The artist, his mistress, her lover

Augustus John's romantic life has long been the subject of speculation. But one mystery that has never been solved is the identity of his rival in love, the shadowy Leonard B. Michael Holroyd sifts the evidence
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Augustus John met Dorelia, his legendary model, mistress and common- law wife, in Holborn early in 1903. He was 25, she four years younger. She was working as a secretary for the editor of a magazine, and in the evenings would go to classes at the Westminster School of Art. "One could not take one's eyes off her," wrote the painter William Rothenstein. Augustus John was immediately and irresistibly attracted to her, and she to him. But he was married to a fascinating girl who had been at the Slade with him, Ida Nettleship, and they had two small sons, the second of which (later Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Caspar John) was born in March that year.

A solution to the difficulty seemed to present itself to Dorelia that summer when Augustus's sister, the artist Gwen John, proposed that she and Dorelia should leave England and "walk to Rome". The two girls were as excited as if it were an elopement - which in a sense it was. Augustus, like an anxious parent, advised caution and second thoughts, and then vainly offered them a pistol for protection during their travels.

Boarding a steamer on the Thames, the two girls landed at Bordeaux and began walking up the Garonne, sleeping in fields and beside rivers, eating bread and fruit, singing and drawing portraits to earn money as they went along. At La Reole they met a young artist who "came to look at us in the stable," Gwen wrote. He gave them his address in Paris so that, if they ever went there, they could model for him.

When they reached Toulouse they stopped, and Gwen painted three extraordinary portraits of Dorelia. Comparing these to Augustus's paintings of Dorelia, it is easy to see that brother and sister had a similar response to, and involvement with, her beauty. Gwen's portraits (including The Student, right) held them at Toulouse longer than they intended. Then, instead of carrying on to Rome, they took a train to Paris.

"We are getting homesick I think," Gwen wrote from their Paris rooms at 19 boulevard Edgar Quinet to William Rothenstein's wife, Alice. Augustus was eager for them to return. He and Ida had moved 20 miles out of London to Matching Green in Essex. All Ida's energies seemed to go into controlling the children. She envied Gwen and Dorelia their freedom. "My thoughts are often with you," she wrote to them. Perhaps she was not naturally a good mother, she sometimes thought; perhaps she was not after all the right woman for Augustus. His moods during the winter of early 1904 were veering erratically. "I get dangerous classic tendencies out here I fear," he wrote after gazing at some phallic pine trees growing "stiff and strong" near their new home. Both he and Ida felt somehow incomplete without Dorelia and Gwen. "I wish you two would come back and be painted," Augustus wrote. "When are you coming back ?" Ida asked.

Dorelia and Gwen had been away almost eight months and they planned to come back very soon that summer. Then everything changed.

"Why not call on Rodin?" Augustus had written to his sister that March. Gwen was introduced to Rodin by the sculptress Hilda Flodin, began modelling for him, and soon fell violently in love with him. Rodin was 63 when they became lovers that summer, six years older than Gwen's father.

"You are evidently becoming indispensable to Auguste Rodin," Augustus wrote to her, with a mixture of admiration and concern. It was a curious fact that Rodin should have the same first name as himself. In London, Gwen had been "shy as a sheep"; now in Paris, she became, in Augustus's words, "amorous and proud". She lost interest in everything she had known before meeting Rodin, who replaced Dorelia as an inspiration for her work. One day, she promised herself, she would complete the journey to Rome with Rodin.

A dramatic change was also taking place in Dorelia's life. She too was modelling - posing in the nude as she had never done for Augustus. He grew increasingly agitated. "You sit in the nude for those devilish foreign people, but you do not want to sit for me when I asked [sic] you," he complained. "... I am sorry that I was so foolish to love you." It was Ida who eventually decided that he must go to Paris and see Dorelia, but when he arrived there she had eloped to Bruges with the artist for whom she had been modelling.

His first name was Leonard. It seems likely from a letter that Gwen wrote that his surname began with the letter B. In a letter he wrote from Bruges that summer explaining "my sentiments to Dor", he gave a clue to where he and Dorelia were living by adding, after his name Leonard, "kplaats 5". Looking at a photocopy of the letter in 1970, I thought that this was probably a shortened form of his address. So I went to Bruges, found the only "plaats" or square that began with the letter K, and concluded that they were probably staying at Kraanplaats 5 (later Kraanplein 5, a lively disco). In 1904, this large pretty house, near the Theatre Royal Communal, had belonged to Lodewyck Van den Broucke and his wife Leonie (nee Huys). He had no profession, from which I concluded that he must have been quite wealthy. Had Leonard taken Dorelia to his home? It was certainly not a hotel or lodging house. The records that might have established Leonard as the son of Lodewyck and Leonie had been destroyed by fire in 1947. But it seemed possible to me that he had been named after his mother and was Leonard Broucke. Thus he stands as a hypothesis in the first edition of my Augustus John biography published in 1974, and has gained a similar identity in books by other authors published subsequently.

But when preparing a new edition of my biography I was able to look for the first time at the original of Leonard's letter to Gwen John (now in the National Library of Wales). I saw that the corner had been torn away, perhaps accidentally or perhaps to conceal the address. It was now a matter of searching for a "plaats" the previous syllable of which ended with a K. There were three such addresses in Bruges: Jan van Eyckplaat 5, for which the records have been destroyed by fire; Memlinckplaats 5 (now Woensdagmarkt) which was a convent occupied by five nuns; and Parkplaats 5, for which there seemed to be no recognisable occupants. I returned this spring to Bruges more than 25 years after my first visit, but could find out nothing more. I also hired an expert researcher who consulted indexes of painters working in the early years of this century, but there appeared to be no Leonard Broucke, or any other probable Leonard. So who was he?

"If I loved Gussie & you & Ida twenty times more - though I cannot love you more than I do," Dorelia wrote to Gwen, "I would not come back." But Gwen was extraordinarily adamant that she must come back. In letter after letter, written to the post restante in Bruges, she insisted that Dorelia was "necessary" to both Augustus and Ida. "I know that Gussie and Ida are more parts of you than Leonard is for ever," she wrote.

It was upon Ida's reaction that all their futures depended, however. "I love you and what you want I want passionately," she told Augustus. And Gwen passed on Ida's conclusion to Bruges: "Dorelia is ours and she knows it. By God I will haunt her till she comes back." Ida felt sorry for Leonard and so did Gwen, "but he has had his happiness for a time, what more can he expect?" Gwen asked. Under this barrage of letters, mixed with poems from Augustus as he wandered distractedly around Belgium, Dorelia eventually gave in. She met Augustus in the first week of August at Bruges railway station and travelled back with him to Ida at Matching Green.

But what of Leonard? "I am an artist and cannot love [sic] without her and I will not live without her," he had written to Gwen from Bruges. Did Dorelia tell him she was leaving? There is no mention of him again in any of her letters. We do know that he returned to Paris and saw Gwen. "Leonard came up to me a few days ago," she wrote to Dorelia in September 1904. "I should write him a nice letter if I were you. He will get very ill otherwise I think."

After that he vanishes. During the next couple of years, Ida, Dorelia and Augustus, with their multiplying children, set up a complex menage a trois in Paris, and Dorelia began modelling again. But still there is no trace of Leonard.

A first name and incomplete address do not provide enough clues to rediscover him by conventional research methods. Leonard is a peculiarly English name, yet it is evident from what he wrote to Gwen that English was not his natural language. Was he the artist the two girls had met at La Reole? Was he French or Belgian? The Johns' affairs some 90 years ago created a great stir and much speculation in London and Paris. Surely there must be some echo still of that gossip, some family memory, something stirred by the sight of his handwriting, or a portrait by him of Dorelia that would give him back his identity? A number of drawings Augustus did of Dorelia around this time are presently being exhibited at the National Museum of Wales. They show exactly what she looked like and may provide the missing clue in this puzzle, if seen by some owner of a picture of Dorelia by the unhappy Leonard.

'The Drawings of Augustus John' are at the National Museum & Gallery of Wales, Cardiff (01222 397951), to 1 Sept; then Spink & Son, SW1 (0171 930 7888), 9 Sept to 4 Oct. Michael Holroyd's 'Augustus John: the New Biography' is published on 29 Aug (pounds 25, hardback, Chatto & Windus).