Feminists Still Haunt; Far from Redeeming Augustus John, a New Exhibition Shows His Oats-and-Milky-Tea Sister, Gwen, in an Undeservedly More Favourable Light

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

MY GENERATION, dying out, is the last to be familiar with the work of Augustus and Gwen John.

Both are painters of whom, throughout my working life, I have been able to speak with ease, knowing that to my contemporaries they have been more or less as familiar as to me. Augustus and I overlapped for 30 years; as a boy I saw his paintings and drawings exhibited at the National Gallery during the Second World War; together with people of my parents' generation I was intrigued, excited even, by news of a new portrait or the man himself, and puzzled and disappointed by wretched offerings in summer exhibitions at the Royal Academy that seemed so at odds with his high reputation. In the spring of 1952, when he was 74, the Academy gave him an exhibition of his life's work - 460 paintings, drawings and sculptures crowded the now destroyed Diploma Galleries there; two paintings from the Tate Gallery were omitted, Smiling Woman, a portrait of Dorelia, his second wife, and his swagger portrait of the cellist Madame Suggia, on the grounds that, "It would be a pity to remove them from the rooms in which the public are accustomed to see them."

No one now is accustomed to seeing anything anywhere by Augustus John.

When, in the autumn of 1961, he died and it was my melancholy business to sort what was left in his several studios, I discovered that almost no one cared, that in less than a decade since that heroic exhibition, the British art establishment had moved on to support much younger bloods in figurative painting, that abstract canvases, hard-edge, soft-edge, colour field and bucket and slosh had begun their inexorable usurpation of ancestral art, and that the exit doors to oblivion had opened, not only for all the subjects that had interested Augustus, but for Augustus, too. Gwen, his sister, painter in porridge oats and milky tea, was already there, barely recalled by anyone since a posthumous exhibition at the Matthiessen Gallery in Bond Street in 1946.

Since 1961, only the art market, particularly the great auction houses, and the fervour of private collectors of a certain age have stood between Augustus and nihility. The Tate has become accustomed to denying its visitors access to his work and Arts Councillors, those nincompoops appointed by the state, have snorted with derision at what they deem his flashy skills and snobbish patrons; but at Christie's and Sotheby's it has been seen with some frequency, the best of it still making worthwhile prices, and it is this thread of connoisseurship that has kept his memory alive. His most formidable enemy, however, has not been the preposterous disdain of the fashionable curators who, in 1987, omitted him from the Royal Academy's supposedly encyclopaedic survey of 20th-century British art, but the Amazon army of feminists determined to elevate Gwen John to the status of Piero della Francesca and Vermeer, in large part by denigrating her brother, not only as a painter, but as an abuser of women, an utterly unscrupulous exploitation of political correctitude of which many of these feminists, particularly those masquerading as art historians, should be ashamed.

There is no doubt that Augustus was sexually tiresome, that as a young man he needed a menage of three or four and a scattered tribe of silly women to oblige him at more spasmodic moments, not just for the brief act of sex but for the children who were the proof of his potency. This satyriasis continued long past the days when the youthful Mephistophelean glare, once enough to throw a thousand women onto their backs with parted legs, had turned to the histrionics of a Beerbohm Tree - Osbert Sitwell thought him "something of a Rasputin-Jehovah".

In his seventies, often unwashed, stinking of tobacco and soaked in wine, his eyes almost unseeing without his heavy horn-rimmed spectacles, when any knowing six-year-old would have kneed his testicles, Augustus still played the silly game of wanting women and expecting them to want him. …