Augustus Edwin John

The Welsh painter Augustus Edwin John (1878-1961) was the leading British portraitist of his period and a brilliant draftsman.

Augustus John was born on Jan. 4, 1878, in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, and studied art at the Slade School in London. The Slade placed great emphasis on draftsmanship, and John soon attracted attention by the vitality and accomplishment of his drawings. His painting technique, which was slower to develop, at first revealed his attempt to combine the tradition of dark-toned impressionism current among artists of the New English Art Club with something of the grandeur of Rembrandt and other Old Masters, but gradually John began to work with brighter colors and a more simplified composition. This tendency reached its peak about 1911-1914 in a series of small, brilliantly colored paintings executed in North Wales, the majority of which showed figures (usually his second wife, Dorelia, and one or more of their children) in a setting of lakes and mountains.

Influenced perhaps by contemporary movements like the Celtic revival, John was greatly attracted to Irish tinkers, Normandy fisherfolk, and above all the gypsies, whose language he learned and with whom he camped. Being himself a rebel against convention, he felt great sympathy for people who lived independent, undisciplined lives in close contact with nature, and he expressed this in a series of drawings and large-scale decorative figure paintings, almost all of which remained at the project stage or were left unfinished. These works usually showed Dorelia and their children or gypsies and tinkers posed in a wild outdoor setting.

Although he continued throughout his life to paint occasional nude studies, flower paintings, landscapes, and figure compositions, John became increasingly involved with portraiture, which forms the main body of his work. His most successful portraits, rendered with spontaneous, flamboyant directness, are of his family and of writer and artist friends, including William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. In his commissioned portraits of society figures, if the face and personality had little to interest him, John would often have recourse to mannerisms such as large liquid eyes and elongated chins and necks.

John's method of painting depended to a great extent on improvisation and on preserving the freshness and immediacy of the sketch. He took little interest in the more radical developments of 20th-century art, and by the time of his death on October 31, 1961, in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, his work had somewhat lost touch with the most vital currents of his day.


Further Reading on Augustus Edwin John

John wrote two books of memoirs: Chiaroscuro: Fragments of Autobiography (1952) and the posthumous Finishing Touches, edited by Daniel George (1964). The best book on John is John Rothenstein, Augustus John (1944).

Additional Biography Sources

Easton, Malcolm, Augustus John, London: H.M.S.O., 1975.

Holroyd, Michael, Augustus John: a biography, Harmonds-worth; New York etc.: Penguin, 1976.

Holroyd, Michael, Augustus John: the new biography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

John, Augustus, Autobiography of Augustus John, London: Cape, 1975.