Augustus John


Augustus John was widely known as the archetypal bohemian artist at the beginning of the twentieth century. He left the quiet seaside town of Tenby in 1894 to attend the Slade School of Fine Art in London, followed the next year by his sister, the artist Gwen John. After an accident in 1895, he cultivated a ‘wild’ persona and established his place within the progressive cultural circles of fin-de-siècle London. As well as being a radical student, he was also a prolific one, and his art was widely admired by his contemporaries. He married Ida Margaret Nettleship, a fellow Slade student, on 24 January 1901, and they went to live in Liverpool where John was employed in an art school affiliated to University College, London.

It was during this period that John became acquainted with the Gypsy scholar, John Sampson. Nomadic life on the open road was to become something of a fascination to John, and he took his family retinue (which included his wife, his mistress Dorothy McNeill, known to the family as Dorelia, and all their children) on various trips in a Romany caravan. On moving back to London, John established himself as a central figure in the progressive faction of the London art world, opening the Chelsea Art School with William Orpen (1903-7). He was also an enthusiastic member of the New English Art Club. John was very close to William Rothenstein and his wife, Alice. John is the male figure in Rothenstein’s enigmatic The Doll’s House (1899-1900). Rothenstein praised John’s work highly, going as far as to call him a ‘genius’ in his autobiography, Men and Memories (vol. 1, p. 3). It was most probably through his friendship with Rothenstein that John became a member of the India Society. He is listed as a member from the outset of the Society in The India Society: Report for the year ending December 31, 1911 (London: Chiswick Press, 1912). John did not publish his opinions on Indian art but must have been acquainted with it through his connections with Rothenstein and the India Society. In 1908, he worked on a canvas entitled Nirvana (sketches are in the Tate Collection; presented by William Rothenstein in 1917) which might suggest a closer personal interest in eastern spiritual ideas. This was exhibited at the ‘Twenty Years of British Art, 1890-1910’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1910.

From 1920, John travelled through Europe, Jamaica and the US in a bid to revive his reputation which had rapidly declined after the war. In the 1930s and 1940s, he knew the Ceylonese M. J. Tambimuttu and contributed a portrait of the poet and editor to his Out of this War (1941). In September of 1961, a seriously-ill John went to London to take part in a demonstration against nuclear weapons. He died a few weeks later at home in Hertfordshire.

Published works: 

Autobiography (London: Cape, 1975)

Date of birth: 
04 Jan 1878
Secondary works: 

Holroyd, Michael, Augustus John: The New Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996)

Rothenstein, John, Modern English Painters: Sickert to Smith, vol. 1, rev. edn (London: Macdonald & Jane's, 1976)

Rothenstein, W., Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein, 2 vols (London: Faber & Faber, 1931-2)

Shone, R., Augustus John (Oxford and New York: Phaidon, 1979)

Archive source: 

Augustus John Papers, National Library of Wales, Cardiff

Correspondence and sketches, Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas, Austin

Correspondence, British Library, London

Correspondence with William Rothenstein, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Correspondence with the Gypsy Lore Society, University of Liverpool

City of birth: 
Tenby, Pembrokeshire
Country of birth: 
Other names: 

Augustus Edwin John

Date of death: 
31 Oct 1961
Tags for Making Britain: 
Subscribe to RSS - nomad