Although I have an aversion to the word “muse”, it is probably the best way to describe Dorelia McNeill‘s relationship to Augustus John. First as his mistress and then as his second wife, McNeill (born in 1881) appeared in numerous John paintings and shared the artist’s determination to up-end convention. With their unorthodox relationships and their travelling troupe of children and hangers-on all dressed in gypsy finery, they were one of the most influential couples of their age.
Nothing better illustrates McNeill’s bohemian otherness than a photograph taken in 1909 which shows her alongside Lady Ottoline Morrell. The latter appears as an unimpeachable Edwardian gentlewoman in fluttering light folds, McNeill a bardic presence in dark uncompromising robes. Another image of McNeill taken by Morrell shows her in a loose shift, a world away from the female fashions of her conventional contemporaries.
In his biography of John, Michael Holroyd expands on her coveted ensembles:
For three decades her taste in clothes was followed by students. She ignored the manner and fashions of London and Paris, and the brash styles that succeeded them. Her style was peculiar to herself.
From cotton velveteen or shantung in bright dyes and shimmering surfaces, from unusual prints, often Indian or Mediterranean in origin, she evolved clothes that followed the movement of the body, like classic draperies. Her flowing dresses reached the ground, with their high waistline and long sleeves topped by a broad-brimmed straw hat, its sweeping line like those of the French peasants, became a uniform adopted by many girls at art colleges, and a symbol, in their metropolitan surroundings, of an unsevered connection with the country. In the mythology of the young, Dorelia and Augustus were seen as representing the principle of living through your ideas, not merely conveying them to canvas or on paper.
Dorelia died in 1969 and so lived long enough to see her free-flowing innovations adopted by yet another generation, including her step-granddaughter Talitha Getty. The select band of moneyed global nomads of which she was part may have roamed by jet rather than caravan, but they did so in outfits strikingly similar to those pioneered by Dorelia McNeill and Augustus John.