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 …