My interest on this painter began with seeing a single painting of T.E. Lawrence, the good-looking, diminutive Oxford educated British man, with a keen interest in Archaeology. Lawrence rode his bicycle from England to The Holy Land to study the castles of the Crusades. He walked 1100 miles around the Middle East, learning all that he could about the cultures and languages. He was mugged and badly beaten on his first day in Syria (even then, a top vacation spot), a fact that he kept hidden from his mother. Today he is identified as “Lawrence of Arabia“. David Lean made a film about him in 1962. All this led me down a rabbit hole of research, which is sort of my thing these days. I loved this paining, and the artist, I discovered, was a rather interesting chap.
Augustus John (1878- 1961) was a leading painter in Edwardian England, best known for portraits of the rich and famous. His only real rival was John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925). Many of his paintings were considered “cruel” for the truth of the depiction. By the 1920s, John was Britain’s leading portrait painter. John painted Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, Tallulah Bankhead, George Bernard Shaw, among hundreds of the landed gentry. His most famous portrait is of his fellow-Welshman, Dylan Thomas, whom he introduced to Caitlin McNamara, his lover who later became Thomas’ wife.
John fathered at least 14 children between his two wives and mistresses. Among his lovers was Evelyn St. Croix Fleming, the mother of Ian Fleming, writer of the James Bond books. Together, they had a daughter, Amaryllis Fleming, a noted cellist. His granddaughter was Talitha Pol, an important figure on the 1960s Swinging London Fashion Scene, a true fashion icon. She married John Paul Getty Jr. and was famously photographed in Marrakesh by Patrick Lichfield. She lived a brief hedonistic life and died of a drug overdose in Morocco in 1971 at 30-years-old. It seems that John couldn’t keep it in his pants; he fathered at least 100 children, and not through a sperm bank, instead he did it the old fashioned way. I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that he had a few men along the way.
John is the slightly disguised main character, a bohemian painter, in the novel The Horses’ Mouth (1948) by Joyce Cary, which was made into a film of the same name with gay actor Alec Guinness in the lead role in 1958..
John wrote two volumes of autobiography, Chairoscuro (1952) and Finishing Touches (1964).
His sister, Gwen Johns, was also a portrait painter and nearly as famous.
John was a true Bohemian, and a pacifist, active in the Anti-War movement. He put down his brushes and his penis for good in 1961 when was 83-years-old.
Here is more of his work: