Time was—before 1914—when Augustus John was regarded as an exceptionally brilliant young painter by England’s leading critics and connoisseurs. No one was thought to show as much “promise” as an artist, his potentialities were said to be infinite, and it was widely proclaimed that John was a painter who, by his creative genius, would redeem the low artistic standing of the British School. George Moore, oblivious of Matisse and Picasso, claimed in 1906 that John was “the only man living for whom drawing presents no difficulty whatever.” Then in 1909 Max Beerbohm wrote that he had “no doubt of his genius,” while even the crusty Roger Fry did not hesitate to employ similar terms. Such high-flown language would get on any artist’s nerves and drive him astray. And so it was with John, who had heard his exceptional gifts praised and discussed from the moment he entered the Slade School of Art in October 1894, at the age of sixteen, and began to accumulate certificates of proficiency, cash prizes, and scholarships.
Yet England’s budding “genius” never began to live up to his early “promise.” In a very few years, John destroyed himself through weakness of character, self-indulgence, fornication, and frivolity. By 1912 he was losing ground, while by 1919 he was well on the way to becoming one of the least competent and vulgarest painters ever to have achieved notoriety. And when he died in 1961 at the age of eighty-three, he had lived to see his erstwhile reputation disappear altogether.
What then has attracted Michael Holroyd, England’s new professional biographer, who specializes in social and cultural history of the period 1890 to 1940, to write this unedifying and humorless chronicle of a failed life? In his preface, Holroyd announces that the biographer must find his subject “stimulating.” What stimulation has he found among all this boozing, baby-making, and bohemianism? For Holroyd is certainly not stimulated by John’s accomplishments as a painter. Indeed when it comes to judging artistic quality or bringing new material and new ideas to the writing of British art history in the twentieth century, Holroyd proves to be a greenhorn and a bungler.
All that is left to hold his attention, therefore, are the grimy details of a squalid existence, the rake’s progress of a pathetically self-destructive, weak-willed man, with all that that involved in the way of messy bohemian entanglements and, for much of John’s life, a silly world of snobs, nuts, aristos, celebrities, statesmen, generals, and wayward literati. Of course, we have met this sort of social jumble in Holroyd’s earlier books. But Holroyd simply cannot make John’s unruly life interesting and it is soon evident that he tired of his subject at an early stage of writing. Nor is this surprising, because he has to face up to John’s own realization that he had failed before he was thirty-five, and to some fifty years of activity after that during which the artist complained ceaselessly about his frustrations and boredom with the work which he had to do. Holroyd records all this with increasing tedium, so his book can hardly be described as lively and absorbing reading.
As the book progresses it becomes increasingly clear that John came to hate himself for having to rely on the bidding of others to earn his fortune, because he himself lacked the spark of illumination, the will power, the confidence, and the resourcefulness which would have given him the opportunity to paint only what and how he wanted. And this resentment gained such a hold that, by 1917, John was hinting to his friend Handrafs O’Grady that he was almost ready to bite the hands of those victims of his reputation who proposed to employ and feed him: “I wish it were not necessary to depend so much on rich people,” he commented bitterly. “They don’t really buy things for love—or rarely.” Yet at that moment John was enjoying a great new success at the Alpine Club in London with “the largest exhibition of his pictures ever assembled,” most of which he sold, and was hailed by the critic of The Times as “the most famous of living English painters.”
Holroyd delights in retailing gossip or introducing scandalous romances, indiscreet letters, barely credible tales and examples of outrageous behavior. But what Holroyd fails to show in this book is any measure of discretion or understanding of what he is writing about, though he knows how to manipulate the tittle-tattle and the brawls to make his own contribution look like good journalism. Holroyd’s weakness as a biographer is that he has no sense of what is significant in another man’s life, no sense of proportion either. Fringe figures whom he knows about are given unnatural importance, he dallies over trifles and loses Augustus while he savors the delights of feather beds, escapades, and pandemonium.
Thus the general picture which Holroyd builds up is not centered on a credible portrait of a wild, temperamental, sad, and disillusioned man in the ambiance of his home, his studio, and his haunts elsewhere. Instead, Holroyd, who has worked for six or seven years on this book, offers a farrago of news clippings, correspondence, vague memories, and excerpts from interviews, with a factual passage here and there dealing with events in the life of his hero. And every so often, as though to remind the reader of the writer’s own contribution, Holroyd halts the narrative to assault the mind with a falsely grand passage of prose, consisting of hollow verbiage like the following: “Victorianism had hardened into a tiny Ice Age of its own, splendidly impervious to the intellectual fires that were consuming the Continent. Like a massive iron gate, rusted, half-buried in the earth, it stood blocking the way, needing the detonation of a World War eventually to uproot it.” What a pity that readers are cheated of an illustration of a Victorian Ice Age looking like a half-buried rusty iron gate! What a subject for Max Ernst!
Much of Holroyd’s downfall in this tedious biography results from the fact that he disapproves of and is out of sympathy with Augustus John as a human being, yet cannot forgo the illusion—which he regrets—that John must have been a “great” artist, even one of the great figures of our century, because at one time or another so many people said so. Holroyd overlooks the essential fact that they were all English and that therefore John’s reputation was simply local and parochial. Is it a compliment to be known in Paris as “England’s best bad painter”?
Holroyd is impressed by the names that he can throw around his pages, thanks to John, and is ready to accept the artist at valuations placed on him by people of his time—women who fell in love with him, empty-headed Mayfair hostesses, pit-a-pat Bloomsbury and Chelsea art students, businessmen, journalists, men of power, and nouveaux riches. These people were not necessarily insincere, but they were innocent, not to say ignorant, where art was concerned, and their judgments were therefore superficial. Moreover one must remember that the English have a weak visual sense and do not easily distinguish bad from good art. They inherited John as a so-called “genius” from the years before 1910, and London’s smart society likes having a familiar artist around the place to “lionize.”
John played the game for what he could get out of it, while the English connoisseurs, who thought they knew all about the art of portraiture, pushed him to the top. This spirit inspired the verses of a sketch presented at a Monster Matinée organized in Chelsea in 1917. The show had the backing of a committee of duchesses and such like, and was organized to raise funds to send concert parties to France to entertain the troops at the front. Holroyd does well to quote it in full and preserve the record for posterity, because it makes intelligible what otherwise seems a nonsense-halo surrounding John. I quote here at random:
But if “in the know,”
You’ll hasten to go Where all the best people have gone:
His portraits don’t flatter
But that doesn’t matter So long as you’re painted by John!…
* * *
How he’s got on! He’s quite at the top of the tree!
From Cotman to Corot,
From Tonks to George Morrow, There’s no-one as famous as he!
Since Holroyd has already begun to chart the growing deterioration of John’s artistic ability, one might expect him to register a snide comment on this effusive outpouring of praise and affection. But no. In an off-hand tone, without surprise, and as though nothing were more natural, Holroyd notes that: “Everyone in the polite world was soon elbowing his way into this charity-rag…. During rehearsals fashionable ladies gathered together for gossip about him, vying with one another to tell the most succulent story of his dreadful deeds. But when he appeared…such was his presence that they would all stand up to greet him with their best smiles.” Thus Holroyd reveals that one of the bases of his “true relationship” as a biographer with John is a willingness not to kill the myth that he was a “great” artist.
In his opening chapters, Holroyd traces the evolution of John’s personality during and shortly after his period of studies at the Slade School. This character outline of the young Augustus never loses its relevance throughout the remainder of his 600 pages. John is described, at the start of his career, in 1893, as being “boorishly shy.” At the Slade he had the misfortune to work under Henry Tonks, Wilson Steer, and Walter Russell, all three nonentities, and some of the worst teachers it is possible to imagine. All they gave John was the impulse to seek guidance from the Old Masters, from the Pre-Raphaelites, then much in fashion, and from the paintings of the Royal Academicians of the day, who supposedly upheld the British “tradition” at its best. At the same time, John was taught to look askance on contemporary French art, which was then beginning to be shown in London.
Holroyd maintains—and in the light of John’s later development, it is hard to disagree—that the effect of this slanted teaching on Augustus, “who had little sense of personal identity or of what his style might be,” was confusing and destructive, because it led him into the trap of finding formulas and of never having to work out his self-realization on his own. Nevertheless, it seems logical to deduce—though Holroyd does not do so—that only a man who was weak and indecisive, who was not consumed with an urgent impulse to express himself through art, would have accepted this situation without a struggle. John’s only comment, written admittedly fifty years later, was that he had never been able to discover himself because: “I was never apprenticed to a master whom I might follow humbly and perhaps overtake.”