The Last Bohemian: Augustus John

Lady Lever Art Gallery 1/7/21

It feels good to be back in the comforting surroundings of an art gallery again, I think blithely upon entering the Lady Lever for the first time in months. I will not feel quite so comfortable upon my exit.

The much heralded Augustus John is the subject of the Lever’s latest display, scattering a splash of Modernism among its Classical and Romantic collections. Heralded not only in his dotage and after his death, unlike his sister Gwen, but singled out by the cognescenti as a rising star from his earliest days at The Slade in fin de siècle London. The era of John Singer Sargent was over, declared Virginia Woolf- “the age of Augustus John was dawning”. High praise indeed. Although John’s oeuvre included many landscape paintings, it is as a portrait artist that he is best known. The Lever exhibition focuses on this legacy, displaying portraiture drawn largely from John’s time spent as a lecturer at Liverpool College of Architecture and Applied Arts during the first decade of the 20th century, including oils, pencil and charcoal drawings, lithographs and etchings.

If his lifestyle was a picaresque fulfilment of his Romani fantasy, John’s portraits were direct and hard hitting. The backgrounds are largely devoid of detail, mottled blocks of muted colour behind Dylan Thomas; a flat, brilliant green behind WB Yeats. ‘He makes everybody perfectly hideous’ lamented Yeats, rejecting a commissioned book cover in favour of a more flattering Sargent portrait, while Lord Lever was so dismayed by his portrait that he cut off his own illustrated head, stashing it in a safe. The remainder of the canvas was mistakenly returned to John who, furious at this desecration of his art, went public, provoking protests and the burning of a Lever effigy by Liverpool art students; a strike in Italy as artists downed tools; and caricatures of the headless knight of the realm in the popular press. The gallery gives you, the viewer, a chance to have your say on all of this, posing questions of ownership and artists’ rights.

In retrospect, neither portrait looks like a hatchet job in the physical sense (leave that to Lever, although he did do it very neatly, as the restored original attests). There is more a sense that the sitter has been depicted without any sycophantic sentiment and has instead been exposed psychologically. While this approach is not unique or even particularly modern, witness Velazquez’s 17th C portrait of Pope Innocent X, it remains a diversion from the norm in a genre which grew from a tradition of patronage and flattery. Perhaps Yates’ view that John made him look ‘drunken, unpleasant and disreputable’ says more about Yates’ view of himself at the time. His viewpoint softened as he later commented that ‘John found something that he liked in me, something closer than character…’. It certainly looks as though John captured a deeply reflective moment, Yates lost in the mists of time. If John nails Yates in his portrait, perhaps Yates identifies the essence of John’s work in that ‘closer than character’ comment.

It’s a comment that can also be applied to the artist’s drawings and etchings. The drawings of John’s wife, Ida, have a touching delicacy and tenderness and are affected with a light, minimalist hand. Meanwhile, the etchings show a mastery of light, demonstrated in the wonderful ‘Man From Barbados’ (re-titled here from its original title, which the gallery labels “racist…and extremely offensive”) which has a strength of character that brings the sitter very much to life.

So much for his work, but what of the man himself. Here he is, larger than life, photographed lying with his wife and his lover, Dorelia, in the classic boho menage. And here again, adorned in gypsy boots and blouse, leaning nonchalantly on the wheel of his gypsy caravan, staring charismatically, devilishly, down into the camera. Below, in a glass case, is a friend’s visitors’ book which John has embellished with a (presumably quickly scribbled) self-caricature also harbouring a gaze that is difficult to escape.
Entering the third room we are confronted with the consequences of becoming the focus of this gaze if you were a young, vulnerable woman. Below John’s portrait of the young Dylan Thomas, is a statement by the gallery that briefly details John’s sexual assault of the young Caitlin Macnamara (later Thomas’ wife) after she modelled for him, which concludes: ‘This behaviour was largely tolerated and accepted at the time. Today it is important to acknowledge Caitlin’s experience and consider this aspect of John’s character alongside his achievements as an artist.’

So, not the comforting experience I had in mind upon entry as, once again, our hero is revealed to have had feet of clay and artistic achievement is undermined by an abuse of power. Full credit to the Lever for presenting an exhibition which, despite the work itself being produced over 100 years ago, has such relevance to current debates espoused by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, of which Caitlin Macnamara and ‘The Man From Barbados’, in a different generation, would surely be part.

If visitors are directly impacted or triggered by the content within the exhibition there are a number of support services available:

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