Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Augustus John on the cover of Time Magazine, by Boris Chaliapin

It's difficult to think of an artist, or a human being, who made a bigger, noisier mess of his love life than Augustus John.

Raised in a strict religious home, he rebelled with a life of free love and anarchy.  He proudly crowed, "Without much thought I act on the impulse of the moment."

John impetuously eloped with a fellow art student, Ida Nettleship, but shortly after they were married he began courting a second art student, Dorelia McNeill.  While Ida sat home tending to their new baby, John was pleading with Dorelia to pose for him in the nude ("Why not sit for me in your soft skin, and no other clothes-- Are you ashamed?  Nonsense!  It's not as if you were very fat.").

Sketch of Dorelia by Augustus John
Ida gradually accepted that in order to hang onto her husband, she would have to consent to living in a menage a trois with Dorelia.  When Dorelia remained unconvinced, John enlisted his sister, Gwen (who was also Dorelia's art teacher) to write a remarkable letter urging Dorelia to join with John and Ida.

Gwen John by her brother Augustus

Soon they were sleeping three in a bed, with their small children sleeping in boxes scattered around their home.  Having a wife and mistress did not deter Augustus from dozens of affairs with bar maids, art students and an occasional countess.  He courted them with portraits, bad poetry and wildly indiscreet letters (to a secretary, Alick Schepler, he wrote, "O pray, retain the bloom till I come.  Do not wash till I see you").

Alick Schepler by Augustus John

John impulsively offered to marry Schepler. His biographer, Michael Holroyd, recounts how he explained his decision to his existing wife and his mistress:
domestic life, even of the unorthodox variety with which they had experimented,  smothered him; he told them of his feelings for Alick, that his painting could not advance without her, that he needed her.  There was nothing too personal in all this-- but he could not be restricted....  
Unfortunately, John's confession was wasted because Alick turned him down after discovering that his plan was to set up a second menage a trois with Alick and her friend, artist Frieda Bloch. All of these women gave up on a traditional fairy tale romance for a small piece of the great artist's attention.
What does the example of Augustus John teach us about "Artists in Love"? It certainly demonstrates the manipulative power of art. Alick claimed she never noticed that she was beautiful until John drew her. When he tried to lure Frieda Bloch into joining his second menage, he offered as bait his mystical artistic secrets ("I will find her a studio-- and I will show her things I'm pretty sure she never suspected.") To justify his philandering to Ida and Dorelia, he explained that freedom was essential to the greatness of his art. Everyone was willing to make exceptions for "the King of Bohemia." But for those who, like me, have trouble accepting love as a heedless thing, John offers little.

Naw, the "artists in love" I'm referring to in this post are the women John mistreated, the ones who might have gone on to become substantial artists and independent voices in a more fair era.  An interesting thing happened amongst these women as they sacrificed their artistic careers, supported each other, and raised their many children communally.  Some fell in love with each other, apparently with greater profundity and fidelity than John was able to offer.  Ida, Dorelia and Gwen became particularly close.

Gwen's self portrait: clothed and confident
Gwen's self portrait: nude and vulnerable

Ida and Dorelia "eloped" together to Paris for a long break from John and his "nervous abberrations." John came to visit them between flings, but the two built a meaningful daily life together.

Gwen's portrait of Dorelia
 Gwen and Dorelia had their own adventures.  Reports Holroyd:
The source of Gwen's upsurge in happiness was Dorelia.  On an impulse she proposed that the two of them should leave London and walk to Rome-- and Dorelia, once she was certain that Gwen was not joking, calmly agreed.... The two girls were as excited as if it were an elopement....Gwen brushed aside [August's] objections, would not even listen to his arguments...and they set off  'carrying a minimum of belongings and a great deal of painting equipment....' At each village they would try to earn some money by going to the inn and either singing or drawing portraits of those men who would pose.... At night they slept in the fields, under haystacks or, when they were lucky, in stables, lying on each other to feel a little warmer, covering themselves with their portfolios and waking up encircled by curious little congregations of farmers, gendarmes and stray animals.  Between the villages...they would practice their singing.  They lived mostly on grapes and bread, a little beer, some lemonade.  There were many adventures; losing their tempers with the women, outwitting the men, dying of fright, crying with laughter.  
During John's long absences, these women responded to their raw deal by developing strong, supportive passionate relationships.  When Dorelia left Ida for just a few days to visit her mother, Ida wrote her: "Darling D.... Love from [Ida] to the prettiest little bitch in the world....I was bitter cold last night in bed without your burning hot, not to say, scalding body next to me."

The great naturalist author Loren Eisley wrote about one wintry evening when a street light was casting an odd shadow in his front yard.  Fetching a ladder,  he discovered that a spider had saved herself from her frosty environment by spinning her web next to the warmth of the streetlight:
"Good Lord" I thought, "she has found herself a kind of minor sun and is going to upset the course of nature."....There she was... a great black and yellow embodiment of the life force, not giving up to either frost or step ladders.  She ignored me and went on tightening and improving her web.  I stood over her on the ladder, a faint snow touching my cheeks and surveyed her universe.... a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if a rope can still be spun on to a star.... Here was something that ought to be passed on to those who will fight our final freezing battle with the void.  I thought of setting it down carefully as a message to the future: In the days of the frost seek a minor sun.  


MORAN said...

I never understood why John was so highly rated. In his lifetime he was compared wiith Michelangelo.

Anonymous said...

It's nice that these women artists were able to get a little warmth from minor suns but that doesn't excuse the man. He sounds like a SOB.


Anonymous said...

Sargent once called John the greatest draughtsman since the Renaissance while John was still in school. It looks like that kind of praise went to his head....

Anonymous said...

This art belongs under guard in a museum! I think this is some of the best work I have ever viewed.

C B Sorge said...

That's such a captivating story! I am reminded of many other female artists who are only known as "girlfriend of [prominent male artist]". Sigh.

Gwen and Dorelia's adventure sounds so fantastic!

Thanks for sharing.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN and Anonymous-- it's true that John was very highly regarded by some very smart people. He was the wunderkind of the famous Slade School (where Robert Fawcett trained) and adoring critics did compare him with the likes of Michelangelo and Gauguin. (I had not heard the Sargent quote). He was invited to Picasso's studio while Picasso was working on Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. But by the end of his career, John's star had definitely faded; he was better known for his celebrity and his outlandish behavior.

If John hadn't been very good, he would never would have been able to make all the girls weak in the knees (or cause them to tolerate all his bad behavior). But I guess the question is: is it better to expend such a gift on unbridled sex and high living, or is it better to re-invest it in working on more and better art?

Despite the fact that John turned out to be a huge jerk, I don't think we can take the answer for granted if we are being honest.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- I agree. It's fun to write about the great big fairy tale romances, but a lot of important love is --lIke the spider and the streetlight-- just finding enough warmth wherever you can to keep yourself alive. These women did not get a fair deal, either from society or from John. Their art never had a chance. But they made the best of it and touched each other in important ways.

I enjoy the fact that for all of their weakness, there were times when the women banded together and found happiness (outwitting the "selfish monster" John). And as you can tell, they were able to kindle some pretty hot moments when he was away.

David Apatoff said...

CB Sorge-- Thanks for writing. Yes, there were a lot of "girlfriends of [prominent male artists]". In fact, Gwen went on to become Rodin's mistress and model for many years. But recently her work has been pulled from oblivion and has been shown in a couple of large exhibitions.

Anonymous said...

Rodin was a bit of a jerk to Gwen too and he's still considered pretty special. Then there's the fate of Camille Claudel....

I'm not comfortable with all the blame being put on the males. Surely, women have enough awareness, independence and willpower to see that they are being used before they get too attached to an incredibly selfish person. Or do they...?

Btw, the Sargent quote comes from Michael Holroyd's biography of John.

Anonymous said...

This is finally what your "Artists in Love" series has been lacking, hot lesbian sex.

David Apatoff said...

One thing about these "artists in love" posts is that they seem to attract a higher percentage of anonymous commenters than any other kind of post.

To the anonymous who wrote, "I'm not comfortable with all the blame being put on the males. Surely, women have enough awareness, independence and willpower to see that they are being used before they get too attached to an incredibly selfish person. Or do they...?"

There were certainly a lot of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries who would not have put up with what Ida, Gwen and Dorelia did. In fact, many women went to them and warned that John was taking advantage of them. Yet, I don't think John's women were just weak or submissive. Hard to say what combination of carrots and sticks motivated each one, but I think that if Michelangelo came to one of us and asked us to do extraordinary things, we might do them in order to be close enough to warm our hands at the fire. Who among us wouldn't be gay for Walt Whitman?

To the anonymous who wrote, "He sounds like a SOB," that's certainly true but I think he was enabled by celebrities and newspapers who were transfixed by his life of self-indulgence. He used to hang out with James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats long after he stopped painting well.

To the anonymous who wrote that this blog has been missing "hot lesbian sex," I'm glad I could accommodate you.

Anonymous said...

"Who among us wouldn't be gay for Walt Whitman?"

He'd have to pay be a shitload of money.

David Apatoff said...

Well, this certainly seems to be my week for anonymous contributors. Perhaps this post is making the rounds at San Quentin.

Latest anonymous, have you read Leaves of Grass with care? If John misused art as a seduction tool, Whitman was the real thing.

Sherm said...

There's a quote about British art being full of the 'fly-blown corpses' of artists destined for greatness but never made the grade.It was used in this context about Augustus John who evidently dissipated his energy in living the life of a wastrel.

Anonymous said...

Did he not have a fall that resulted in a injury to his head and after that was never really the same

Anonymous said...

That fall happened while he was still in the early years of art school. His drawings were said to improve dramatically after the incident.

Anyone who wants to see more Augustus John drawings can go here:

Augustus John Drawings

On a tangentially related note, what is up with all the typos in the new Robert Fawcett book? I've counted at least five already and I'm still mostly ogling the pictures. You guys need a better proofreader.

- T.O.M.

David Apatoff said...

Sherm-- I would agree that applies to John, although I'm not sure we can extrapolate to all British artists. There were certainly no flies on Turner.

Anonymous and Anonymous--One of the toughest things about trying to squeeze the story of Augustus John into a short blog post is that you have to pick just one or two from among his many legends. Yes, when John was a young man, he cracked his skull in a diving accident. The folklore is that he went from being a quiet, methodical person to a wild, flamboyant character, and went from being a decent artist to being a great artist. The truth is unclear, but it sounds pretty implausible to me (and most responsible biographers are skeptical).

On the other hand, not too much later Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, hit her head in a fall and was instantly transformed from being refined English nobility to a sexually insatiable harlot. The Duchess apparently made Augustus John look like a monk. Sherm, are there any sayings about the British getting hit on the head?

David Apatoff said...

T.O.M.-- Thanks for the link to the John drawings. There are some very nice drawings in the mix, but I don't see anything to support Sargent's appraisal.

As for the Fawcett book, I'm flattered that anyone would actually take time away from pictures like that to read the adjacent text. But I am also broken hearted to hear that a typo made it through multiple readings by multiple people. Can you write me at and tell me what you found? Thanks.

Smurfswacker said...

There's something that makes people want to explain artists. The bop-on-the-head story offers a magical explanation of an ability that seems magical to many.

But this is just one of countless standard myths about artists, embraced by both outsiders and insiders. There's the died-young story: if the artist hadn't died young s/he'd have surpassed all the established greats (Frank Leyendecker is one who got this treatment). Or the unappreciated underling: if the artist hadn't been dominated by a mentor's personality, s/he would have eclipsed the master's accomplishments (this is a big one for artists' assistants, mistresses, relatives etc.)

Sometimes pieces of these myths are supported by facts. This lends them staying power. But they're still just myths. The individual complexities of an artist's life are ignored for the sake of a good story.

Is this related somehow to the desire to compare the latest star with the Old Masters? Reading contemporary accounts of 19th-century artists I often run into glowing comparisons with Raphael or Michelangelo. Most of those reviewed are now forgotten.

Augustus John demonstrates the messy contradictions and inconsistencies that make up so many artists (and most everyone else, to tell the truth). We try to reconcile the discordant elements but it can't be done. Zaphod Beeblebrox's analyst said it best: "He's just this guy, you know?"

David Apatoff said...

Smurfswacker-- It's easy to understand why people grasp for the source of artistic power. Even if you don't make it all the way to the immortality of Raphael or Michelangelo, having dozens of beautiful girlfriends like Augustus John is pretty darn cool. The ancient Greeks thought the power came from the muse. In the 1960s, people wondered whether the Beatles gained a higher level of inspiration from LSD.

I can't say where artistic gifts come from, but I do think a lot of serendipity goes into artistic reputation. I think there are others with the talent of Raphael who never ended up with the fame or the girlfriends. "Many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air."

Matthew Harwood said...

"That fall happened while he was still in the early years of art school. His drawings were said to improve dramatically after the incident."

Perhaps later in life when his talent waned, all he needed was one of his muses to give him another good thump to the head. :)

David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood-- It's amazing to me that an artist who tried to persuade women to model for him by saying, "It's not as if you were very fat" wasn't thumped on the head regularly.

I would not be surprised if John's talent dropped off because some indignant member of his harem was slipping rat poison in his tea.

Robert Cook said...

Whether John was transformed after his head injury from a good to a great draughtsman, who can say?

As to his alleged transformation from a sober citizen to a wildly randy bohemian, it is certainly possible. There are many cases in the medical literature of persons undergoing changes in personality and behavior after suffering head injuries, particularly injuries to the frontal cortex. Apparently, this part of the brain is where impulse control is regulated. I've read that in studies done of men in prison, it has been found that a higher percentage of them have suffered severe or multiple head injures in their lives as compared with the non-prison population as a whole, and it is postulated by some that this may have contributed to their lives of criminal behavior and/or violence.

David Apatoff said...

Robert Cook-- I hate to think of the number of profoundly human traits and eccentricities that we now attribute to personal taste and judgment and thought but which we will someday trace to a correctable chemical imbalance or a blow to the head.

Robert Cook said...

"Robert Cook-- I hate to think of the number of profoundly human traits and eccentricities that we now attribute to personal taste and judgment and thought but which we will someday trace to a correctable chemical imbalance or a blow to the head."

And yet...isn't that obviously so?

David Apatoff said...

"Isn't that obviously so?"

The first few steps down that long trail may seem obvious, but I suspect the answer will ultimately prove more complex. As the great Arthur Koestler said, “The progress of science is strewn, like an ancient desert trail, with the bleached skeletons of discarded theories which once seemed to possess eternal life.”

Matthew Harwood said...

Thanks David, I love this quote. In trying to find its context, I found another Arthur Koestler pearl of wisdom applicable to today:
“Modern man lives isolated in his artificial environment, not because the artificial is evil as such, but because of his lack of comprehension of the forces which make it work- of the principles which relate his gadgets to the forces of nature, to the universal order. It is not central heating which makes his existence ‘unnatural,’ but his refusal to take an interest in the principles behind it. By being entirely dependent on science, yet closing his mind to it, he leads the life of an urban barbarian.”

Smurfswacker said...

Matthew--that's a fascinating quote. I wonder how human thought has been changed by the quickening transition from a "gizmo" world to a "black box" world.

Consider cars: forty years ago they were basically mechanical gizmos. With a bit of training and some clear thinking one could find a physical explanation for fuel system problems, electrical faults, etc., and fix them by juggling pieces. As solid state electronics took over, more and more important stuff happened at the molecular level where one couldn't see it, much less repair it. So today we just throw out the old "black box" and install a new one.

Surely this change has widened the disconnect between people and the "universal order."

(Disclaimer for those with thin techno-skins: I'm not saying things were better the old way, just that the change is interesting. Still there's something to be said for being able to repair your carburetor with a paper clip.)

David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood-- Koestler is one of my favorite authors of the 20th century. When I was a young pup, I read everything he ever wrote and was presumptuous enough to write him with my helpful reactions. He very generously wrote me back, and I've kept all his letters.

I believe the quote you like about skeletons was from The Sleepwalkers, which is a small miracle of a book. I also agree with you about the quote you found.

Smurfswacker-- Yes, there is a real revolution going on in the field of information, and particularly information access. Just as the age of encyclopedists gave way to the age of specialists, the age of specialists seems to be fraying because human expertise is no longer adequate for accessing the growing pool of information necessary to navigate those black boxes. You need google to even help you hone in on traditional outcroppings of knowledge.

Matthew Harwood said...

David--I'm curious if Koestler gave you career advice. If you don't mind, please share something you wrote to him and his reply.

António Araújo said...

"in studies done of men in prison, it has been found that a higher percentage of them have suffered severe or multiple head injures in their lives as compared with the non-prison population as a whole"

Correlation vs causation. Suppose you are a young thug, for one reason or another. Then you are both more prone to go to prison and to suffer multiple head injuries.

In order to be valid the studies have to show a measurable *change* in personality *after* a bump in the head, and that can't be done just by comparing relative incidence of head injuries in prison vs general population - you have to have a good patient history and access hard to measure parameters - no good saying "he had more arrests after being beaten in the head", as you are bound to have a few dangerous adventures before going to jail. Even limiting analysis to accidental head injuries has to take into account that those accidents come more often to people who are already prone to risky behaviour, and such carelessness with risk can become with time a tendency for crime.

I'd be willing to bet that personality changes of that type are real but very uncommon events. "Don't flinch now, John, I'll have to hit you just righ with this bat". A much more common transfiguration than normal-to-bohemian or normal-to-criminal is probably normal-to-vegetable (stands to reason; normal is pretty close to vegetable anyway :D).

Further, a few of those transformations are probably a psichological, not neurological effect: suppose you were always a closet bohemian; you bump your head, almost die; you realise life is short, and you might as well live it...and you even have a romantic/tragic excuse!

Even further, there is a possible placebo effect: again, you are a closeted bohemian; hit your head; hear some people have changes in personality after accidents; welcome in, Mr Hyde.

Gets hard to disentangle...

António Araújo said...

David, I won't be so hard on John. Those moments that those women had with each other would never have happened if not from his forcing of the social standards. Once they broke all the rules, under his initial impetus, there was no holding them back.

You criticize the social constraints that society placed on those women. Well, it places other constraints on us all. Most men simulate a monogamous instinct that does not stem from any conviction. It is a fraud, pure and simple.

I do not know John's story. If he beat them or mistreated them, then yes, he was a jerk. But if he merely seduced them, and was even as open about it as you say, then kudos to him for living the life he wanted - he gave them a choice to join him or not. They were not forced, not even by social custom, as they would be forced to comply with so much nonsense in an ordinary relationship of the time. If the complaint is that he didn't give each one enough attention...well, that's hard, but Angelina doesn't return my calls either! :) If they couldn't keep his interest, there is nobody to blame, it is just how it is - would any woman stay with a guy out of the kindness of her heart, if she could have another one she preferred? In the realm of the heart the powerful do what they please and the weak suffer what they must. But still, compare their arrangement to the typical marriage of the time, the placid wife, the sexual restrictions, the shame, and the common infidelity done behind the wife's back, which, by the way, is the standard morality of married life in polite bourgeois society, today as much as ever. Was it such bad a deal?

I'll read more on John, I suspect I'll find something to like, and it's not his drawings. :)

>But I guess the question is: is it >better to expend such a gift on >unbridled sex and high living, or >is it better to re-invest it in >working on more and better art?

Is this a trick question? :D

David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood-- it wasn't generally that kind of correspondence. However, when I wrote him that my childhood dream was to become an artist but that his books persuaded me the responsible thing was to study science and work on international regulation of nuclear materials, he responded, "I shall take full credit for your conversion but don't blame me if you are disappointed."

Antonio Araujo-- I agree that society imposes constraints on us all, but I think most people would agree that men had a better deal during that era than women. It is possible that John became a famous artist while all the women art students around him ended up raising babies and living in tents out on the heath because he was talented and they were not. However, I don't think that explanation is compelled by comparing John's work with Gwen's.

Gwen and Dorelia's walk to Rome reminds me of another woman artist's famous walk to Rome: the dada artist Hannah Hoch belonged to the (mostly male) Berlin dada group, which belittled her work and dismissed her as "the good girl." Although the dadaists proclaimed support for women's emancipation, they treated women artists as second rate. Hannah ended up as the mistress of (married) dadaist Raoul Hausmann who treated her badly. When she reminded him of his promise that he would leave his wife, he beat her, so she walked from Munich to Rome in 1922 to get away from him. Perhaps her decision to be with Hausmann in the first place was consensual, but perhaps she just had a worse set of choices than the men of her era.

"Would any woman stay with a guy out of the kindness of her heart, if she could have another one she preferred?" Gosh, I'm depending on it.

António Araújo said...


>Gosh, I'm depending on it.

You are a flatterer, that's what you are. :) But though the lady in question should be pleased by your vain protestations, she knows, and you know, that women are ruthless in matters of affection. She stays with you only as long as she sees in you what she wants and loves. Which is good. These are not matters where charity should have a place.

What we may sometimes be thankful for, when we are lucky beyond our hopes and merits, is not the charity of women, but the fact that their preferences may sometimes be not as wise or rational as they might.

> but I think most people would >agree that men had a better deal >during that era than women.

I wasn't disagreeing with that part of your post. The social and professionals limitations imposed on women at the time are more than obvious. My argument relates only to whether John was such a "jerk", in his romantic relations with them, as far as the specifics go. Certainly you can point to aspects where he was opressive, where his expectiations were limiting, but the question is whether he is a "jerk" regarding the points where he differs from the attitudes of the time, not regarding those points where he was behaving like any other man of his age.

Also, any man who incites women into "hot lesbian action" (and I think I speak for the generality of this assembly) can safely be regarded a benefactor of mankind. :)

David Apatoff said...

Antonio Araujo-- whether or not you "speak for the generality of this assembly" I am guessing they will be hiding a safe distance behind you when you do.