Augustus Edwin John (1878-1961)
Augustus John was one of the most significant painters of the twentieth century and his portraits stand proud as some of the most sincere, revealing and accomplished depictions of the human character.
Although John had always displayed a keen interest in art, in particular the old masters, he was reputedly very shy and withdrawn as a child. It was not until after a diving accident in 1895 whilst on holiday in Tenby that John became the wild, adventurous character to which he is now referred. Johns etching of 1899 Tete farouche [Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge] perhaps best illustrates this transformation.
Between 1894 and 1898 John studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he first came into contact with artist friends including Albert Rutherston and William Orpen, the latter with whom he established the Chelsea Art School (1903-07). John soon began to gain prominence and in 1903 he was elected a member of the New English Art Club, established in 1886 as an opposition to the Royal
It was in the years prior to the war that John first began to experiment with his painting. ‘The age of Augustus John was dawning’ wrote Virginia Wolff in 1908 and around this time John undertook a series of bright, colourful works painted en plein air. After the war John shifted his attention back to portraiture and soon established himself as a highly successful portrait painter. By 1920 John’s reputation had soared; in 1917 his early portrait of Dorelia The Smiling Woman [Tate Britain] was gifted to the Tate and was the first of his works to enter a national collection. He also landed numerous notable commissions including The Marchesa Casati [Art Gallery of Ontario] in 1919 and Madame Suggia painted between 1920 and 1923 [Tate Britain]. The latter is perhaps his best known society portrait and demonstrates every ounce of the intensity John could achieve when painting sitters whom he felt an affiliation.
From the late 1920s onwards John’s quality of work steadily declined, his early successes combined with his new levels of fame and heavy drinking drove a wedge between his rustic image and the clean cut reputation associated with exhibiting in London’s West End. The critics of John’s later works were particularly cruel and although John still exhibited, it was infrequent, consisting of exhibitions at the Tooth’s Gallery in Bruton Street between 1929 and the artist’s death in 1961.
The present work dates to c.1910 and is a fine example of the period when John was experimenting with colour and technique. The artistic activities on the continent during this time would undoubtedly have influenced John's search for style. One notices for example, the bright, bold colouring in the landscape and the use of a blue colour to represent a tree is reminiscent of the type of representation being explored by the 'Fauves' over in France between 1900 and 1908. This was also an exciting time for the development of John's painterly technique and by this point he was already praised for his quick sketch-like approach exposed brilliantly here in the figures clothing and facial features.
Although the sitters are currently not identified, the young boy could possibly be Pyramus, John's son with Dorelia born in 1905. Although imagery of Pyramus is scarce, a few works thought to date from c.1908 show Pyramus with the same white-blond hair and facial similarities. Pyramus sadly died of meningitis in 1912 at the age of only seven.
This work remained in John’s possession and was included in the artist’s studio sale in 1963.
 Q.Bell, Virginia Woolf, 1972, p.124)