The Artist His Wife, His Sister, Their Lover; Artists GWEN and AUGUSTUS JOHN's Bohemian Behaviour Scandalised Society. MARY GREENE Reveals the Colourful Tale Behind the Canvases at a New Exhibition

Daily Mail (London), August 21, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Artist His Wife, His Sister, Their Lover; Artists GWEN and AUGUSTUS JOHN's Bohemian Behaviour Scandalised Society. MARY GREENE Reveals the Colourful Tale Behind the Canvases at a New Exhibition


Byline: MARY GREENE

Even by the wildest of Bohemian standards, it was a complex menage.

Artist Augustus John was driven by an insatiable sexual appetite that nearly destroyed the lives of the women who loved him best. His domestic life was an extraordinary tangle of passions. His wife, Ida, although at first jealous of his beautiful mistress, Dorelia, eventually fell in love with her. As did Augustus's sister Gwen.

Small wonder that John's reputation - in his youth he was fIted as the most famous British artist of his day - has been overwhelmed by prurient fascination with his sexual life. As art critic Brian Sewell put it so succinctly, he was driven 'to draw the women whom he bedded, and bed the women whom he drew.' His sister Gwen, on the other hand, who had almost disappeared from history, was rediscovered by feminist historians - who lauded her as a great woman artist who had been overshadowed by her brother.

Now, however, a new exhibition at Tate Britain - the first large-scale show to compare the work of brother and sister - will prove that Augustus deserves to regain his former standing as the man who could 'draw like a god'. Born in 1878, Augustus was two years younger than Gwen. The John family lived in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, later moving to Tenby. Their mother died when the children were very young; their father, Edwin, a solicitor, was stern and cold. And yet the children enjoyed remarkable freedom, running wild on the lovely Welsh beaches.

Augustus was shy and awkward, even when he went to London to study art at the Slade.

But the summer he turned 18 he changed dramatically, after cracking his skull when diving. Legend has it that he banged his head on a rock - and emerged a genius. Nonsense - but it was the start of the Augustus John myth, of the artist as the great Bohemian and lover. His drawings, including beautiful nudes, had a new, spontaneous assurance. He was impatient, restless, unpredictable. An imposing, scruffy, red-bearded figure, six feet tall, who shockingly wore gipsy earrings, he became renowned partly because, in late-Victorian London, he stood out so. 'We are the kind of people our fathers warned us against,' he boasted to a fellow student.

It was at the Slade - where his sister Gwen was also studying - that Augustus met and fell in love with Ida Nettleship. Sensuously beautiful, in a Pre-Raphaelite way, she had almond eyes, a mass of dark hair and full lips.

She was exhilarated by Augustus, the only man she ever loved. In 1901, Augustus eloped with her and they were married. But Ida changed after marriage - motherhood caught up with her, and she lost the fey, mysterious quality that attracted him.

Augustus desired an ideal, mistress and earth mother in one. He spun all his romantic fantasies around Dorelia McNeill - his muse, his lover, the woman who came to enthral his wife and his sister, too. She was in fact a young typist called Dorothy, who was taking drawing lessons from Gwen. By 1903, Augustus was writing to Dorelia passionately: 'I am sick for love of you- Yes, I possess you as you possess me.' It wasn't just her sultry beauty; what people remarked upon was Dorelia's calm, soothing serenity.

Augustus introduced her to poor Ida who, despite herself, found that she actually liked Dorelia. And hoping that a menage c trois would save her marriage, she agreed that they should find a big house where they could all live together. Dorelia, however, decided to 'elope' with Augustus's sister, Gwen, and proposed that she and Gwen should walk to Rome. …

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The Artist His Wife, His Sister, Their Lover; Artists GWEN and AUGUSTUS JOHN's Bohemian Behaviour Scandalised Society. MARY GREENE Reveals the Colourful Tale Behind the Canvases at a New Exhibition
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