunken excursion to west Wales, the jealous Augustus John actually knocked Dylan down. It did not stop Caitlin transferring her allegiance to the Welsh poet.

Augustus John continued to paint and write - he produced two autobiographies - until his death at Fordingbridge in Hampshire on 31 October 1961.

He left behind a huge body of work, some quite brilliant, some possibly not so good. His real legacy, however, lies in the tales of rampaging hedonism that seemed to follow him wherever he went - truly one of Wales' great eccentric characters.

If Phil's blog has made you want to find out more about Welsh art and artists, don't miss Rolf on Welsh Art on Wednesday 16 February, BBC One Wales.

. In this new series Rolf Harris goes in search of some of the greatest artists to be inspired by Wales.

Also, keep an eye out for Framing Wales which starts on Thursday 24 February on BBC Two Wales. Presented by Kim Howells, who attended Cambridge College of Arts and Technology it is his personal view of the great 20th century Welsh paintings and painters.


  • Comment number 1.

    It was indeed Augustus rather than Gwen who was perceived as the greater artist, so when, as early as the 50 and 60s, Haverfordwest felt it would like to commemorate a distinguished citizen, it was Augustus the town chose. The various councils decided eventually to place a plaque on his boyhood home. Then the fun started, since no-one could agree as to which house in Victoria Place was the right one - Number 3 or Number 5, and luminaries as various as Holroyd and Dillwyn Miles clashed over this. Eventually in the 60s the Borough Council placed a plaque on Number 3, but the advocates of Number 5 battled on. The answer, when it dawned, was a bizarre one, since it eventually occurred to someone to look across Victoria Place and register the much newer terrace opposite the Johns' house. It has a 30s look, and was clearly built since the Johns' day. And that meant that Victoria Place, now numbered 1,3,5 down the Johns' side was at that time numbered 1,2,3,4,5. So the house that was Number 3 in time became Number 5. And now the plaque (with one also to Gwen, for it was her actual birthplace) is on the right building. As Frank Hennessey once put it, "Poor old Augustus. Dived into the sea, banged his head, went home and lived in the wrong house"!

  • Comment number 2.

    Great story about the Council and Augustus John, Robert. Somehow it seems quite fitting with the man and all he did in his life. I'm not sure if he would have been amused or angry.


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