The artist Augustus John was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire on 4th January 1878. His father Edwin was a solicitor but after his wife Augusta died when she was thirty-five he closed his practice and lived a life of perpetual mourning. Augustus John and his siblings had a somewhat loveless upbringing and each in their own way rebelled and fled the nest. He later commented that “we became the kind of people our father warned us against”. He was one of the most important British painters of the 20th century and was named to the Order of Merit by King George VI in 1942. He died on 31st October 1961 at Fordingbridge, Hampshire.
Early in 1901 he married Ida Nettleship and had an urgent need to find an income to sustain them. He accordingly grasped thankfully at an opportunity which came his way to take up a professorship at the Liverpool School of Art. The vacancy had arisen when the incumbent, Herbert Jackson, suddenly decided to go off and fight in the Boer War. John’s name was suggested to the college by the art critic D.S. MacColl and the artist seized the chance of some £300 a year and a free studio.
Arriving in Liverpool the couple first stayed at a private hotel run by a German widow, Rebecca Rodiek, at 8-12 Falkner Street L8. They then stayed briefly at 9 St. James Street L1 before moving into 4 St. James Street L1, the home of John MacDonald Mackay, Professor of Ancient History at Liverpool University (both houses now demolished). Mackay was significant in John’s stay in Liverpool for two reasons. Firstly he was the subject of a portrait by John which proved to be one of his best works to date, secondly he introduced the couple to a wide variety of Liverpool society. One couple who became close friends were Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Liverpool Lord Mayor and the subject of a somewhat controversial John portrait, and his wife Mary, the notoriously bohemian daughter of Lord Borthwick.
Probably the most significant aspect of John’s Liverpool sojourn was his meeting the university librarian, John Sampson. A man of monumental physique and rebellious nature, Sampson had trained himself in Romany and Shelta and was to publish The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales. John was fascinated and himself soon picked up the Romany language, visiting gypsy encampments at Cabbage Hall with Sampson. Augustus John’s passion for the gypsy way of life would remain throughout his life and be a significant influence on his work.
Finding that Ida was pregnant they spent a good part of the summer in London and Tenby before returning to Liverpool and a temporary home in John Sampson’s house at 146 Chatham Street L7. Finding the enigmatic Sampson’s home a “semi slum” they soon moved to grander accommodation at 66 Canning Street L8. Their first child, David, was born in January 1902 and after his birth they moved to 138 Chatham Street L7 (now demolished). John gave up his college post and survived by producing a series of portraits of prominent Liverpool dignitaries and academics. By the end of July they had decided to return to London. Ida died a few years later in 1907
After his art Augustus John is probably best remembered for his promiscuity. At the time of her death his wife Ida was living in Paris with his ‘mistress’ Dorothy ‘Dorelia’ McNeill, who would remain living with John for the rest of their lives, having four children (to add to the five sons he had with Ida). He had a daughter, Amaryllis, by Ian Fleming’s widowed mother Evelyn Ste Croix Fleming. He had a son, Tristan, by Mavis de Vere Cole and a daughter Gwyneth by the musician Nora Brownsword. Given his undisciplined life it is quite surprising that one of his sons by Ida, Caspar, joined the Royal Navy and rose to the position of First Sea Lord. He had many women friends and acquaintances during his stay in Liverpool but research thus far does not establish the degree of intimacy he shared with them.
In 1968 the University of Liverpool named its on-campus pub the Augustus John and half a century later it remains a popular drinking venue.
In 2021 the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight hosted an exhibition The Last Bohemian: Augustus John “exploring the iconic artist and his time in Liverpool.
The houses which in 1901 formed a private hotel in which the John's stayed.
The home of John Sampson where the John's briefly lived.
The John's home towards the end of 1901
The best source for an account of Augustus John's time in Liverpool is the autobiography Augustus John by Michael Holroyd [Penguin 1974]. There is a host of information about him on the web, the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography being a good summary. Liverpool Museums webpage has an interesting article on his involvement with the Gypsy Lore Society. There is a short video about him on YouTube.
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