Augustus Edwin John was a Welsh painter, etcher and draughtsman, born in Tenby on January 4th 1878. He was the third child of four born to Edwin John and his wife Augusta Smith. His mother was an amateur artist and his father a solicitor. He was an important figure during 1910 renowned for his Post Impressionistic works. He was widely celebrated for a new style of oil sketching as well as for his dazzling figure drawings. Often compared to Matisse and Gaugin, he went on to develop an imaginative style of portraiture that extravagantly captured the essence of his subjects.
Augustus John lost his mother from rheumatic gout when he was just six years old. His father went into perpetual mourning and retired from business aged 30. This led to a dark and loveless childhood and Augustus and his siblings grew up in a claustrophobic environment peppered with warnings from their father about being stolen by gypsies should they venture from home.
Augustus John began his schooling locally before attending boarding school near Bristol. In 1894 he departed for the Slade School of art and studied under Henry Tonks, Frederick Brown and Philip Wilson Steer.
Augustus John suffered a head injury from diving while on holiday and underwent a personality change that caused him to drink heavily and adopt a bohemian way of dress. His painting however, grew more adventurous and caused friends to remark that fairies had placed a paintbrush instead of a sword into his hands. In 1898 considered to be the talent of his generation, John won the Slade prize with “Moses and the Brazen Serpent“. Ironically despite the childhood warnings against gypsies, John lived a nomadic lifestyle at one time living in a caravan and camping with gypsies.
After a successful show at the Carfax Gallery, John embarked for France to join Will Rothenstein, Orpen and Charles Conder. They visited Oscar Wilde during this time who was holding court in Paris after his imprisonment. John was not disappointed with the meeting but the rounds of applause given to Wilde’s wit and wisdom, he felt, made praise look altogether foolish.
On 24th January 1901 Augustus John married Ida Nettleship and they lived in Liverpool during the first year or so of their marriage. John was teaching at a local art school. They had a son, David Anthony Nettleship.
In 1903 John co-founded, with William Orpen the Chelsea Art School. He had an involvement with Dorelia McNeill who became his inspiration and subject of many paintings. John continued to live with Ida and had four more sons. With Dorelia he had three children. Ida died in 1907.
When WWI broke out, John was Britain’s best known painter. He took a commission in the Canadian army and had carte blanche to paint what he wanted on the western front. He was given permission to retain his beard becoming only the second person after King George V to have facial hair in the armed forces. However, he was sent home to Britain in disgrace after only two months after being involved in a brawl. He was saved from court martial by Lord Beaverbrook who intervened and sent him back to France but it seems John only ever completed one painting.
The 1920s saw Augustus John as Britain’s leading painter of portraits. His sitters included Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, TE Lawrence, WB Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Critics said his work had degenerated into bombast and his talent did go into decline. Seeking to revive earlier brilliance, John travelled extensively but relying on alcohol at the same time did nothing to stem the slide.
Later life saw Augustus John write an autobiography in two volumes Chiaroscuro and Finishing Touches. He was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and took part in demonstrations despite ill health. He eventually died of heart failure in 1961.