Boooks: Avant-garde sex life of an old-fashioned artist

Michael Holroyd makes a second attempt to rescue the reputation of one of England's most flamboyant painters. David Sweetman reports; Augustus John: The New Biography by Michael Holroyd Chatto, pounds 25

Michael Holroyd's two-volume biography of Augustus John, first published 20 years ago, was a failure. Not in publishing terms - the books appeared to loud critical acclaim, became bestsellers and are still considered a triumph of the biographer's art. But for their subject they achieved nothing. Since 1974, John's reputation has plummeted, he was excluded from the Royal Academy's 1987 survey of British Art in the Twentieth Century and passed over in the recent television study of our visual culture by the Independent's art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon. While the Tate owns John's works, only "The Smiling Women", a powerful portrait of his mistress Dorelia, can be seen as part of the current re-hang. Even the imposing image of the cellist Madame Suggia, which dominated one of the galleries when I first visited the Tate in the Fifties, has been confined to the cellars.

It would be nice to report that Holroyd has now combined his two books and added some new material in order to help reverse this decline but the additions are not very important and the exercise seems to have been more a question of fiddling with the writing - the author burnishing his own image rather than that of his subject. The cover says it all: Holroyd's name is in larger print than John's, an acknowledgement by the publisher that the biographer is better-known than the artist and to make sure we get the point there is now a long preface outlining his labours: the subtle skills needed to handle surviving relatives, the titillating fact that Holroyd likes to write in bed.

All this takes up more space than is devoted to explaining the paintings. Indeed we are told so little about John's work in the first half of the book that it is difficult to see why he was accepted as a genius by so many of his contemporaries even while he was at the Slade. We are told that his drawings were marvellous, if a little old fashioned, which makes it even harder to imagine what Virginia Woolf meant when she referred to the period as "the age of Augustus John" and even harder still to see why so many older artists considered him a dangerous poseur.

Holroyd tries to sidestep such criticism by asserting in his preface that his is a biography and not an art book, as if the inner world of an artist's work can be divorced from his everyday doings. There are certainly some advantages in this approach as it leaves him free to concentrate on the period and the milieu that John inhabited and prompts an unforgettable reconstruction of the narrow London art-world at the turn of the century, with the New England Art Club, of which John was a leading light, holding a meeting in 1904 to quibble over whether Lucien Pissarro, a foreigner, could be admitted to membership - and this at a time when the young artists of the world were gathering in Paris to launch the modern movement in painting. Holroyd is at his best when deftly sketching in minor characters like the Hon. Mrs Dowdall who shocked Liverpool society by walking barefoot in the mud and whose awful jokes were said to have emptied the drawing rooms of Edwardian England.

But such concision is absent when it comes to the main thrust of the book, much of which is given over to accounts of John's irregular family life - the notorious menage-a- trois, the idly conceived children scattered everywhere so that even Dorelia found it hard to say with certainty which belonged to whom. Not all the lovers were as inspirational as she proved - Freda Strindberg, widow of the dramatist, was meant to be a one-night stand, but turned into an early version of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, pursuing John around London and Paris, threatening to kill herself or him, and harrassing him to the point where he could do no work.

Such stories are gripping and it is easy to see why Holroyd has been credited with raising biography to the level of fiction; yet by pitching his portrait of John at the level of a roaring boy, without the counterbalance of his art, we are left with a creature wild to no purpose and selfish beyond belief.

If Holroyd felt that analysing works of art was not his forte, then such modesty is discounted by the skills he displays on the rare occasions where he does allow himself to comment on one of the works. His description of how, by using the point of a very hard pencil, John was able to give his portrait of Epstein "a taut quality, a tightness of face and mouth indicating both intellect and temperamental force", says much neatly, and makes it doubly irritating that it is almost halfway through the book before the art is allowed to move centre stage and then only because of the crisis that was to wreck John's reputation. It began with Roger Fry's first Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1910 which introduced the English to Gauguin, van Gogh and Cezanne and divided the London art world down the middle. It was John's refusal to participate in Fry's second show in 1912 that led to his rejection by the new supporters of modernism while leaving him no more acceptable to the traditionalist camp, for whom he remained the loose-living radical of his glory years.

So the decline began and Holroyd is especially moving on John's life as an increasingly isolated society portrait painter for which he seems to have been hilariously unsuited - irritating famous sitters like Lloyd George or making them fidget hopelessly as he did with Churchill. The nadir was reached in 1920 when the soap tycoon Lord Leverhulme cut up a hated portrait and sent the off-cuts back to John. The story was played up by the press, provoking art-school riots in London and Paris, and a procession to the Piazza della Signoria in Florence where a statue of Leverhulme, carved out of soap, was publicly burned - the only time John had the warm support of the younger generation.

It wasn't all enmity - Thomas Hardy said he was happier to see his portrait by John in the Fitzwilliam than he was to have won the Nobel prize - and such forceful support makes one long to find more such works singled out and explained in depth. Holroyd quite rightly identifies the Tate's portrait of the cellist Madame Suggia as one of the artist's most ambitious works, though by confining himself to the factual details of how and where the work was produced, what the painter and the sitter thought of each other and for how much the canvas was finally sold, he leaves the reader impatient to know what exactly it was that John did that makes the thing worth all this attention.

When Gauguin painted the cellist Fritz Schneklud in 1894, the portrait was hailed as a rare attempt to convey the effect of music graphically, using lines that radiate out from the figure in the way that radio waves would later be depicted in cartoons. As Holroyd has already told us that John admired Gauguin, it is reasonable to infer that he was attempting a similar solution through the ripples in the drapery swelling behind his cellist, though the real acoustic force seems to emanate from Suggia's long robe whose acetate red pulsates with sound, making it the only dress in the history of art that you can hear. Of the two, John's seems to me the most successful painting, full of passion and wit. Holroyd claims to have used the paintings to illumine the life, one wishes, just occasionally it had been the other way round.

Inevitably, this tale of early promise unfulfilled ends sadly. There was too much drink and the once romantic Bohemianism looks worn and bitter in a cantankerous old man. After World War II, the offer of a knighthood was snatched back when the Palace discovered that John had never formally married Dorelia. He went down on one knee to propose but she proudly spurned the idea. John died in 1961 just as the rest of the population was starting to have the sort of sex-life he had enjoyed for over three-quarters of a century - in that at least he was always in the avant garde.

At the end he was not quite the old dodo many assume - one of his last acts was to leave his sick-bed to keep a promise to Bertrand Russell that he would sit down in Trafalgar Square in protest against nuclear weapons. It was quite an experience - he had not seen so many people gathered together since Mafeking Night, though his era was by then so long gone that no one amongst the young demonstrators had any idea who he was.

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game