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, 1 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 Lively’s According to Mark), and here we have, in Holroyd’s short but engaging preface about the writing of the book, the meta-biography, the deconstructive frame to the narrative that follows.
Firstly, Holroyd explains, he did meet—almost meet—Augustus John in the late 1950s:
The impact took place on the edge of a pavement in Chelsea. John, in his young eighties, had “lunched well.” He hesitated tremendously on the kerb. Like a great oak tree, blasted, doomed, he seemed precariously rooted there until, unintentionally assisted by his future biographer, and to a cacophony of shouting brakes and indignant hooting, a whiff of burnt rubber, he propelled himself triumphantly across the road, and was gone. I stood there wondering how he had survived so long.
(He was obviously bumping into the right people, Holroyd’s father remarked.) Later, after the finishing of Lytton Strachey and after John’s death, his proposal to undertake John’s life (provoked, it seems, by the fact that homosexual Strachey and ultra-heterosexual John both wore earrings) meant visiting John’s eighty-seven-year-old surviving partner, Dorelia McNeill, in the country. He took driving lessons and went there. Dorelia taught him how to cut bread and butter, and gave guarded permission for the book to proceed. And then he did those things that a biographer has to do. Travels to Wales, the United States, France, Italy; even, for some reason, working as a gardener in Spain. Meetings with many of John’s dozen-odd children, raids on attics and studios, acquisition of letters passed over in pillowcases and shopping bags. After publication of the first edition of the book, the detective story of the hunt for some hidden remaining papers, now incorporated. “Life itself slips past,” as he says, while the biographer works.
Holroyd says that the John biography is cast as comedy—“romantic comedy, domestic comedy, the comedy of morals and of manners, absurdist comedy, black comedy, tragi-comedy”—but does this light-heartedness stem from overfamiliarity with the material? No one is so quietly witty as Holroyd when the ludicrous crops up, as it so often did in John’s long life; nevertheless, it was, after all, a life of tragedy. Not just because John’s work has slipped out of sight—time will adjust that—or even because of family deaths, but because his lifelong experience was of a struggle against melancholy. Witness after witness records what a life-enhancer John was when there was drink and good company around; but in between, there were huge vacancies, what he called “the old horror vacui.” Katherine Mansfield, glimpsing him at the theater, saw something like a Nash landscape of the Western Front:
I seemed to see his mind, his haggard mind, like a strange forbidding country, full of lean sharp peaks and pools lit with a gloomy glow, and trees bent with the wind and vagrant muffled creatures tramping their vagrant way. Everything exhausted and finished—great black rings where the fires had been, and not a single fire even left to smoulder.
He was almost forty at that time; and it was to get worse. Holroyd may claim to see just varieties of comedy, but he is masterly at understanding that ravaged landscape. In his letters, which are many and expressive, John only lets glimpses of it show. There was something incommunicable here.
It began, of course, in childhood. Statistics prove what common sense suggests, that children bereaved of a parent are more likely than most to experience depression (even suicide) in later life. When Augusta John died, she left Thornton (nine), Gwen (eight), Augustus (six), and Winifred (four). Augustus’s own eldest child was to lose his mother by death at almost the same age as his father. It is a pity that no more could be found out about Augustus’s mother; a book could be compiled on the unknowability of famous men’s mothers. Everyone pays lip service to the idea that early childhood is crucially important, but biographies don’t—presumably can’t—incorporate this assumption. What Augustus’s first six years were like we cannot now know. One poignant glimpse that Holroyd misses comes from Alison Thomas’s scrutiny in Portraits of Women of the diaries of Edna Clarke Hall, a student contemporary of Augustus and Gwen. Clarke Hall was told that “a very nice lady was Mrs. John. She painted all around the walls of their nursery just to amuse the children.” Holroyd can only report that John’s mother was the daughter of a prosperous plumber, one of a huge family in which several children died. She played Chopin, she was a talented amateur painter; she married Edwin John when she was twenty-five. She must have been away often, as she was unwell and traveled in search of a cure; in 1884, away from home and aged thirty-five, she died of “rheumatic gout and exhaustion.” Oh, to know more.
Holroyd is at his most perceptive in comparing the effect of this early bereavement on Augustus and on Gwen. Both of them, as well as inheriting an innate talent, must have in some sense become artists in memory of the mother who had painted their nursery for them. In many of John’s paintings—like the odd Lyric Fantasy of 1911-1915, perhaps—Holroyd sees the theme of ideal mother-and-child in ideal landscape. “The deprivation of his mother became the source of that fantasy world he created in its place,” he says. “It was an attempt to transmute deprivation into an asset” (though one must say that John’s best work is not concerned with a fantasy world). Gwen, on the other hand, in pictures of deserted rooms such as The Japanese Doll and A Corner of the Artist’s Room, rue Terre Neuve, Meudon, was painting absence itself. Augustus, who deeply respected Gwen’s talent, was to say that though he and his sister seemed opposites, they were “much the same, really, but we took a different attitude.” Attitude to loss as well as attitude to art, he must have meant; though he seems never to have recorded any memory of his mother. In spite of becoming such a roistering character, he was extremely reticent. As Holroyd puts it in the catalog to Gwen John’s 1982 exhibition: “Making himself the target of vast publicity, he became the hollow man who, though recognized everywhere as the standard celebrity, was without identity; and a painter whose canvasses, as they grew larger, grew emptier.” Gwen’s pictures, meanwhile, grow ever smaller and quieter.
The John children’s upbringing was dreary within the house (two Salvationist aunts joined the family to help with their care), but happier on the lovely beaches and countryside of Pembrokeshire. (Nevertheless, Augustus was later to paint in any landscape but that of south Wales.) The family was reclusive and extremely silent, and when Augustus at sixteen went to London to the Slade School of Art he was seen by fellow pupils as exceptionally timid, polite, and tidy. Though traditional in its teaching, the Slade was progressive in being the first college to admit women to a full training—and it was the girl students who were making this the Slade’s “Grand Epoch.”
But then Augustus had his accident. During his first summer vacation, he dived into a murky Welsh sea and split his head open on a hidden rock.2 It was a bad wound and for some time he was confined to bed. When he finally did return to college—lo and behold, Augustus was transformed. Transformed in his now bearded appearance and gypsified clothes, in beginning his career of wildness, and even in his work, previously approved of as “methodical” but now much more fluent and assured. So the legend grew up, as summarized on a card in a series of fifty Famous People: Augustus John “hit his head on a rock whilst diving, and emerged from the water a genius.” Was it anything more than a legend? In his memoirs John himself dismisses the influence of his accident, and Holroyd ascribes the character change simply to pent-up impatience after convalescence. Adolescents, certainly, do reinvent themselves. Yet this particular change was extraordinary. A friend who returned from abroad was amazed by what he heard: “If you had told me that of any man at the Slade I’d have believed you. But not John.” An insatiable restlessness, the restlessness of a hyperactive child, was to determine his whole life thereafter, perhaps even to contribute to the deterioration of his work. Possibly—the brain being so unimaginably complicated—frontal lobe damage from his injury did have a disinhibiting effect.3 The accident must have stayed in his thoughts: writing about himself to Ottoline Morrell in 1908, he put it that
I have always been so excessively anxious to feel myself quite alive that I have plunged with needless precipitation into the most obviously fast flowing channels where there are rocks & bubbles & foam & whirlpools…. This plan has saved me from morbidity at any rate if it has not improved my complexion.
So the flamboyant new John went on to early success—a one-man show, travels, infatuations—and at barely twenty-three he married his fellow student Ida Nettleship. Before the marriage he had written her a limerick: There was a young woman named Ida Who had a porcelain heart inside her But she met a young card Who hugged her so hard He smashed up her crockery. Poor Ida!
And so it was to be. Poor Ida.
She was one of the group of tal-ented young women students that included Gwen John, Edna Waugh (later Clarke Hall), and Gwen Salmond (later Smith). Augustus in his memoirs implies that the latter two were obliterated, as artists, by domesticity; but Portraits of Women shows that this was not quite true. Both made disastrous marriages; both struggled against monstrous odds to keep their work going. Edna Clarke Hall, who survived it all to live to the age of a hundred, left notebooks about her life that Alison Thomas draws on. These were, originally, high-spirited girls who swam naked off cold English beaches, and tried a little vie de bohème in Paris. Edna had two children, but in middle age she had a kind of breakdown over the bleakness of her marriage. With the help of the psychiatrist Henry Head and of her sympathetic male teachers from the Slade, she set up a studio of her own and maintained a successful reputation as a watercolorist. Gwen Salmond’s marriage to Matthew Smith, at the time a nervous aspirant artist, was even more unfortunate. He went on to become a very fine painter, but along the way dropped wife and children because he felt they were stifling his career. Gwen Smith always felt crushed by the comparison of her work to his, but did not entirely give up painting. A recent small exhibition, “Golden Nineties,” which contained some work by the Gwen John contemporaries, suggests that in fact they were no more than talented—though under different circumstances perhaps they might have done much better. Painting requires much solitary brooding, and, as Edna Clarke Hall said, after marriage she could “never allow herself to be absent-minded.”
She wrote in her notebooks, quoted by Thomas, about the pleasures of going barefoot on holiday and feeling the sun on her neck: “Curious how exciting it was just to be oneself. Something that is so easily lost.” And something we all want to be—not least Ida Nettleship, one of the liveliest of the group, who wrote to Edna in her teens that she planned to have “a studio and ability to paint for myself.” Some years later, when she had four babies, she was still pining after “ethics and life and rainbows and colours and butterflies and shimmering seas and human intercourse.” But then, in a letter displayed in the exhibition, we see Ida writing: “Those Johns you know have a hold that never ceases—and the ache is always there in place of them when absent.”
The marriage to Augustus was a runaway affair, and her parents, the artist Jack Nettleship and his wife, were appalled. The young couple lived at first in an empty flat in Liverpool, where John was teaching and where their first child was born. Just over a year later a second son was born, and eighteen months after that a third. By then, stifled in his turn by domesticity, Augustus had fallen in love with Dorelia, the recurring figure in so many of his pictures.
She was beautiful, silent, and fatalistic. But Dorelia had no particular wish to destroy a marriage, and she did make attempts to escape. For some months she went off on a walking trip across France with Gwen, and went on to live with a Belgian artist in Bruges. At home, Ida had given up painting; she wrote to Dorelia that she was very tired; she wondered if she could stand much more of the company of babies. Then came the extraordinary episode when Gwen persuaded Dorelia to come back to England and rejoin the John tribe, who were her destiny. Ida herself seconded this. They would live in “wonderful concubinage.” So they did, and Dorelia’s first son was born nine months later, Ida’s fourth some months after that.
Ida’s letters are from someone bewildered by her life. Some days the curtain seemed to lift a little, she wrote to her aunt. “The other days I simply fight to keep where I am…. I can understand the saints and martyrs and great men suffering everything for their idea of truth. It is more difficult, once you have given it some life—to go back on your idea than to stick to it.” And to a friend: “I live the life of a lady slavey. But I wouldn’t change—because of Augustus—c’est un homme pour qui mourir.” And yet—“Isn’t it awful when even the desire to live forsakes one?”
Ida had wanted children, had wanted Augustus to have his Dorelia; she even loved Dorelia. A letter she wrote to Dorelia about the struggle with her feelings has more heart in it than any of Augustus’s letters:
I tried not to be horrid—I know I am—I never hardly feel generous now like I did at first…but when I think of some things I feel I suffered too much—it was like physical suffering it was so intense—like being burnt or something…. It was nature that was the enemy to our scheme…. At present I hate you generally but I don’t know if I really do. It is all impossible now and we are simply living in a convention you know—a way of talking to each other which has no depth or heart…. Nothing can change this fact—that you are the one outside who calls a man to apparent freedom and wild rocks and wind and air—and I am the one inside who says come to dinner, and who to live with is apparent slavery.
It was perhaps the imminence of a baby for Dorelia that was too much. Yet, “I do want to be there for your baby. I do want to be good, but I know I shan’t manage it.” So Dorelia’s Pyramus was born, in a caravan on Dartmoor. Some six months later Ida had a fourth son, and in 1906 Dorelia had Romilly. Then she left.
Ida would have liked to leave:
If I had the money I think I really should do it—but I can’t leave him and take his money—and I can’t keep the kids on what I have—and if I left the kids I should not find peace…. How will it end? By death or escape?
She put little blame on Augustus; she had chosen her life, he had never lied to her. But—“It’s a pity one’s got to live with a man.” She had her fifth boy, Henry, and fell ill. Recovery from puerperal fever was a hit-or-miss affair at the time. Augustus sat with her and massaged her neck. She was delirious, and laughed a lot; at half-past three in the afternoon she died.
And Dorelia: within eighteen months of Ida’s death Dorelia had the charge of six boys under eight, four of them Ida’s (only Ida’s last-born grew up with the grandparents). Later she was to have two more children, both girls; John was to have several by other women. Dorelia might seem to be something of a saint; but, as Holroyd makes clear, it was more that she was stoical. She made some attempts to escape, but never quite succeeded. She was to outlive John and die at eighty-seven, cared for by her son Romilly. Holroyd gives one of his bravura summings-up of a life, in this case a chilling one:
From anything that might cause pain she averted her attention, though she might seem to stare at it without emotion. The range of her interests narrowed. She had stopped drawing, now she read less, and eventually would give up the piano. Nothing got on top of her, nothing came too near. She grew more interested in the vegetable world. The sounds at Fryern matched her equanimity: no longer the jaunty duets with Lamb, but a softer noise, the purring, amid the pots and plants, of the sewing-machine as she sat at it, for life as it were.
Augustus surely grieved for Ida—he was indeed a selfish man but not a cold or callous one—nevertheless it was in the next eight years or so, Holroyd believes, that he did his best work. His general reputation was not to fade for some further years after that; then, as was said of the Sitwell family, he belonged more to the history of publicity than of art. Now, at thirty, he already had exquisite drawings to his credit—Dorelia caught in pose after pose—and he had done two incomparable portraits of Ida. Within the next few years there were to be other fine portraits—of Yeats, Shaw, William Nicholson, Wyndham Lewis—though later on he was to despise himself for becoming a “mere” portrait painter in order to support the family. There were always to be pictures of gypsies and tinkers, like The Mumper’s Child—his love of the Romany people was no affectation. And there were the north Wales landscapes painted with fellow Welshman James Dickson Innes. If one takes the close of the First World War as the beginning of John’s decline, he had by then had some twelve exhibitions, and shown over a hundred paintings and drawings at the New English Art Club alone. And he had another forty-three years to live.
In these good early years the praise of his work was unstinted. William Rothenstein recorded that “no one living had his range of sensuous, lofty and grotesque imitation.” Roger Fry, after seeing the New English Art club exhibition of 1904, had written that “we hardly dare confess how high are the hopes of Mr. John’s future which his paintings this year have led us to form.” George Moore said he was the wonder of Chelsea, Max Beerbohm that there was no doubt of his genius (and caricatured it). The opposition, during these years, came from the old guard, who asked “What does it all mean?” and complained that “at his worst he can outdo Gauguin.”
It was Virginia Woolf who famously announced that “in or about December 1910 human character changed.” The occasion was, of course, Roger Fry’s “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” exhibition. In this edition of the biography Holroyd has expanded his account of it, to explore John’s relation to this first English showing of Gauguin, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, as well as to give some idea of the outrage it produced among English philistines. It is a mistake to think that Augustus John’s failure (if it was failure) was due to his being a rustic from a provincial backwater. He was well aware of the importance of the 1910 exhibition and the one that followed in 1912, and picked out the Van Goghs, Gauguins, and Cézannes for special admiration. He advised the American collector John Quinn to buy Manet and Degas in 1912. He considered Picasso, whom he had met in 1907, “a wonder”; for a time, in fact—for instance, in the French Fisher-Boy of 1907—his work showed a distinct Blue Period influence. But, perhaps to his own detriment, he was never a joiner or a follower. Even with the Bloomsbury painters, he never had much in common. Though always surrounded by other people and other people’s art, John remained a loner: aloneness was a kind of capsule he lived inside.
To the philistines, John was horribly modern; to the Bloomsbury cognoscenti such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell, on the other hand, he soon began to seem lightweight and old-fashioned. He painted richly and fluently and fast, but he had that fatal lack of long-term concentration which prevented him from following his work through. And it was perhaps his Slade School academic training that, while teaching exquisite drawing, stood in the way of any real interest in the advance of abstraction. If ever anyone fell heavily—and, later, drunkenly—between two stools, it was John.
The John legend, the reputation for outrage, may have been as much a handicap as an asset. It was unaffected and unsought; whether assisted by a bang on the head or not, John was a genuine, not a fake bohemian. Many copied him, in manner and clothes; at art schools, girl students dressed in the Dorelia style; but, like Annie Oakley, John just did what came naturally. He was an icon, a stereotype of the wild artist; but this could make it all the easier for a later generation to dismiss him as a bore. Meanwhile his good friend Matthew Smith, married for a time to Ida’s friend Gwen Salmond, and the contemporary John most admired, crept timidly through his life quite unknown to the man in the street, but has beaten John in critical esteem.
John might have liked to try breaking out of representational painting: to work, as he said, “entirely ‘out of my head’…. To paint women till their faces become enlarged to an idiotic inanimity—till they stand impassively, unquestionably, terrifyingly fecund—fetiches of brass with Polynesian eyes….” But, with children multiplying around him, he could not take the Picasso path; he had to have money. He never quite became a “society” portrait painter, though: he did not paint nonentities. Some sitters—Yeats, for instance—were vain enough to complain about their portraits, but it was Thomas Hardy who said of his that though he didn’t know if that was how he looked, it was how he felt. John went on producing, went on being a national monument, traveled incessantly, pursued many more women, acquired a fine country house run in amiable chaos by Dorelia, and was awarded the high distinction of the Order of Merit before the end of his life; but the burnt-out inner landscape that Katherine Mansfield had glimpsed kept growing darker. He knew that there was some “damned ancestral strain at work” in his melancholy. He had to struggle through a “mental hail storm,” had to keep on the move, had to paint fast because his vitality drained away fast. His self-portrait in old age is of a Lear glaring in horror at the world, suffering a torment he cannot explain.
Gwen meanwhile dealt with the ancestral strain by—as Augustus said—taking a different attitude. Early in the century she moved permanently to France, partly because she found her brother’s influence on her too powerful. Learning to be “so strong that people and things could not affect me beyond reason” was very important to her; underneath a spinsterish exterior she had a nature that was, as Augustus put it, “amorous and proud.” All three of these women painters—Gwen herself, Edna Clarke Hall, and Gwen Smith—were painfully influenced by men’s opinion of their work, but Gwen John conquered the tendency. After looking at an exhibition of Cézanne watercolors she said: “These are very good, but I prefer my own.”
In Paris, living from hand to mouth because she hated taking money from her father, she had a long affair with Rodin, thirty-odd years her senior. Though he was consistently unfaithful, he showed her a kind of fatherly tenderness as well. Augustus meanwhile found her a wealthy American patron who loved her work, and for some years she both exhibited and sold quite well.
Augustus, of course, remained the star. Did he mean it when he said he would be remembered as Gwen John’s brother? Certainly he was never satisfied with his work. His friend John Rothenstein said that he had “seen him peer fixedly, almost obsessively, at pictures by Gwen, as though he could discern in them his own temperament in reverse”—rejoicing, Rothenstein thought, at his own wider range, but also envying “the sureness with which she attained her simpler aims.”
But her aims were not simple at all. She fought for her painting techniques, as well as for her chosen life, in a way that neither Edna Clarke Hall nor Gwen Smith did. Whereas Augustus ranged anywhere and everywhere for his material, Gwen stayed in bare hotel rooms, painting the room, or single figures, in the pale tones she had learned from Whistler. When the First World War broke out, Augustus had tried to persuade her to come back to England, but she stayed on in France; later he helped her buy a cottage in Hampshire, but she never lived in it. Rodin’s death, in 1917, devastated her.
When seven years later her American patron, John Quinn, also died, Gwen John began to paint less and less. Over the years she became reclusive, devoutly Catholic, living in poverty with her cats. When war broke out for the second time, she made her way as far as Dieppe, and then collapsed in the street. She died quite unknown in the local hospital, leaving her possessions to Augustus’s fourth son, Edwin. Augustus wrote of her in 1942 as “the greatest woman artist of her age, or, as I think, of any other.”
His own death, at eighty-three, was equally in accord with his way of life. The chill that finally carried him off may have been caught at the great sit-down protest against nuclear policy in Trafalgar Square in September 1961. “Augustus John, an old man, who had been, and was, very ill…emerged from the National Gallery, walked into the Square and sat down,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his memoirs. “No one knew of his plan to do so and few recognized him. I learned of his action only much later, but I record it with admiration.” John died a month later.
He surely was not, indeed, the monster that his sexual adventurism would suggest. There are other instances of courage cited here, and of a warm heart as well. In one of the splendid mini-biographies of John’s contemporaries that Holroyd provides,4 he describes John’s support of the writer Arthur Symons through a long, long madness. After his recovery, Symons wrote that
Had it not been for John, whose formidable genius is combined with a warmth of heart, an ardent passion and will, at times deep, almost profound affection, which is one of those rare gifts of a genius such as his, I doubt if I could have survived these tortures that had been inflicted upon me.
Ever self-concealing, John had joked that though he liked Symons, “I find it difficult to support his company for more than 5 minutes.” He supported it through a twelve-year illness. Given this extreme reticence, who knows how much the tragedy of his marriage contributed to the darkening of his later years?
The decline in his work was clearly something he was well aware of. It is hard to know how much it was due to his own personal decline and how much to the looseness of English art tradition, the local indifference to painterly seriousness and coherent aims. (Whether he would have joined any “movement” of the earnest Continental type is anyway doubtful.) Was he, Holroyd asks, a Post-Impressionist without knowing it? Or, as Picasso said, “the best bad painter in Britain”? In his contribution to Themes and Variations, the catalog to the recent exhibition of drawings, Holroyd distinguishes two particular factors in the decline of his reputation. The reevaluation of Gwen John’s work has, rather stupidly, pushed her brother’s value down. Also, for some time after his death, galleries were awash with his trivial stuff issuing from studio sales.
Curiously, for someone who deprecated portrait painting and who superficially seemed too egotistical to get under anyone else’s skin, it might be his portraits that will eventually establish a modest reputation. The 1909 portrait of the Cambridge classical anthropologist Jane Harrison is a marvelous recreation of character, a kind of reversed and vitalized version of Whistler’s portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black. The face and posture discover a certain weariness as well as dignity, but the huge chunk, on the yellow wall beside her, taken up by Wilson Steer’s Yachts (which she owned) emphasizes the way her gaze is still toward light and color and movement. The right hand is strong; the book on her lap, a brilliant red. She had been glad John was chosen for her portrait: “He gets a curious beauty of line,” she wrote to a friend; “character, I suppose it would ordinarily be called, that comes into all faces however ‘plain’ that belong to people that have lived hard.” And while he was painting her she felt “spiritually at home with him from the first moment he came into the room; he was so quiet and real and sympathetic too.” The portrait “seems to me beautiful,” she wrote, “but probably as usual I am wrong!” Not wrong, no. Here the artist’s work has been, what Holroyd describes in his preface as the biographer’s work: “to find some connecting current of energy, travel with it across time, as it were, and, from loneliness perhaps, make contact with other human beings.”
March 6, 1997
In the catalog to the exhibition “Gwen John 1876-1939” (1982). ↩
There is some conflict in Holroyd’s account regarding the date of the accident. The text (page 41) assigns it to John’s first summer vacation from college, i.e. 1895, while the appended Chronology gives it as 1897. In either case he was to go back to college after convalescence. ↩
Oliver Sacks, personal communication. ↩
“The son of a puritanical Wesleyan minister, Arthur Symons had been brought up along nervously conventional lines and indoctrinated with a vast dose of the Knowledge of Evil. Against the effects of this upbringing he had received a vaccination at the hands of Dr. Havelock Ellis who, during a week’s visit to Paris, introduced him to the debauchery of cigarettes and wine . Though much obsessed with notions of sex, he was not a passionate man but something different: a passionate believer in passion. The rhyme was preferable to the deed, and he would dizzy himself, in verse, with visions of belly dancers, serpent charmers and other exotic temptresses.” ↩