Saturday, 10 March 2018

Augustus John and Gwen John. The Brother and Sister of Art.

For a long time I have known the name of Augustus John and his connection with Liverpool. 
I keep on seeing his portraits, such as The Marshesa Casati with her flame red hair. Luisa Casati looks like a Vamp.
Not as much is known of his sister Gwen.
He had been a prominent player in Liverpool's Art School and in its standing in the wider establishment. 
It appears that for him being there and passing on his valuable experience and energy to another generation that, we are all the better for it.
Augustus Edwin John had trained at The Slade School where he was a star.
He was appointed to the Liverpool Art Sheds 1901-02 to replace Herbert Jackson who had joined up to serve in the Boer War.
It was said he had a brilliant technique and a uninhibited approach and his Bohemian personality was well noted. 
This drew many students to his life classes. He looked Bohemian almost like a Jesus of Nazareth character with long flowing locks of hair down to his shoulders. His sister Gwen was totally the opposite more of a wallflower.
He married Ida in 1901, she was also a Slade student.
He painted many University figures while in Liverpool.
There were many artists around, C.J Allen, Herbert MacNair and Charles Reilly among many others were to become prominent figures in Liverpool, Allen being a one time assistant to Hamo Thorneycroft. 
The Art Sheds were a place where ideas and thoughts could be brought to fruition by those who attended.
John settled for a short while at 66 Canning street after short stays with friends. His studio then was No 2 Rodney Street. In 1902 after the birth of their first child David the John's moved to 138 Chatham Street for five months.
Gwen visited them that summer.
He then moved to Fitzroy Street London shortly after a failed election to Liverpool Academy in 1902 but he was back and forth to London by then.
He took a trip to Wales with John Sampson in 1903 and was still in Liverpool 1904 when Charles Reilly became Professor of Architecture. Charles Reilly would champion a new classical style moving away from the Arts and Crafts that was the fashion of the day, with haste.
Many of his drawings of Liverpool models were sent via William Rothenstein for exhibition at the Carfax Gallery.
He was made Honorary Member of Sandon Society of Artists 1908.

Brought up in the middle class town of Tenby, the Johns were born the children of a lawyer. Their mother had died when they were young and they had a nanny to look after them.
Gwen was shy and both her and Augustus showed a talent for art from an early age.
They stayed aloof from the goings on in the town. Showing an air of respectability for a middle class lawyer. He taught his children moral values. Those children would rebel against the steadiness of their fathers strict Anglican principles.
Augustus who was born 1878 reversed the tutoring of his father and headed for London to enrol in the Slade School of Art. He was uncertain of himself and his work was methodical and unremarkable. The revelation and new sensations of the model in his first life class would be something he would remember. He worked hard and in his second year his work became steady and his old master style astonished the tutors. Henry Tonks proclaimed him the best draughtsman since Michelangelo. His line became sure and his style became that of the bohemian.
 He discovered women. Woman is beauty and every artist loves beauty so every artist must love woman. This was an excuse he needed as he liked the company of woman above anything and the art gave him his chance to discover his own way of life centered around the female form.
Augustus became a legend at The Slade for his drawings but struggled with a brush but won an award for a biblical scene which was contrived from the old masters.
Gwen joined him there but remained in the background around Augustus's centre of attention approach. He commanded the signature John claiming it in his own pushy way.
They lived together for a while. In several cellars and basements and It was life of differences and she found it more difficult than he.
He was overpowering and she restrained. He married a friend of Gwen's, Ida to the dismay of her family. She adored Gus.
Gwen set off for France with a friend in 1903. Walking from Bordeaux to Rome she wanted to take her time and paint. It was said Whistler who she met in Paris influenced her after she abandoned her walk in Toulouse.
Montparnasse was her home living frugally in order without mess yards from Modigliani who arrived shortly after her. She painted many scenes with flowers that adorned her room. 
Inside her there always seemed to be that her inner eye was focused towards the church.
She posed for other artists including Rodin at the age of 63.
 He was the greatest living artist and she fell in love with him and his prodigious sexual appetite. 
She was obsessed by him but he would not be able to meet her demands though he really loved her.
He paid her rent and worried about her cat.
 I often think is that Gwen when I see a Rodin sculpture.
The memory of Whistler stayed with her. Her style stays strong from the start. She painted ordinary folk while Augustus later went for the big blockier strokes laying paint in a style of abandon. That worked. 
But he always retained a conservatism within the shadows of his work he always searched where Gwen seemed to have already found what she wanted to do. He dressed his sitters in fancy dress. She painted people that she identified with. Introvert and unassuming.
Augustus decided the Gypsy life was for him and he hit the open road falling in love with Dorothy McNeil who he met while living with Ida. His drawings of her show her as a real timeless beauty. Gwen talked her into becoming his muse and they set off for a life with Ida. The romanticism of the Gypsy stayed in his heart and he would take his caravan to Dartmoor with the two woman looking after Ida's newly born child.

He went to Paris.

Kindly drawn pictures of Caspar show a tenderness that did not represent the reality. Ida died in a Paris hospital giving birth. 
His wife had posed for him while looking after seven children.
Romelly John is quoted as saying”They had to compromise from the Gypsy life to the outside world”.
His paintings of the family show affection.
He then went to North Wales and he painted the mountain......that captivated him like one of his lovers. 
He then escaped further into nature but returned to Dorset painting blue pools, perhaps some of his best. His work shows impossible dreams and fantasies that dwelt in his mind.
He painted Yates and Shaw while in Ireland and was becoming a society painter in demand capturing the spirit of the sitter. His work never lost its uncertainty.
Provence called him to the classical land of his dreams. Roman lands of Greeks and gypsy spirits.
Martigues in Province became his home before the tourists arrived. He moved north and lived in complete simplicity with no running water just a well.
His children recalled him as a overbearing character who always vied for attention.

He built a studio in Chelsea while partying in the evenings with the rich and famous of the day. 
He was at the peak of his career. He would stride the Kings Road and Chelsea.
In 1913 Gwen became a catholic. This was at the deepest time of her affair with Rodin. Maybe a rejection of her upbringing she found a monastery and the nuns wanted her to paint religious pictures. Rodin disliked her praying in Church. “I am like a little animal groping in the dark” she told Gus. She moved, with her cats into a single room where she seemed happy. She took time to visit Gus. She rented a room by the sea in Brittany where she drew the local children wearing the black pinafore of the school. She drew the innocence of the little folk with tenderness. She controlled the paint more than she could people. She did not like to sell her work.
She collapsed in Dieppe right off the train and she died a few days later.

Augustus threw party's which were funded by his work but was still searching and in Friars Court he painted with a passion and intensity that was noticed by his sitters who were lit perfectly while he mixed his paint telling the sitter off if they moved a bit. His children found the sittings a strenuous time when he painted them, always alone except while he painted Dylan Thomas when one of his children was employed to fill the sitter with beer and keep him happy.
He painted T.E Lawrence.

Lord Leverhulme was so upset with his portrait that he cut out the head (since only that part of the image could easily be hidden in his vault) but when the remainder of the picture was returned by error to John there was an international outcry over the desecration.

His work was his life but forever he searched for inspiration and perfection.
He became unfashionable and the excitement had gone in the 1950's.
The flame had died. His last painting was a painting of the Camargue gypsies paying homage to their patron saint.
He called it a failure and said 50 years from now “I will be known as the brother of Gwen John”.
He missed the gypsy life, the outdoors and said “I wish I had never left Wales”
In 1961 he died aged 83. “Give me another hundred years” he had said “And I will become a very good painter”
In the latter years he would sit and stare at his sisters paintings and the fountain of her work that showed her moving towards her own abstraction. She did not see small things in a small way. The things she owned and people she knew, her cat's.
She exiled herself and the conflict within them both was played out through the canvasses they left behind. The essence of her life and existence. The little lark ascending.
Did they have the same insecurities that drove them on. 

Where else can you find a brother and sister on a journey through art like the John's.
Gwen John 1876-1939

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