Born in Pembrokeshire, 1878, Augustus John was a draughtsman, etcher and painter whose emotive style of portraiture secured his place within the canon of great British artists. His work was seen as a continuation in the vein of Sargent and the Post Impressionists, though John himself claimed that his inspirations came from as far afield as Goya, Rembrandt and (most especially) El Greco.
Though widely celebrated in his latter years, John’s artistic status was established early in his career through an extraordinary natural draughtsmanship. Early drawings demonstrated a maturity of style and technique well beyond his years that quickly garnered him a reputation amongst peers and teachers while studying at the Slade School in London (1894-98) and which would stand him in great stead as he soon turned his hand to intaglio printmaking and the methods of etching and drypoint.
John’s first oil paintings revealed an equally adept touch and before long his successes attracted commercial interest. Holding his first one-man show at the well-known Carfax Gallery in 1903, his work was propelled into the public domain and his drawing talents, by now something of a legend at the Slade, were exposed to a wider audience.
(left): a ‘Portrait of the Artist’; (right) small portrait of fellow artist Percy Wyndham Lewis
Subsequent friendship with the famed portraitist Sir William Rothenstein won him successful shows with the New English Art Club and his drawings, which had already begun to attract great attention and critical acclaim, soon found him a growing list of purchasers too. Sale of John’s work and his growing notoriety in the art world were aided in part by his colourful dress and sheer force of personality. In studio rooms he dressed like a bohemian, calico shirts and ragged overcoats covered in bright crusts of paint; in town, he became a rakish dandy with a well-groomed beard, fine tailored suits, and a jaunty felt hat.
‘The Quarry Folk’; John’s etchings are now considered some of his finest works, evidence of a superb draughtsmanship
An early marriage to Ida Nettleship in 1901, however, soon forced John to seek a more stable income, finding employment as an art teacher in Liverpool at a school attached to the University College. Though his stay there was short, it produced a series of etched plates which quickly established him as a master of the art. In the years immediately succeeding his death, demand for John’s graphic work diminished significantly, yet in the last decade these early etchings and drawings have provoked renewed interest in the artist and are now widely considered amongst his most successful extant works.
‘The Old Haberdasher’ – John became best known for his contemplative portraiture
In a further attempt to support his ever-extending family, John also turned to portraiture. Sessions posing for the artist were, according to sitters’ anecdotes, fraught with tension: John was famously argumentative, often manipulating his models into ungainly poses as he attacked the canvas, his sittings frequently punctuated by harsh barks and outbursts as sitters tried to move into a more comfortable position. Nor was John’s anger limited to his subjects; though he is today perhaps best known for his work as a portraitist, John destroyed more paintings than he completed and wrote vividly in his later years of his tendency to abort his commissions:
…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…
Over the next twelve years leading up to WWI John travelled extensively, seemingly always on the move. Likewise his technique quickened in pace, developing a rapid style of figurative painting focusing on outdoor scenes: farmhands, fruit-pickers and bucolic vignettes inspired by British hedgerows and the beloved landscape of Southern France, where John visited in the early 1910s. Romani travellers provided a particular source of inspiration, John for some years inhabiting their way of life as he travelled across Europe with his wife, mistress, and six children in a hand-painted caravan.
Though this pace of life was briefly slowed by the sudden loss of Ida in 1907, Dorelia McNeill (his bohemian lover) soon took her place in looking after his children and provided John with a wealth of new subject material. Her presence is felt and seen in a great number of John’s works, and despite his frequent infidelities and erratic behaviour she remained a constant figure in his life as wife, model, and muse.
John’s portraiture was clearly well-received by both critics and contemporaries and in 1914 he was elected President of the National Portrait Society. Though rejected for military service in 1916, he was appointed as an official war artist in Paris, 1919, and assigned to a unit of Canadian infantrymen. Through a friendship with Lord Beaverbrook, John was allowed to keep his beard, an extremely unusual military sanction extended only to him and King George V, but within two months of arriving in France his enrollment with the troops was ended prematurely after it was discovered he had taken part in a brawl and the artist was sent home.
John’s portrait work continued to find him success in the years between the two World Wars: he was elected an R.A. late in 1928 and his subjects included figures as renowned as the writers T.E. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, and George Bernard Shaw. He was by now Britain’s premier portraitist, and with the rise to public prominence and his encroaching years the role of artistic buccaneer which he had lived for so long was slowly eroded by official recognition and the image of the ‘aging master’. In 1942 he was awarded the Order of Merit and, ten years later, had his first autobiographical work Chiaroscuro published by Jonathan Cape (the second volume, Finishing Touches, appearing some twelve years later).
By his twilight years John’s output had slowed and, though still highly respected by his peers, his work no longer captured the desires of contemporary art trends. With the thrill of new avant-gardes of artists, critics abandoned his late paintings in favour of more ostensibly daring movements such as Abstract Expressionism and the emergent enfant terrible, Pop Art.
Augustus John died aged 83 years old at Fryern Court in 1961. His sensitive portraits and rustic landscapes, for a time forgotten, are now being reexamined as the works of a modern-day Old Master. At heart a true Romantic, he leaves behind him works of great empathy, honesty, and humanity.