Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Michael Holroyd's 600-page biography of the painter Augustus John (1878-1861) is a dense, detailed work that's taken me months to get through. I've stopped and started to move house, write my own stuff or read books on comedy or writing or for work. It’s not a book to dip into; for all the comic moments and celebrity cameos, this portrait merits time.

I loved the brooding power of John's portraits when I first saw them during my A-levels, then discovered the artist lurking in old photos of the Fitzroy Tavern (John first met Dylan Thomas there, says the book). I'd seen the book a few times in remainders and second-hand shops, but been scared off by the size and its strikingly ugly cover.

But John's name and work has continued to crop up in other things I've been reading, and when I was in Cardiff in March, his portrait of Mavis Wheeler at the National Museum Wales was the one that held me transfixed. In a few, simple lines – seemingly dashed off – he conveyed not just a beautiful woman but a tantalising sense of her character: thrilling, smart and naughty.

Mavis was wife of another hero of mine, the twinkly archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. So I thumbed through the book to see if Mortimer got a mention. And bought the book on the basis of this single line:
“Wheeler, Sir Mortimer: challenged to a duel by AJ, 526-7”
Index to Michael Holroyd, Augustus John – The New Biography, p. 717.
Holroyd tells John's life broadly in chronological order, from his days in fear of a strict father in Tenby, through art school rebellion into established notoriety – as much for his private life as his work. John was fascinated by the gypsy life, learning their language, living among them, wearing big hoop ear-rings. And there's a constant wanderlust in the book; in his last few years he seems especially fidgety because he can't just climb into a young woman's bed or disappear off across the country. There’s the striking image of him, a month before he died, frail and ill, but taking part in an anti-bomb sit-in in Trafalgar Square.

John's the archetype of a particular kind of artist: a beardie, boozy, bombastic womaniser, father of too many children to keep track of, constantly getting into rages and fights. He's not a particularly likeable man – he treats his wife Ida particularly badly – but Holroyd mines his antics for detail, insight and comedy. There's a particular gem of rascally, drunk lechery on pages 289-91 that’s got the feel of Withnail. John sneaks round a friend's house at night in search of his two pretty “secretaries”, gets the wrong room and ends up in the nursery with the governess (a dwarf). In the scandal the next morning, he leaves in disgrace but is pursued by the friend who John takes to the pub to set things right, where they get into a boxing match with a complete stranger. As Holroyd says, the stories about John are much more fun to read than be a part of.

For all his unconventional ways, John mixed with key figures of the period, painting their portraits, getting them drunk and – if they were women – fucking them. Ian Fleming's mum, the wives of both Mortimer Wheeler and Dylan Thomas, his own son's girlfriends (and possibly, their wives) and any number of models are included in the list. This sexual appetite is mixed up with anecdotes about his friendships with Hardy, Bertrand Russell, Lawrence of Arabia, Prime Minister Asquith and the Queen.

The book is often engrossing because of other people's lives – John's wife Ida, his sort-of wife Dorelia and sister Gwen are as much part of the story. But even the smaller roles are vivid. Take the subject of the portrait that made me buy the book. Mavis – really Mabel – Wright had an affair with John before she married Mortimer Wheeler. And it looks like they overlapped long afterwards, too. The first mention of her reminded me of Sarah, Pauline Collins' character in the first series of Upstairs, Downstairs:
“About her background she was secretive, confiding only that her mother had been a child stolen by gypsies. In later years she varied this story to the extent of denying, in a manner challenging disbelief, that she was John's daughter by a gypsy. In fact she was the daughter of a grocer's assistant and had been at the age of sixteen a scullery maid. During the General Strike in 1926, she hitchhiked to London, clutching a golf club, and took a post as nursery governess to the children of a clergyman in Wimbledon. A year later she was a waitress at Veeraswamy's, the pioneer Indian restaurant in Swallow Street”.
Ibid., p. 524.
Holroyd uses these relationships to cast light on John's own work. But I found there was generally little analysis of John the painter. The book reproduces only a handful of his works and though we're told of fashions and fights in the art world, I didn't ever feel the book explained or grouped his work. His portraits are discussed in terms of how much they looked like or pleased the sitter:
“Men he was tempted to caricature, women to sentimentalize. For this reason, as the examples of Gerald du Maurier and Tallulah Bankhead suggest, his good portraits of men were less acceptable to their sitters than his weaker pictures of women.”
Ibid., p 469.
There's even less on the style or composition of his landscapes, and his still life work is almost dismissed out of hand. We’re told he only tried clay late in life.

John’s frustration with his own work is evident – a late anecdote has the old man crying in the street at his own lack of ability. Holroyd details him prevaricating for years over particular portraits, or painting over or destroying work he alone seemed not to like. Despite saying that he didn’t fulfil his potential, Holroyd tells us that John worked hard and continually – the cruel irony being that work wasn’t necessarily improved in proportion to the hours devoted.

I'd have liked more on the traditions he worked with in, the tools he used, the kind of brushwork and marks on the canvas. Holroyd seems to agree with critics who claim (and did so at the time) that John never quite realised the promise of his early work, but doesn't venture an opinion on why or what he should have done.

It's a rich and rewarding biography of the man but not the artist.

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