Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. 18th May, 2021 to 30th August, 2021

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There was a time when Augustus John was seen as one of the leading artists in Britain. He was also looked on as something of a bad boy in terms of his personal behaviour. It went beyond the mere flamboyant and gave him a reputation for sexual adventuring with just about every lady he met. An anecdote says that, when walking down the street where he lived, he always patted every child he encountered on the head because he could well have been its father. It strikes me that some of the reluctance to deal with him today may stem from an understandable objection which frowns on women being exploited by those who can exert some sort of control over them. John’s status as an acclaimed painter, coupled with his personal charisma, no doubt enabled him to turn on the charm to his advantage.

But should his alleged failings as a person be allowed to affect our admiration for his skills as an artist? I don’t think John was an innovator, but he was a splendid draughtsman and an accomplished painter. Henry Tonks, himself noted for his drawings, thought highly of John’s work when he was a student at The Slade. And the examples on show in the small, but satisfying exhibition at the Lady Lever Art Gallery point to the confident way in which he sketched his subjects and put something of their personalities into his portraits. He perhaps extended this achievement even more in his paintings, as for example one of the poet, Dylan Thomas, whose seeming baby-faced innocence can’t hide the turbulence in his life and poetry. It might be worth noting that Caitlin Thomas, as she later became, had been one of John’s many lovers when she modelled for him.

A major part of the exhibition revolves around the period when John taught at the art school in Liverpool in the early-1900s. It was a time when he extended his interest in the life-style of the Romani people, or gypsies, as he referred to them. Their near-bohemian wanderings no doubt appealed to his sensibilities. His own tendency to gypsy-like proclivities may have been tempered at times by the fact that he was married and his wife, Ida, gave birth to five sons. She can be seen in the exhibition, as can Dorothy “Dorelia” McNeill, John’s mistress in their ménage-à-troi, who had four children by him.

There are portraits in the exhibition, and it was in this field that John achieved his prominence. It’s said that he never flattered his sitters, with the result that some of them were less than satisfied with the finished product. And it may have been that his later work fell short of his previous high standards. His biographer Michael Holroyd, thinks so and comments on his heavy drinking, and a critic said that “the painterly brilliance of his early work degenerated into flashiness and bombast”.

The range of paintings and drawings on display in Port Sunlight doesn’t allow us to generalise about a decline in John’s work over the years. But it does provide evidence of how talented and promising he must have seemed when he was younger. There is, perhaps, some irony involved in that his sister, Gwen, who was overshadowed by Augustus, has in recent years been re-discovered, and is now possibly better-known than him. Her quiet, low-key paintings seem to reflect the subdued personality seen in one or two photographs in the exhibition.  But her brother understood that, while his work had “technical mastery”, hers had “interior feeling and expressiveness”.

Augustus John’s bohemian capers are an obvious explanation of why he was often in the news, but it’s his best work as an artist that we should now pay more attention to.