As usual, Quentin Crisp said it best.
Commenting on Augustus John’s strange relationship with posterity he remarked, “now that the red glow of his personality has been extinguished, his pictures exhibit a faded charm – almost the opposite quality to that which characterized his life.”
Critics held a similar view of the Welsh artist, who died this day in 1961. The official line on John is that he squandered his dazzling early promise to wind up as a figurehead of the British art world, exerting little influence but commanding respect and even affection. A brilliant draughtsman and sought-after portraitist, but never a pioneer. All of which means you never hear an emerging figurative artist described as “Johnian”.
But even if he didn’t dictate the course of art in his time, John’s pre-eminence as the first and greatest of the British Bohemians is beyond dispute. In the early years of the 20th century, those seeking asylum from banality in borderless Bohemia recognised John as their regent and paid homage at his court in London’s Café Royal. John is in fact so central to the very idea of living outside the mainstream, that if today his efforts are under-appreciated it’s because his social innovations have been so entirely assimilated.
It was an encounter with a group of gypsies in 1901 which provided John with an alternative way of life to Edwardian conformity. He
promptly grew his hair out, sported an exuberant beard, donned a kerchief in place of a tie and, most shocking of all to his contemporaries, wore earrings. Augustus John was the Bohemian artist in the public imagination: “bold, bawdy, bearded” as Crisp put it. He drank, womanised, brawled and roamed the countryside with a brood of unruly offspring. John and his fellow travellers called everything into question: how to eat, drink, dress, decorate, travel, create, procreate – a process described in Virginia Nicholson’s fascinating book Among the Bohemians.
Of course counter-cultural currents have a tendency to flow back into the mainstream. What was once seen as bafflingly unconventional, like a holiday house in Provence or overindulged children, is now yawnsome middle class cliché. But John helped expand the possibilities of modern life so that they could never shrink back to their original shape.
So if you’ve ever lived with someone you’re not married to, used spices in your cooking, stayed out all night talking drunkenly about art, defied the expectations of your social class or even favoured bare walls over wallpaper, then you should probably thank Augustus John and his fellow Bohemians.