Augustus and Gwen John


By Jeremy Miles


EYEBROWS were raised when a few years back the thoroughly respectable town of Fordingbridge chose to erect a statue to the painter Augustus John.

For while admirers saw him as a towering artistic talent others remembered him as a swaggering, hard-drinking womaniser who fathered 17 illigitimate children. 

 John, a past master at dividing opinion, would no doubt have been amused at the row that ensued over whether the statue was ‘suitable” or not. 

For he spent most of the first half of the 20th century shocking straight-laced society with his outrageous behaviour. 

Born in Wales in 1878, he first came to the Hampshire and Dorset area when he was just 21 years old. He immediately fell in love with the beauty of the New Forest and the rugged coastline between Poole and the Purbecks. It was therefore hardly surprising that he chose to spend much of his life here, living first for 16 years at Alderney Manor near Poole and then for three decades at Fryern Court at Fordinbridge.

He arrived in Dorset in 1911 with a ready-made scandal to fascinate and upset the new neighbours.  

Setting up home with his mistress Dorothy McNeill (or Dorelia as he chose to call her) he soon established Alderney Manor as a wonderfully bohemian commune.

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With Dorelia and her outrageous handmade pre-Raphaelite costumes, naked children  running amok and an endless stream of exotic guests setting up home in brightly coloured caravans in the grounds, tongues did much wagging.

The couple had previously lived in London in a much gossiped about manage a trois with Augustus’s wife Ida. But when Ida died giving birth to her fifth child, John took the opportunity to whisk Dorelia away to the country where they could live like gypsies. 

He clearly enjoyed shocking the more conventonal folk he came into contact. For him it was just part of being an artist. Sadly though his sexual escapades and exhibitionist manner gradually eclipsed his not inconsiderable reputation as an artist and by the time he died in 196, it was the drinkig and womanising that people tended to recall, particularly around his old haunts near Poole and Fordingbridge.

Yet during the first three decades of the 20th century Augustus John had been considered the greatest artist of his generation. He was seen as a post-impressionist genius and his work was compared favourably with artistic giants like  Gauguin and Matisse. He painted wondefful portraits of the big names of the btime like Wyndham Lewis, W.B. Yeats, his close Dorset neighbour T.E. Lawrence and the young poet Dyland thomas.

He also introduced Thomas  to Caitlin Macnamara, the woman he would marry. Some years earlier a teenage Caitlin had modelled for John and inevitably ended up sharing his bed. She would tell Augustus’s biographer Michael Holroyd ”It was merely a question of a brief, dutiful performance for him to keep up his reputation as a casenova ogre.” It was the same she said for “one and all of his models.”

With such a reputation it was hardly surprising that some potential sitters refused point blank to have anything to do with him. He desperately wanted to paint a portrait of the writer and poet Robert Graves and tried to get his friend the painter Sven Berlin to act as a go-between. Sven who spent the last 45 years of his life living first in the New Forest and then near Wimborne knew Graves but was powerless to help. For the great man had loathed Augustus John ever since he had once witnessed him trying to seduce his mother. 

Flamboyant, outrageous, exhibitionistic and completely without a care for what others thought of him, Augustus John cheerily spentb his life painting wonderfully free end enregetic pictures while wreaking domestic havoc wherever he went.  

The contrast with his sister and fellow painter Gwen John could not have been greater. Gwen was two years older than Augustus, quiet and reserved in her demeanour and fastidious and slow in her work, she was completely overshadowed by her  brother.

 Even though her painting was of immense quality she received little recognition during her short lifetime and her death in 1939 went virtually unnoticed. Augustus once described himself and his sister as “the same thing really” a comment that might on the face of it seem baffling yet Gwen too persued a sexual fantasy. She became besotted with the great French sculptor Rodin, travelling to Paris and becoming first his model and, in his final years, his mistress. She was also just as infatuated with Dorelia as Augustus was and engineered her relationship with her brother. 

The fact is that Gwen and Augustus were two sides of the same coin, lost souls in a rapidly changing world searching in their very different ways for escape and contentment through personal fantasy. 

Ironically in recent years, as Augustus’s reputation as a great artist has threatened to disappeared into the mists of time,  Gwen’s reputation has been revived and she is now considerered a painter of international renown.

 Next week there will be a unique chance to re-assess the paintyings of this extraordinary pair  when the first ever large-scale joint exhibition of their work is staged at London’s Tate Britain. 

*Gwen John and Augustus John, which will feature some 70 paintings and drawings by  each artist, opens on Wednesday September 29 and runs until January 9. 

ly© Jeremy Miles 2017