Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

The king of Bohemia

Gazetter entry

 

Of all the larger than life characters that stalked the numerous schools, circles and salons of the literary and art world at the dawn of the 20th century the figure of Augustus John presents a towering archetype of the bohemian artist; wild, promiscuous, proto-type hippie, early new age traveller and commune patriarch - all on top of being the top portrait painter of his generation.

Born at Haverfordwest in 1878 into a somewhat intimidating household - their Grandfather exhorted his grandchildren to " Talk! If you can't think of anything to say tell a lie!' and 'If you make a mistake make it with Authority!' - the John children were looked after by two aunts, Rose & Lily, who rode round the neighbourhood in a wicker pony trap known as 'the Hallelujah Chariot'. The aunts held rank in the Salvation Army and variously followed the doctrines of the Quakers, Joanna Southcott and. Howell Harris. The John family moved to Tenby in 1884 and Augustus became a student at the Slade School of Art in 1894. In the summer between terms studying in London two incidents happened that would have a large influence in John’s life - on a walking trip around Pembroke-shire he had his first encounter with Irish tinkers which would lead to a life long fascination with Romany culture and way of life. And in the summer of 1897 he suffered a severe accident hitting his head on a rock whilst diving into the sea, this seemingly resulted in a radical change in character - later leading to the myth that he had dived into the sea, hit his head on a rock and emerged from the water a genius.

True or not - John returned to The Slade a different man. Gone was the 'methodical' student of the previous year to be replaced by the new bohemian student known for his mood swings, his womanising and his artistic talent. Sporting gypsy hat, silk scarf and gold earring that would become not only his trademark, but required dress for any would-be bohemian, John and his associates would frequent the Café Royal whenever their meagre student finances could afford - and John was a centre of attraction among the cosmopolitan crowd that gathered there. The café in the late 1890s was the haunt of artists, writers, circus people, magicians, aristocrats 'Celtic' gentlemen & politicos of numerous persuasions from anarchists of the Kropotkin school to Liberal capitalist 'Social Creditors'. Among the small group of fellow students wandering around sketching each other after classes and in and out of the anarchist clubs off Tottenham Court Rd were John's sister Gwen - later a considerable artist in her own right and mistress of Rodin, - and Ida Nettleship whom John would marry on leaving Slade to avoid being seen to 'live in sin'

Augustus John, Ida & Dorelia PictureFaced with the prospect of supporting a family John took a job as art instructor at Liverpool Art School which was attached to the University, but infact consisted of no more than a collection of wooden sheds. Here he met an older man, John Samson, university librarian and self-taught Romany scholar who opened the young artist’s eyes to the richness of gypsy culture, language & lifestyle. For the rest of his life John would search out gypsy encampments wherever he went - often travelling in his own set of horse drawn vans. He had his own repertoire of Romany songs & dances. Joining them round their camp fires at night, penetrating behind the veneer of romantic glamour, John saw the gypsies as having true freedom, not compromised by the advance of industrialised society, - the supreme anti-capitalists whose belongings were always burnt at death. In turn the gypsies accepted John as an honorary gypsy. After Liverpool the young John family moved back to London - marriage did not stop John's womanising - he met and fell hopelessly in love with one of his sisters models and friend Dorothy McNeil, known as Dorelia or later affectionately as Dodo. Ida liked Dorelia and a tumultuous ménage-a-trois was formed. Despite numerous other affairs Ida & Dorelia would be the anchors round which John’s world would revolve.

In the early years of the 20th Century John would make his reputation as an artist moving on the edges of a number of influential schools & salons of the time, exhibiting with the New English Art Club and the Camden School as well as being a regular visitor to Lady Gregory's Irish Salon at Coole Park. Critics by now were comparing his work with that of Matisse and Gaugin.

Tragedy struck the John clan in 1907 when shortly after the birth of her 5th child Ida died. With two other children by Dorelia, John, hardly the perfect father, had to struggle with Ida's family over who should bring up the children. In August 1911 John and Dorelia rented Alderney Manor, a strange fortified pink bungalow built by an eccentric Frenchman in 60 acres of heath and woodland on the Newton to Ringwood road outside Parkstone, Dorset. The property, actually quite a large low house with gothic windows and a castellated parapet with additional cottages and a round walled garden was owned by Winston Churchill's Liberal aunt, Lady Wimborne, who was "pleased to have a clever artist as a tenant." The John entourage arrived in a colourful caravan of carts & wagons with children singing as they came down the drive. They set to, turning it into the very picture of a bohemian commune - the coach house was converted into a studio, the cottage converted to accommodate the seemingly endless stream of visitors, some invited, some who just dropped in and would stay for days, months, even years. Others stayed in the blue & yellow gypsy caravans dotted around the grounds and when numbers swelled for weekend parties, in gypsy tents or alfresco in the orchard. The children played a natural part in the community joining in with chores. And, between private tutors for the girls and school for the boys, they ran wild over the heathland and through the woods & bathed naked in the pond. The communal chaos was presided over by Dorelia in pre-Raphaelite robes looking as if she was constantly about to pose for a portrait - busy organising guests and making the house run smoothly, dressing everyone in handmade clothes - helped by her sister Edie who ran the kitchen. Over the years they acquired all the trappings of a back to the land community; cows, a breeding herd of saddleback pigs, various donkeys, New Forest ponies, carthorses, miscellaneous cats & dogs, 12 hives of bees that stung everyone, a dovecote from which all the doves flew away and a 'biteful' monkey.

Communal living did nothing to cramp John’s style - the affairs continued, almost too numerous to mention - with Lady Ottoline Morrell, Mrs Strindberg, the actress Eileen Hawthorne & Mrs Fleming, Ian Fleming's mother, (a liaison which resulted in a daughter, Amaryliss, later an accomplished cellist.) John never seemed to deny any of his wayward offspring - taking some under his communal wing, paying maintenance to support others. Though the claim that he had fathered some 100 illegitimate offspring is probably an exaggeration - it being fashionable at one time to claim to have had a child with him. At Alderney John would spend his time painting and sketching the children and guests - taking part in afternoon jazz sessions - the tango was his speciality - and presiding over the many parties, bonfires & trips to local pubs. All the usual suspects from the Bohemian art scene would make their way down to Dorset; the Bloomsbury crowd; Brett, Carrington, Lytton-Strachey, Berty Russell, Wyndham Lewis........ Other more exotic characters would make it their home, amongst them Chilean painter Alvaro Guevara, wall paper designer Fanny Fletcher, Polish music doctor Jan Sliwinski and the Icelandic poet Haraldar Thorskinsson. At intervals John would leave for his studio in London or for a continental tour in search of gypsy camps or new lovers.

At the outbreak of the First World War John was perhaps the best-known artist in Britain. His friendship with Lord Beaverbrook enabled him to obtain a commission in the Canadian Army and he was given free rein to paint what he liked on the Western Front, but is only known to have completed one painting. He was also allowed to keep his facial hair and therefore became the only officer in the Allied forces, except for King George V, to have a beard. After two months in France, Lord Beaverbrook had to intervene to save John from a court-martial after he was arrested for taking part in a brawl.

The years at Alderney were the peak of John's artistic career. Everyone who was anyone seemingly wanted to have their portrait painted by the erstwhile King of Bohemia. Thomas Hardy on seeing his portrait painted by John in 1923 remarked "I don't know if that's how I look, but that's how I feel." As well a portraits of friends, like Ottoline Morrell and W.B.Yeats, he painted Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald & Winston Churchill. A controversial portrait of Lord Leverhulme, the founder of Port Sunlight, was returned to John minus its head, the soap millionaire having been offended by the artist's depiction of him. The resultant outcry at this insult to John's artistic integrity reverberated around the globe. A 24 hour art strike was called in Paris involving not only artists, but also models & picture framers. In Italy a huge soap effigy of Leverhulme was ceremoniously burnt and in Hyde Park art school students marched in protest bearing aloft a giant headless torso. (The portrait was later 'stitched' back together and hangs in the Lady Leverhulme Gallery at Port Sunlight.)

The Johns moved to Fryern Court, Fordingbridge - a 14th century friary turned farmhouse - in 1927. The house on the edge of the New Forest became a stopping-off point for artists travelling to the West Country from London and developed into more of an open house than bohemian commune. In the less hectic lifestyle at Fryern where he entered the twilight of his artistic career John became increasingly interested in politics. He was active in the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment and perhaps somewhat ironically supported the Voluntary Contraception League. He pestered MPs on behalf of gypsy & travellers' rights, and was honoured to be elected president of the Gypsy Law Society in 1936. He was increasingly drawn to anarchism, both as a philosophy and a social system. He had come across the writings of the nineteenth-century French social reformer Charles Fourier, and was attracted to the heady mix of commutarian socialism and passion in the Frenchman's writing. John elaborated his own beliefs in the Delphic Review, a magazine edited in Fordingbridge and through a number of radio broadcasts. He argued for the breakdown of Nation States into small autonomous, self-supporting, communities - `Gigantism is a disease,' he declared, pointing out that 'Classical Athens was hardly bigger than Fordingbridge.' His attacks were elegantly argued, even if they did appear somewhat eccentric. He launched an attack on hedges. `Hedges are miniature frontiers when serving as bulkheads, not windscreens. Hedges as bulkheads dividing up the Common Land should come down, for they represent and enclose stolen property. Frontiers are extended hedges, and divide the whole world into compartments as a result of aggression and legalised robbery. They too should disappear…'

Horrified by the rise of fascism across Europe he helped to form the Artists International Association along with the likes of Eric Gill, Henry Moore & Ben Nicolson. The association's aim was to establish an 'army of artists' to oppose the advance of 'philistine barbarism'. They organised a number of exhibitions 'Against Fascism & War'. John reserved a particular hatred for General Franco - and in the early years of WW2 he presented several of his pictures to war funds & used his influence to free German & Austrian refugee artists interned bythe British. During the war years he dabbled with the Greenshirts & the Social Credit Party and in I945 joined with Benjamin Britten, E. M. Forster, George Orwell, Herbert Read and Osbert Sitwell in sponsoring the Freedom Defence Committee `to defend those who are persecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, writing and action'. This was an alternative to the National Council for Civil Liberties that had temporarily become a Communist Front organisation refusing to help anarchists.

John and Dorelia lived out the last years of their lives at Fryern, interspersed with occasional trips abroad or up to London - where John would proceed, even into his eighties, to out-drink, out-party and out-flirt his considerably younger companions.

Augustus John Statue PictureThe committee of 100 and 1
"....you may count on me to follow your lead,..... it is up to all those of us above the idiot line to protest as vigorously as possible." So wrote the 84 year old Augustus John to Bertrand Russell during the build up to the mass anti-nuclear demonstrations of 1961. "...I cannot write, still less speak in public, but if my name is of any use you have it to dispose of." Recovering from an attack of thrombosis and suffering from what amounted to agoraphobia he made his way up to London on September 17th 1961, hiding himself, somewhat appropriately, inside the National Gallery until the demonstration started. At 5 o'clock he emerged, walked across the road to Trafalgar Square and sat down, joining the unprecedented numbers who had gathered to protest against the lunacy of atomic weapons - and declaring that he would " go to prison if necessary." Few there recognised the sick old man, but later when Bertrand Russell heard of John's attendance he described it as a "heroic gesture." A month later Augustus John was dead.

Statue of John at Fordingbridge
Photo by Liz Neat

Augustus John Links:
The artcyclopedia - http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/john_augustus.html
The Gypsy Collections - http://sca.lib.liv.ac.uk/collections/gypsy/intro2.htm

Augustus John Links:
The artcyclopedia - http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/john_augustus.html
Short Biog. - http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ARTjohn.htm
The Gypsy Collections - http://sca.lib.liv.ac.uk/collections/gypsy/intro2.htm
History of Fordingbridge - http://home.clara.net/gponting/page33.html

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