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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


I have a friend – though sadly we have been out-of-touch for a while – who had a cat named Edgar. This, she said, was in tribute to the artist Augustus John's cat, of the same name.

My friend's cat, now deceased, must have had something of an identity issue. Not only was the poor feline's ownership vigorously disputed in the southern French village in which he lived (a neighbour robustly claimed him as hers, and gave him a different name) but I now discover his illustrious namesake belonged not to Augustus John, but to his artist sister Gwen!

THE CAT - Gwen John

Cats aside, I thought it might be interesting to explore the dynamic which existed between the John siblings, which was an interesting one, rendered still more so when the powerful figure of Auguste Rodin – he of 'The Thinker' and of some of the most exquisite erotic drawings ever made – was introduced into the mix.

Augustus John (1868-1961) was a Welsh artist. Proclaimed by Virginia Woolf in 1908 as the beacon of hope for British Art, John was thus - and in other ways - connected with the Bloomsbury Group, whose activity I have discussed in a previous article here.

AUGUSTUS JOHN in 1909 (by Jacob Hilsdorf)


Augustus John, like me, fell in love with Southern France. What red-blooded artist could fail to, faced with that region's heady melting-pot of fierce sun, wild landscape, seductively shaded town squares, food, wine and the beckoning of a carefree enjoyment of life in all its richness? In 1910 he arrived in Martigues in Provence and found 'There was no need to seek further”. He later severed connections, feeling the town had lost its simple charm; a mindset with which I strongly identify.

John was also deeply interested in the Romani people and their culture, becoming President of the Gypsy Lore Society LINK from 1937 until his death in 1961. Here too, we find a parallel with my own interests. One of the 'classical' (an unfortunate umbrella-term) pianists whom I admire to the utmost degree is György Cziffra who was of Romani heritage and was discovered playing in the bars of Budapest. Mine is an unconventional choice, I am aware. Cziffra's pianism was often denigrated for entirely non-artistic and wholly prejudiced reasons, though he was capable of a passion and sensitivity equalled by few practitioners of the art.

My affection for Augustus John's paintings is as robust as it is for his beliefs, lifestyle and interests; indeed I was admiring his rather haughty but extremely striking portrait of Lady Ottoline Morrell in the National Portrait Gallery just this afternoon. Unfortunately it hangs high on the wall and is not flattered by the light that falls on it.

LADY OTTOLINE MORRELL - Augustus John, c. 1920

Even more though, than the canvases of Augustus John, I admire those of his elder sister Gwen (1876-1939). In time-honoured fashion, Gwen John's career was somewhat overshadowed by the two principal men in her life, her brother Augustus and her lover Auguste Rodin. Augustus admired his sister's work, but Gwen's reticent demeanour in addition to the prevailing social prejudices of the times did her no favours against the more glamorously bohemian figure of Augustus.

Gwen John was known, as was her brother, chiefly for her portraits.

Here are are two self-portraits which seem to me to fascinatingly contrasted. In the first, Gwen's wistful gaze seems almost to drift through the viewer in a poetic, dreamlike way. In the second, we meet a person of confident and commanding outlook, her hand placed challengingly on her hip and fixing us with a direct gaze that belies her apparently diffident personality. This second image comes direct from the National Portrait Gallery where I saw it this afternoon.


SELF-PORTRAIT - Gwen John, c. 1900

Art, of course, is subjective, but I do find a greater degree of subtlety, and even of emotional range, in Gwen John's portraiture than in the work of her brother. Her domestic scenes too, exhibit a notable sensitivity in her handling of light and in the way she conveys mood. Gwen, I believe, was a highly versatile and poetic artist. Her work is magnetically seductive.

THE BROWN TEA-POT - Gwen John, 1915-16


Let us complete the triangle by looking at the art of Auguste Rodin, and his place in the world of the John siblings.


In 1904, Gwen travelled to Paris with her friend Dorelia McNeill (who would later marry Augustus) where she started modelling, mostly for female artists. She soon began to model for Rodin however, and the pair embarked on a ten-year relationship despite a thirty-five year age gap between Gwen and the older Rodin.

Rodin is known chiefly for his magnificent sculptures. 'The Thinker' is arguably one of the most recognisable three-dimensional artworks of all time, existing in at least 27 full-size castings and achieving a similar iconic status to Van Gogh's Sunflowers or, in music, Beethoven's so-called 'Moonlight' Sonata.

THE THINKER - Auguste Rodin

For me, however, Rodin's genius is expressed still more persuasively in his intensely sensual nude and semi-nude drawings. In the same way that my life changed when I first heard Glenn Gould play Bach, so it did when I discovered these delicate, ethereal utterances by Rodin. They were a formative influence on my early figure-drawing, and I adore them to this day.

SALAMMBO - Auguste Rodin

Perhaps the protracted relationship between Gwen John and her older, much more famous lover was cemented in a shared sensual commonality. Elements in the art of both would seem to suggest that this was so.

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023


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