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Biography of Augustus John

Photo of Augustus John

Augustus John was an early twentieth century artist.

When and Where was he Born?

4th January 1878, Tenby, Pembrokshire, Wales and christened Augustus Edward.

Family Background:

Augustus John was the third child and son of Edwin William John, a Solicitor, and Augusta. Brother of Gwen.


Clifton School. Slade School of Fine Art, London.

Timeline of Augustus John:

1884: Death of his mother.

1894: He goes to London to study for four years at the Slade School of Fine Art. His tutors were Henry Tonks and Frederick Brown. He became known as a gifted but bohemian student. His sister Gwen, also a talented artist studies with him at the Slade.

1897: John is seriously injured in a swimming accident during the summer and in his convalescence he seems to have advanced his artistic growth.

1898: Where wins the Slade Prize with the painting “Moses and the Brazen Serpent”. He then goes to Paris on his own and is influenced by Puvis de Chavannes.

1901: He accepts a teaching post at the University of Liverpool, to support his girlfriend and then wife Ida Nettleship. He becomes friends with the University Librarian John Sampson who was an expert on the gypsy way of life. He teaches him the Romany language and John, Ida and his mistress Dorothy (Dorelia) McNeill, and John’s children by both women, travel around the country in a caravan together.

1906: Birth of his son Romilly who later became a poet, author and an amateur physicist.

1907: Death of his wife Ida. Later he moves in with Henry Lamb and Dorelia McNeill at Alderney Manor near Poole.

1910: John falls in love with the town of Martigues, in Provence, France near Arles and Marseilles and his style develops as a postimpressionist.

1912: Birth of Augustus John’s daughter Poppet.

1914-18: During World War I he becomes a war artist to the Canadian forces and paints many portraits of Canadian infantrymen. As he was officially not in the forces he was allowed to keep his facial hair. He is commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook to work on a large scale mural although the work never got beyond the cartoon stage. After two months in France John was sent home after being involved in a brawl. Lord Beaverbrook saved him from a court-martial and sent him back to France. The only major painting known to have been completed at this time was called “Fraternity”.

Rachel. 1917. Tate Gallery
Rachel. 1917. Tate Gallery

1919: John attends the Versailles Peace Conference and paints portraits of several of the delegates.

1920s: During this period he was seen as Britain’s leading portrait painter and many famous people sat for him such as Thomas Hardy, T. E. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw and the American actress Tallulah Bankhead. He is most famously known for painting his compatriot Dylan Thomas, whom he introduced to Caitlin Macnamara, one of his former mistresses, who Thomas was later to marry. He became known for his psychological insight portraits which some critics described as over flashy. Some people saw these as cruel and Lord Leverhulme was so upset with his own portrait that he cut out the head from his painting. An international outcry ensued when this was discovered.

1921: He is elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.

1925: John has a daughter, Amaryllis by Ian Fleming’s widowed mother, Evelyn St Croix Fleming.

1928: By this time Augustus John felt that Provence had lost its charm and he sells his home there. He is elected a full Member of the Royal Academy.

1933: John becomes a trustee of the Tate Gallery. (until 1941).

1937: He travels to Jamaica where his artistic inspiration returns.

1942: He is awarded the Order of Merit by King George the Sixth.

1948: He becomes President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. (until 1953).

1950s: He was a pacifist and joins the Peace Pledge Union.

1952: The first volume of his autobiography, “Chiaroscuro” is published.

1954: Although his style was now dated he was revered by the general public and the Royal Academy mounts a large scale one-man show.

1961: On 17th September, just over a month before his death, Augustus John joins the “Committee of 100’s” anti-nuclear weapons demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London. This was doubly controversial as at the time his son, Admiral Sir Caspar John was the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff.

(1964): Posthumous publication of the second part of his autobiography “Finishing Touches”.

When and Where did he Die?

31st October 1961, Fordingbridge, Hampshire, England of heart failure.

Age at Death:



1. Ida Nettleship at St. Pancras Register Office, London. (Died 1907).
2. Dorothy “Dorelia” McNeill.

Site of Grave:

Town Cemetery, Fordinbridge, Hampshire.

Places of Interest:


Barber Institute of Fine Art, Birmingham University.


Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester.


University Art Gallery.


Imperial War Museum.
Tate Britain.


University Gallery, Leeds.
Ory Art Gallery, Leeds.
Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield.


Aberdeen Art Gallery.


Birthplace Museum, Tenby.
National Library of Wales, Aberyswyth.
National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.