O Brother, Where Art Thou? Augustus and Gwen John Are Head-to-Head at Tate Britain. Richard Cork Finds There Is Only One Winner

By Cork, Richard | New Statesman (1996), October 11, 2004 | Go to article overview

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Augustus and Gwen John Are Head-to-Head at Tate Britain. Richard Cork Finds There Is Only One Winner


Cork, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


What would Augustus John have thought? For the very first time, Tate mounts a major retrospective of his work, but only in conjunction with his sister Gwen, who ends up stealing the show with her single-minded intensity. Worse still, her name is put pointedly before his in the exhibition's title. Augustus has been relegated to runner-up status before the event even begins.

In Augustus's heyday, nobody could have imagined such a put-down. Before leaving the Slade School of Art in 1898, he was already the most talked-about artist of the new generation. And within a year or two, the precocious young Welshman had become the Damien Hirst of his day. As a draughtsman, he was hugely talented--the result, or so he claimed, of a serious blow to the head when diving near his native Tenby.

His private life was discussed avidly. He married Ida Nettleship in 1901, but fell for Dorothy McNeill soon afterwards. He called her Dorelia, and she came to live with Ida and Augustus in an apparently blissful menage. They all went off to Dartmoor, dressed up as Romanies, and camped gypsy-style. Dorelia gave birth to Pyramus in the caravan, and Ida was pregnant as well. Augustus painted them there, from his perch inside a dark tent. Small and vibrant, the entire picture sparkles with dynamism.

Unfortunately, Augustus harboured ambitions as a figure painter on the grandest scale imaginable. All his vivacity drained away when he embarked on The Mumpers, a colossal canvas for Sir Hugh Lane's Chelsea mansion. Vying with Paul Gauguin, he flattened his design and arranged the travelling beggars in a panoramic frieze. But his artful poses lack Gauguin's mystery. The Mumpers is a disaster, and he failed to redeem himself in a later, painfully self-conscious family group called Lyric Fantasy.

Magnificently gifted on an instinctive level, Augustus never knew how best to harness his formidable skill. The drawings and swift, darting oil studies of Ida, Dorelia and their tousled children are a wind-blown delight. Direct and sensuous, the broken brush marks evoke a dreamlike vision of bucolic placidity. If he had built on this, Augustus might have been the equal of Gwen. But he became waylaid by flashy society portraiture, painting the garish Lady Ottoline Morrell in a ludicrous feathered hat and then producing a boardroom effigy of the dapper Lord Norman, the longest-serving governor of the Bank of England, resting his etiolated fingers on a gentlemanly walking stick.

Gwen wisely avoided the pitfall of painting grandees. She had no wish to be lionised at the Cafe Royal like her hammy brother. The only sign of flamboyance in her work appears early on in a commanding self-portrait of around 1899. Flaunting a black floppy bow and mutton-chop sleeves, she has the assurance of a cosmopolitan young woman who had just been studying under Whistler in Paris. …

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