The Blasted Oak Tree

Themes and Variations: The Drawings of Augustus John 1901-1931

with essays by Michael Holroyd, by Mark Evans, by Rebecca John
National Museums and Galleries of Wales/Lund Humphries/Spink, 71 pp., $29.95

Portraits of Women: Gwen John & Her Forgotten Contemporaries

by Alison Thomas
Polity Press/Blackwell, 259 pp., $32.95 (paper)

Augustus John’s artistic reputation has undergone as dramatic a change as any in British art history. Dubbed by The Times, in 1917, “the most famous of living English painters” and declared by another critic to be one of the three greatest talents in Europe (the other two being Matisse and Epstein), he has sunk to the point where the 1987 exhibition “British Art in the 20th Century,” twenty-six years after his death, included no Johns at all. Some famous portraits, such as that of Madame Suggia, the violinist, are familiar to visitors to London’s Tate Gallery, and the National Museum of Wales (John’s homeland) has some paintings on display. But a recent exhibition of his drawings, to the catalog of which Michael Holroyd contributes an introduction, excited only moderate interest and, when works in the hands of family and private owners are excluded, much of this prolific artist’s work lies stacked away in gallery reserves.

Michael Holroyd’s reputation as a biographer, on the other hand, has soared since this biography first appeared over twenty years ago. If biography is now the reigning genre in Britain, Holroyd is its king. He can be forgiven then for reissuing this edition with “The New Biography” plainly announced on the jacket, when in fact it is not very new; anyone owning an earlier edition need not buy this one (but do hurry to enjoy rereading the old one). In his preface Holroyd explains how he acquired new material which persuaded him to make revisions and additions, but in fact the changes are peripheral. The new version remains the same length; in order to expand notes and appendices, some small flourishes have been cut—a pity in a way, because Holroyd cannot write badly. (Fortunately, most of the ones that make his writing so stylish are still there: the description of the clinic where John went to dry out, for instance—“a briefly fashionable private nursing home full of fumed oak, leatherette, beaten copper and suburban mauve walls”—or of Max Beerbohm, “with his immaculately tailored human nature, so amusing at a distance, so invisible near to.”) Fuller art history documentation has been added, and there is more on the period’s subsidiary characters, including the women art students contemporary with John, whose lives are rescued more fully by Alison Thomas’s Portraits of Women: Gwen John and Her Forgotten Contemporaries. Augustus’s sister Gwen John is the only one of these now known. Holroyd, having written on her in the interim, here focuses more on the relationship between the two—Gwen’s work, produced in quiet and obscurity, being now more highly rated than Augustus’s.

There are three strands to Augustus John: the life, the work—and the biographer. The biography as some kind of anonymous summary from on high seems out of tune with the times. There are now novels about the relation between biographer and subject (A.S. Byatt’s Possession, for instance, and Penelope …

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