Augustus John
Augustus John; drawing by David Levine

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!…

* * *

John! 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.”

Holroyd is so in awe of and respectful toward the career of his hero that he is not fully convinced that the artistic failing was innate in John’s character. He therefore seeks to attribute it as well to external circumstances, explaining that John was never able to bring to his work those essential “qualities of patience, calculation and foresight” on account of a bad accident—hitting his head on a rock—which occurred while he was bathing at Tenby in Wales in the summer of 1895. When Augustus returned to the Slade late that fall, after a long convalescence, his appearance and personality are described as being “transformed.” Before, he is said to have been spruce and clean-shaven, now he was “very untidy” and had begun to grow a beard. Nor was it only outwardly “but also in his work and behavior” that Augustus was changed. His style of drawing, heretofore “methodical,” is said to have now become rapid and “fluent,” while “the shy, uncertain, dreamy person he knew himself to be” at heart suddenly showed a capacity for “passionate outbursts” in public and developed a restless, impatient temperament.

Holroyd believes that this change resulted from the “claustrophobia” which John had suffered during his long convalescence. There is no reason to agree, though perhaps for a while John became mentally deranged. More serious is Holroyd’s pertinent analysis of the long-term consequences on John himself: in future, “his natural doubts and hesitations had no time to crowd in on him: he would not let them. By the time they had caught up…he was somewhere else. It was a way of life that served him magnificently while he was still young…. But, later on, as his lyrical inspiration faded, it was replaced by nothing, by emptiness, or sentimentality masquerading as lyricism.”

What a pity that Holroyd did not write “Finis” after that last sentence, because he has said all that is worth while and from then on his book turns into a struggle against boredom. But Holroyd eventually manages to fill another 550 pages with garrulous anecdotage. For, once he has established 1897 as the year in which “the Augustus John legend” was born, Holroyd feels he must tell it all just as it happened. Does this sound like another Scott Fitzgerald character for whom the cinemoguls might be waiting? Holroyd is always ready to refurbish a legend.

It was his vitality and restlessness that gave Augustus such tremendous initial impetus. To those near him, he seemed endowed with a more than human brilliance. People worshipped him…. Physically he was the stuff from which heroes are made, and the age was right for heroes. England was on the decline…. The collective frustration of Edwardian England was soon to focus upon Augustus and elect him as the symbol of free man. Through him people lived out their fantasies: for what they dared not do, it seemed he did instinctively. There was nothing mechanical, nothing restricted or uniform about him: there was wildness.

This is film scenario stuff which has no foundation in fact.

Holroyd is too occupied with being a social chronicler to concern himself seriously with Augustus John, the artist, but for whose fame and life’s work he would not have been writing this book. It is, however, worth considering, on the basis of the scant records here presented, how John evolved from the nineteenth into the twentieth century, because then it becomes apparent that John brought about his own failure. Augustus was by nature ambitious, and in a sense eager to develop his talent, because he looked forward anxiously to quick success and financial rewards. But great art is not born of haste and artifice. A man is maybe born a genius with the capacity to “paint like the bird sings,” to quote, Monet, but if not he must be ready to work to make himself into the great artist he dreams of being. John was not born a genius, nor was he prepared to work hard enough to turn himself into a truly great artist. Thus he ended up a lamentable failure.

John had some gifts initially as a draftsman, worked for a while to gain control over them, and discovered too soon how easy it was to earn praise for what he could achieve. But painting was another thing altogether, and for that technique John had no real gift at all. So he followed his teachers’ advice and began to imitate (in turn) the Pre-Raphaelites, Gainsborough, Watteau, Reynolds, Goya, and Rembrandt. Holroyd then throws a bitter truth at his readers when he says that “the Slade had taught [John] little of the relation of one tone to another and he himself had no natural sense of tone.” That already explains a lot of the bad painting that was to follow. So, to quote yet again, John “determined to outmanoeuvre his disadvantages and convert them into positive-looking qualities.” That means that he started to cheat not only with life but also with art, after which the rot set in quickly.

In no time John had assumed a fictitious, flamboyant personality, complete with gold earrings, large black slouch hat, and an arty corduroy costume. The starry-eyed girls and culture-loving women whom John wished to magnetize into his ambiance were blinded and overawed by this romantic-looking, bearded, commanding figure. Yet the consequence of John’s escaping from his artistic inadequacy into gregariousness, yielding to the pleasurable pursuit of sex and moving continually from place to place, was that he began to drain those sources of emotion and visual inspiration which should have stimulated his pictorial imagination. Also less time was available each day for him to concentrate on pursuing his work as an artist.

John made a few rapid visits to Paris (in pursuit of girls) between 1898 and 1902. Then followed in rapid succession his first marriage, the births of children, a period as art instructor at University College in Liverpool, from which he was thrown out for provocative misbehavior, a longer time (1903-1907) as principal teacher at the short-lived Chelsea Art School, domestic upheavals as new women joined his harem and gave birth, and finally a growing cult of friendship with gypsies, leading to an attempt to adopt their way of life. None of this was nourishing for John’s artistic formation. However, John did instill into those pupils who attended his classes that they should observe the subject closely and then record quickly what they saw in a drawing. He could not do it himself, but he claimed that he had learned something while teaching. For speed and spontaneity had been among the qualities which John hoped to infuse into his work from 1902 on. “Portraits should be painted in an hour or two,” he said. “The brush cannot linger over shabby and ephemeral garments.” He must have forgotten about what he admired in Velásquez, Murillo, Goya, and Manet the day he made that declaration.

Between 1905 and 1907, John lived in Paris and discovered for himself Daumier, Rodin, and Puvis de Chavannes, followed a little later by postimpressionist art as represented by late Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso. He looked hard at whatever he saw, thought he understood recent developments in French art, and, until about 1913, cultivated a pretty, rather tasteless manner of painting, based on loose brushwork, formal simplification, and luminous colors. John’s subject matter, clearly reflecting his interest in Puvis and early Picasso, consisted either of real gypsies in a landscape, or of women and children of his entourage looking like gypsies, who were painted in a summary style perfunctorily compounded from whatever had impressed John by its novelty during his stay in Paris.

There is nothing brilliant or original about these paintings: they are small, freshly observed sketches. Yet when John first exhibited them in London they caused an artistic furor which brought him renewed notoriety. For the English, who, even in 1909, were barely aware of Monet and Cézanne, mistook what they saw for a cult of “primitivism” and “naïveté,” and decried it as a dangerous and un-British form of “modernity.” As a result, John acquired a wholly unjustified reputation as a young revolutionary. An artist who, at that date, could refer to Matisse as “a fumiste, a charlatan” can hardly be accused of sharing an advanced modern outlook.

John’s whole approach to painting was basically academic and conventional. His drawing at its best was also academic, though even by that standard weak and uncertain: his much praised early works in a Pre-Raphaelite manner are inept, wishy-washy, and devoid of spirit. Rossetti was far more accomplished. John did, however, have a knack (denied to others) for “catching a likeness,” although he fought against his aptitude for portraiture because he felt that it would become a kind of servitude. John suffered from having a head full of romantic notions about being an artist and what a real artist should and could do. Also, reluctantly yielding for a while to the pressure put upon him by his admirers, John came to believe that perhaps, after all, he was a born “genius,” and therefore could easily achieve anything he wanted without having to work for it.

But unfortunately he was not a visionary, had a poor visual memory, and was short on imagination. “Come and sit” echoes like a parrot-cry through these pages. Then came the shock of discovering that he could not achieve what he wanted with such ease, because technically he was inadequately equipped. Assailed by selfdoubt, John decided to prevent himself in the future from even attempting it. He retreated into his assumed personality: an errant bohemian homme fatal, always on the move, leading a caravan life with a cohort of wives, mistresses, and a growing array of children. Moreover, on account of lack of space, lack of a permanent studio, and ultimately lack of time, John was never able to work on any big canvas or to attempt a major composition. John painted and drew whenever he was able, but he produced only pleasing, sketchily painted fragments, which were no more than facile responses to casual visions of people and places in France, Dorset, or Wales. He did make a few half-hearted attempts, between 1911 and 1916, with The Mumpers (1912), Lyric Fantasy (1911-1915; unfinished), and Galway (1916; unfinished) to produce big decorative compositions, but he was never able to bring them off.

In a monograph on Augustus John which Holroyd published last year with Malcolm Easton, the authors comment, rightly, that whereas in 1909-1910 John was looked upon in London as a leader of the avant-garde, by 1913-1914 he had been relegated to the rear-guard of British art. This was the work of a younger generation of artists, who laughed at his hesitant, false modernism and decided that he was incapable of giving them a lead. “The rest is a disappointing—and, year by year, a more disappointing—story,” Holroyd and Easton comment. This is all too true, because John, urgently in need of money, as usual, had by then opted for the profitable (he hoped!), if to him uncongenial, way out of becoming a banal “recorder of the wealthy and celebrated.” From that moment on, as John’s fame and reputation grew in social and official circles, so he allowed himself to be bored by the people and faces who appeared before him in the studio. His painting degenerated into vulgarity mixed with ineptness, as he stepped up the degree of theatricality, false bonhomie, swagger, and calculated informality in the presentation of his subjects. No wonder many of his sitters were not pleased with the results.

In one sense, World War I saved John’s reputation, because he was pushed into national and international celebrity by powerful politicians like Sir Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook), who knew nothing about art, believed in its importance, did not question a reputation, and was prepared to tell his government and Canadian colleagues that Augustus was “the greatest artist of our time and possibly of any time.” This paid off almost immediately for John in the official commissions he received to paint generals, admirals, war leaders, and heroes. However, John, who longed to escape from his chaotic home life and did not enjoy being left out of things, began to feel that he too should be in uniform, recording the war at the front.

With Aitken’s backing, John—fitted out as an honorary major—went to work for the Canadian War Records Office, which wanted paintings showing the involvement of the Canadian armed forces in the Allied war effort. John was sent to France and eventually conceived a large composition (left unfinished at the cartoon stage) entitled Canadians at Lieven Castle (1918-1919), which was an untidy, half-symbolic pageant of war. Then the British government intervened in the spring of 1919 and invited John officially to attend the peace conference in Paris and paint “some suitable and permanent memento” of the assembled statesmen, military leaders, and heroes. “All red carpets led to him [John],” according to Holroyd.

The prime ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand submitted to his brush; kings and maharajas, dukes and generals, lords of law and of finance stood before him; Lawrence of Arabia took his place humbly in the queue…. More wonderful still were the princesses, duchesses, marchesas who lionized him. His awkwardness departed, confidence surged through his veins.

Once again, Holroyd is giving a free rein to his imagination to mask the painful truth. True, the sitters came and went and John was lavishly entertained. But while Augustus might admire his visitors for what they represented, for what they had done to help win the war, for their physical beauty or their unusual personalities, the fact is that he ended up making them appear more fascinating, more important, and more dazzling than they really were because he was too lazy and drink-sodden to sort out the elements of his own vision and at his own expense infuse life into the portrait on which he was working.

John failed too ever to paint the large peace conference composition which was to justify his stay in Paris. He gave as an ostensible reason that the “interminable rows of seated figures offered no pictorial possibilities,” but it is a poor excuse. For painters as far apart in time as Fouquet and Guardi had coped with the problem admirably, as had also Tintoretto. But at least John, supposedly England’s new Great Artist, was eventually forced to admit that this failure to deliver what was expected of him made him feel “very unstable.” Thus John entered the decade of the 1920s knowing that he could not rely on his imagination, invention, or courage to sustain him in difficult moments, and he opted to settle in the future for the easiest solutions.

Yet this setback did not diminish John’s prestige as England’s leading social and official portraitist. He moaned that he knew he would “be able to paint better” if only he could “get out of the social whirl into isolation.” It was not true, because as John well knew his technical inadequacy was beyond redemption. So he went on as before, finding more and more attractive girls to carouse with, making “demi-johns” at irregular intervals, and painting portraits because they were a sure way of “making a useful bit of money.” During these postwar years John quickly amassed a very considerable fortune.

Money in the bank, the tranquilizing effect of knowing that a large annual income was assured for a relatively small output of effort, and the fear of not succeeding as well in any other genre sufficed to keep John harnessed to portraiture. Nevertheless, there were compensations, because John was curious to get to know and be accepted socially by the crowd of well-known, well-born, or popularly acclaimed personalities who queued up to get into his studio. And there was a long line of dowagers, friends, ambassadors, church dignitaries, prime ministers, bankers, femmes fatales, female beauties, novelists, poets, cinema stars, matinee idols, musicians, statesmen, and ultimately Americans. For John had been puffed by Frank Crowninshield and John Quinn, who by 1923, when Augustus first visited New York, after serving as a juror at the Carnegie Institute, was already so disgusted by his later work that he was preparing to sell all the early works by John which he had bought before 1914.

Nonetheless, Joseph Widener, Governor Fuller, a Whitney or two, and Tom Mix called on John’s services. The Emir Feisal of Iraq also sat, as did the Emperor of Japan, whose portrait John dashed down on to canvas in one hour. Then came the politicians—Lloyd George, Stresemann, Balfour, Ramsay MacDonald, and ultimately Churchill. And all the while John, his brushes loaded with carmine, kept dabbing away at cheeks to produce the healthy, ruddy, open-air or elaborately made-up complexions of the sportsmen, actors, noblemen, fashionables, or flappers who were sitting opposite him. John pretended to be contemptuous of them all, because he resented having to acknowledge his indebtedness. Yet he ran after them, not least because of the publicity they brought him.

Holroyd includes an unintentionally eloquent photograph of 1930 showing Tallulah Bankhead, looking like a pathetic waif, standing with John before the portrait he was painting of her. She stares up at him wide-eyed, with an expression on her face of fear, surprise, incredulity, and boredom. John, cowering somewhat, faces the camera with a glassy, anxious stare. But between them, on an easel, sits a pretty, modish Tallulah—quite unlike the model alongside—elegantly draped in chiffon, with eyes half-closed, straggling hair, an exaggerated pout and a sophisticated air of dreamy half-awareness. Reality and John’s portrait formulas were rarely made for each other. His sketches were usually better than the finished work.

And so it went on, year after year, for another thirty years. Never did John have to face really harsh criticism in the press or elsewhere, never once was he scorned by his colleagues. Even that out-and-out modernist pen-pusher Herbert Read was ready to state, unblushingly and with characteristic hypocrisy, in 1940, when John had a large exhibition of his drawings at the National Gallery in London, that “it is doubtful if any other contemporary artist in Europe could display such virtuosity and skill.” Only Lord Montgomery (painted on the eve of setting forth for the Normandy landings) refused to be convinced. “‘Who is this chap?’ he demanded, ‘He drinks, he’s dirty, and I know there are women in the background!”‘

In the concluding section, where one expects a biographer to sum up the meaning and worth of the life he has been recording and to evaluate his subject’s creative achievement, Holroyd shows his weakness by refusing to do anything of the kind. Yet it is not now too soon to take a synoptic view of John’s life’s work and determine his artistic worth in relation to other famous portraitists of the British School. As a beginning, Holroyd might have tried weighing John’s oeuvre in the scales against, for example, that of G.F. Watts, since both are easily comparable. Then maybe he would have seen through the illusion on which his biography is based, namely that Augustus John was born with “greatness” in him, that he abused his gifts and shirked his professional responsibilities, but that all the same he executed a sufficient number of fine and impressive paintings to justify his being considered, in the perspective of history, a “Great Artist.”

Now G.F. Watts was certainly a superior artist and a more honorable portraitist. His vision was unclouded, his hand was sure, his assessment of a sitter was sincere and not over-imaginative, his painting was technically competent, not meretricious, his poses were never forced. Thus Watts has left us a remarkable gallery of portraits of the great creative and social personalities of his time, which are unaffected and eloquent human likenesses. Had John lived up to his “promise” he might have done as well.

This Issue

March 4, 1976