Augustus John: A Welsh Artist of Brilliance
Augustus Edwin John was born on the 4th of January 1878, in the Welsh seaside town of Tenby. His father, Edwin, was a solicitor, who’d moved his existing family to Tenby from Haverfordwest in the January of that year to avoid an epidemic of scarlet fever. Augustus John’s mother, Augusta, was a rather frail woman of 29, who already had two children — Thornton born 1875, Gwendolen born 1876 — and was not looking forward to a third.
Then a forth child, Winifred, came along a year after Augustus, and it was after this birth, writes Susan Chitty that: “ Augusta John’s bouts of illness became more disabling.” She died ‘amongst strangers’ in 1884.
After the death of Augusta Edwin moved the family to Broad Haven, close to Haverfordwest, where the children were looked after by two of Augusta’s sisters, the Misses Leah and Smith. As Chitty describes in her biography of Gwen:
“ Aunt Leah was the cheerful one while Aunt Rosina, who had a ferret-like face, was lugubrious and suffered from indigestion.”
Both aunts had a horror of Roman Catholicism, but were devoted to General Booth, holding important ranks in the Salvation Army. It was not a happy household — with the children missing their mother dreadfully — and it was probably then that Augustus John, aged 6, felt that family life was to be enjoyed, without restriction and the sword of a vengeful god, or aunt,hanging over them. From then onward he became more self assured, more playful and more daring.
In the autumn of 1884 Edwin sold the house in Broad Haven, gave up his lawyers practice in Haverfordwest, and moved everyone back to Tenby, taking two servants with them. This didn’t go down too well with his sisters-in-law, with Aunt Leah heading for the US within a few weeks, followed by Rosina, who headed for Japan, via Switzerland, finally settling in California.
Gwen had the same strong character as Augustus, and both showed an early interest in art: the one lasting legacy of their mother who’d painted excellent water colours, one of which could still be hanging in an American gallery as an Augustus John.
Due to a lack of soliciting work, money was tight in the family’s new home in Tenby, with Edwin often falling into a depression, not helped by the death of his father.
Education was sparse, with the children sent to a couple of Dame Schools, where they were taught French and English, and were allowed to draw and paint. Like most children of their class they lived in houses full of books, and all became prolific readers, and observers of the beautiful country around them, and the busyness of Tenby, which had recently become a thriving resort. All of this, most especially the colours and the brilliant light (as in St Ives across the Bristol Chanel) went into Augustus’ and Gwen’s work.
Wen Augustus finished his basic education in Tenby he had no particular interest in doing anything other than riding horses bareback along the beaches, his long dark hair flowing behind him, and using a secluded beach to draw attractive young men and women. He also spent some time at a local art school, run by Edward J. Head, R.A., whose work Edwin admired.
Not to be outdone Gwen turned the attic of the John house into a studio where she drew and painted children, paying them with sweets. It became very popular, much to her father’s disapproval, but Gwen insisted and her father gave in, as he always did. It was at this time that Gwen fell in love with cats.
By 1894 both Gwen and Augustus had been accepted for the prodigious Slade School of Art in London. Brother and sister left Tenby together by train for London, and would remain close during their time their. But I shall leave Gwen to her own devices (there will be a separate article about her)at this point, and concentrate on Augustus.
Augustus’s first day at the Slade is described by Michael Holroyd, in his biography of the artist:
“ On his first day at the Slade, in October 1894, Augustus was led into the Antigue Room, presided over by Henry Tonks — and almost at once a rumpus broke out. Some of the new students, who had already worked for several months in Paris, were objecting at not being allowed straight into the Life Class. Professor Tonks however was adamant: the students’ taste must first be purified and elevated by Graeco-Roman sculpture before it could be judged fit to deal with the raw materials of life itself.”
Augustus was at this stage not prepared to take the side of the students, and although he’d had plenty of the raw material of life already, he felt ignorant of just about everything else. He wanted to learn, and if Tonks proved to be a bit like his aunts, he’d wait until he was ready to walk out the The Slade, and then get on with his life- and his painting — to which he was utterly committed.
Our young artist enjoyed the Slade (and that’s a separate story in itself), learning the tricks of the trade, and the emotional and spiritual commitment needed to become a great artist. And the eye: the eyes had to be trained too, trained to see, and see beyond the outer layer — to get deep within the subject he was painting, to become the landscape, or the person — find the soul.
When he returned home to Tenby things were not good, and he left straight away and, with a friend, started a walking trip, with a pony and cart,around south-west Wales. At Harverfordwest they fell in with a bunch of Irish tinkers who taught them how to catch and poach and cook food, and how to drink, and how not to drown. It was a revelation for Augustus, and he declared that was how he was going to live his life: no aunts, no professors, no god. Just art, and travelling.
Back at the Slade, Augustus met portrait painter William Orpen and was mightily impressed by his skills and dedication, but no so much by his organisational and business skills(which were very good),which Augustus never had, and although in the future he earned huge amounts of money from portrait commissions, especially after Orpen’s death in 1931, he never really knew how much he had in the bank.
Just before leaving the Slade he fell for Ida Nettleship, another student, whom he painted and drew many times. They became lovers. Ida’s parents were horrified, especially when a baby arrived.
This was now to be the pattern of his life: painting, travelling, often in a Romany Caravan, with Ida, and later Dorelia, and then with both of them, and more children, but always painting and drawing, and living the life of a gypsy; no aunts or gods, except painting; always painting. He loved it, although I’m not so sure about the women?
And what great art he produced thereafter, always with figures, either Ida or Dorelia, or later portraits, many portraits that enabled him to buy houses, large houses (with land and outhouses) where the door was always open to friends and anyone who passed. Some stayed for tea, others for years.
A few years ago, in a second-hand bookshop, I came across Two Flamboyant Fathers, written in 1966 by Nicolette Devas, which is a book that defies categorization.
It’s biography, autobiography, history, memoir, poetry, very funny, and above all else, extremely well written.
Nicolette Devas (nee Macnamara) — whose sister, Caitlin, famously married Dylan Thomas in the 1930s — was the daughter of Francis Macnamara, the Irish poet, and later became the wife of Anthony Devas, the acclaimed painter.
And if that sounds as if she was little more than an appendage to others, forget it, because Nicolette Devas was an artist and writer of outstanding talent, who, as a child and young woman, was raised in the bohemian household of Augustus John, and the French home of her loving, but ever so slightly batty, Irish grandmother. It was an upbringing that turned her into something very unusual indeed, namely a woman of independent action and thought who — at a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard, unless you lived in the John household of course — turned her life experiences into some of the finest paintings to come out of the middle of the 20th century, and a writing talent that is natural, and a joy to read.
To give you a flavour of Nicolette’s upbringing let me quote you from the cover blurb of Two Flamboyant Fathers:
“To be begotten [people aren’t ‘begotten’ anymore are they], brought up, surrounded and moulded almost exclusively by artists is an experience not given to many, and few indeed on the lavish scale here remembered and recorded by Nicolette Devas. Her genealogical father was Francis Macnamara, an exuberant, hard-drinking and hard-loving Irish landowner, poet and philosopher, a friend of Yeats, Shaw and others of their generation. When he abandoned his wife and four children for another woman, the young Nicolette chose Augustus John as a father-figure, who was to surpass him not only in creative genius but in sheer animal vitality. From school in France she moved into the John orbit between Salisbury plain and the New Forest, where T.E. Lawrence, Henry Lamb, Lytton Strachey, Stanley Spencer and others might be encountered barging into one another coming in or going out. Nicolette herself went to the Slade [paid for by John], where she met her future husband, the artist Anthony Devas. Not long afterwards her sister Caitlin married Dylan Thomas. And so we are conducted in this fresh and original memoir, into the robust, colourful environment in which geniuses are taken for granted, loved and quarrelled with daily…”
This chaotic bohemian life with the extended John family is something Constantine Fitzgibbon picks up on in his definitive 1965 biography, The Life of Dylan Thomas, where he writes about Caitlin and Nicolette:
“Apart from her parents the most formative influence on the growing girl [Caitlin] was the John family, with whom the Macnamara children were more or less brought up. There were a dozen or so John children, about half of them the sons and daughters of Augustus’s two wives, the rest an illegitimate miscellany. Nicolette Devas, Caitlin’s elder sister, has told me that the atmosphere at Fordingbridge [on the edge of the New Forest] was one of unabashed sexuality, the old patriarch being the least abashed of all. Nicolette has said that the choice for the Macnamara girls was either to dive in, or keep right out of, this eroticism. She kept out: Caitlin dived in, and her first passion, which was not returned, was for one of the John boys fifteen years her senior. Almost her second, which was returned, was for Augustus himself, though he sometimes became confused and thought she was his daughter as well.”
Two Flamboyant Fathers is a book that takes you into the corners of well known people’s lives, helping to fill out the larger story of Dylan Thomas and Augustus John, and even T.E. Lawrence, as this little snippet shows:
“ Meeting T.E. Lawrence counts as a star of excitement. His book the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ was then going the rounds of our circle and I read it with the reverence that it was accorded by my elders. Gossipy stories of his heroism and eccentricity fed my hero worship.
“ Lawrence was then calling himself Shaw and was stationed at an aircraft base [it was actually an army tank base] in Dorset. Augustus was painting him in the afternoons.
“ He arrived at Fryern on his motor bike with a swish of speed round the laurel bend in the drive, and the gravel scratched as he came to a halt outside the house. With my head full of his book, I substituted a camel for the motor bike, Arab draperies for his breeches and polo-necked sweater, and the desert sun had scorched his face: nothing so plebeian as the Dorset wind could have caused the red peeling skin.
“ He had a rather cringing, obsequious admiration for Augustus and called him ‘Master’ much to our astonishment. But Augustus lapped up his worship.
“ Lawrence liked to tell stories of how he lived on a handful of raisins for his daily diet and, with our gobbling young appetites, this impressed us more than his reputation in the desert. We thought of him as a kind of superman, above ‘les bassesses humaines’. He impressed us until the day Poppet visited his cottage with Augustus, sneaked into his larder, and came home to tell us that our hero was no hero. She had seen cold chicken, a joint, bread and butter and a pot of marmalade. This destroyed his myth for us.
“ Lawrence came to lunch one Christmas Day at Fryern, and little did he guess that we counted every mouthful of turkey. He was no ascetic that Christmas Day.
“ After lunch, as we were all trooping over to the studio, I overcame my shyness and spoke to him. In a few tentative words I told him that I had read the ‘Seven Pillars’ and thought it absolutely marvellous. He glanced at me, took three quick steps forward and joined Augustus and started to talk to him. I was too silly to know that I had been snubbed.”
Now, you won’t find that in any of the Lawrence biographies.
Augustus John was never particularly fussy about whom he took to bed. He was a man, and an artist, of his time, and we should not judge him. As far as I know there were never any complaints, but he certainly led a licentious lifestyle.
But he was generous and kindly and always loved those he had loved from the start. He had a large, wild and happy family, one of whom became an admiral of the fleet. In the end he became a member of the Establishment and was awarded the OM.
Above all else he was an artist of the first order, whose work is, like Orpen’s, a part of us all, whether we know it or not, or like it or not, as George Bernard Shaw probably wouldn’t have said.
I shall be writing further pieces about Augustus John.