Photography: Gareth Jones

The Last Bohemian: Augustus John

Lady Lever Art Gallery 1/6/21

On a sunlit day in early June, the Lady Lever Art Gallery in the sleepy model village of Port Sunlight – Wirral’s pristine enclave lost in a pre-war time-warp – is shining in all its Beaux-Arts glory. Equal parts eerily perfect and stunningly out of place with its surrounds, the expansive gallery is hushed in quiet surprise. Stuffed full of John Everett Millais and Singer Sargents, yet safely tucked away in an unsuspecting place, perhaps it is the perfect home to host the works of one of the country’s most surreptitiously infamous artists.

A touring retrospective of his work showcasing around 40 paintings, etchings and drawings, The Last Bohemian: Augustus John at the Lady Lever Art Gallery offers an insight into the life of one of the most searingly honest portrait painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Shuffling across the chalk white floors, the exhibition is neatly withdrawn to three small antechambers, and I find myself at once confronted with the brooding oil of a cloak-clad youth: the young, boyish John by his friend William Rothenstein. At 21, this is undoubtedly the image of an enviably young man strapped with unbound talent, on the cusp of accomplishment, although the exhibition is loath to call him a genius. Instead, it chooses to highlight his vigour for friends, knowledge and art. It is helpfully chopped up into the seminal parts of his life – his time at the Slade School, his appointment as art lecturer at Liverpool University, his marriage to his artist wife, Ida, and the ménage à trois with his partner, Dorelia.

An enviably young man strapped with unbound talent, on the cusp of accomplishment, although the exhibition is loath to call him a genius

It presents John as an unflinchingly candid painter – it hosts the renowned portrait of Lord Leverhulme, who famously cut out his own face upon seeing its honesty. But squeezed between exquisitely depicted bodies and colourful portraits, I sense a muted undoing of the artist-as-hero. The exhibition makes a point of calling John’s work with the Gypsy Law Society patronising, and they’d be right. Adopting their lifestyle as ‘bohemian’, it feels like the equivalent of Oxbridge educated hockey players cavorting around Newcastle costumed as This Country characters. Although many of his fine first etchings were made in Liverpool (the most famous being Man from Barbados, 1901-2), his sitters found in the back streets and brothel houses of Scotland Road, it leaves me questioning whether this was an artist feverishly capturing the cosmopolitan hubbub of a booming port city, or a man trying to impose himself on an exotic working class culture he’d never truly inhabit.

In the last room, I find myself standing face to face with the comically disgusted carrot-flopped portrait of the poet Dylan Thomas – a portrait I feel I’ve seen a thousand times over, without ever having seen before. Such is the surprising reach and magnetism of John’s work. This is the refreshing curatorial perspective the Lady Lever has taken; it refrains from tainting us too much with John’s celebrity and instead attempts to keep a subtle balance between revering his precocious talent and offsetting it for the eyes of a modern audience. In a life that appears pitted with riotous drama and artistic integrity, the exhibition does not shy away from exposing John’s flaws. Dylan’s portrait is arresting and honest, but so is the placard of information below it – that John, nearing 50, abused Dylan’s young wife Caitlin over the many times she sat for him. The uncompromising integrity towards art and lifestyle suddenly starts to feel compromised. So please, go for the art, but stay for the portrait of the man himself.

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