AUGUSTUS EDWIN JOHN OM, RA
Tenby, Wales 1878 – 1961 Fordingbridge, Hampshire
August John was born in Tenby in Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1878. After a short period at the Tenby School of Art, he enrolled at the Slade in London where, with his sister Gwen, he studied with Henry Tonks and became the protegé of William Rothenstein.
Considered to be the most talented artist of his generation, in 1898 John won the Slade Prize with Moses and the Brazen Serpent. In 1901 he married another Slade student, Ida Nettleship, and accepted a post teaching art at the University of Liverpool to support his family; Ida had five sons in rapid succession before dying after childbirth in 1907. John became fascinated by gypsies, painting them on his frequent travels around Britain with his family in a gypsy caravan. In 1902 he moved to Essex so he could teach, paint and exhibit in London, notably with the New English Art Club. John fell in love with his sister Gwen’s friend Dorothy McNeill, a beautiful woman whom he endowed with the gypsy name Dorelia. She became his muse, mother of four more of his children and his lifelong companion, who was responsible after the death of Ida for bringing up the whole John brood. The family moved to Alderney Manor, Dorset in 1911 and in 1927 to Fryern Court, Fordingbridge, on the edge of the New Forest, but John also maintained a studio in Chelsea.
By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, John was the best-known artist in Britain. His friendship with Lord Beaverbrook enabled him to obtain a commission in the Canadian Army and paint on the Western Front. In 1919 John attended the Versailles Peace Conference where he painted the portraits of several delegates, but the commissioned group portrait of the main figures at the conference was never finished.
Although John was well known early in the century for his drawings and etchings, most of his later work consisted of portraits, some of the best of which were of his family. By the 1920s Augustus John had become Britain’s leading portrait painter, with his vivid manner and his ability to catch unerringly some striking and usually unfamiliar aspect of his subjects. He produced iconic images of Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, TE Lawrence, Sir William Nicholson, WB Yeats, the cellist Guilhermina Suggia, the Marchesa Casati and Elizabeth Bibesco. Perhaps his most famous portrait is of his fellow-countryman, Dylan Thomas. He was known for the psychological insight of his portraits, some 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, but when the remainder of the picture was returned by error to John there was an international outcry over the desecration.
In later life, John wrote two volumes of autobiography, Chiaroscuro (1952) and Finishing Touches (1964). In old age 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 Fryern Court in 1961.