It is common knowledge that from time to time a work of art or its details are lost and then sometimes rediscovered. Two Figures on a Shore seems to be a problem picture of this kind, for this delightful little painting with its air of shared confidence is beset by queries about its time, place and identity. Any attempt to resolve these difficulties is fraught with snares for even the most circumspect of inquirers. Since art historians faced with this question would probably begin their investigations with a close visual examination of the work, it seems logical to proceed in a similar manner.
The surface under the paint appears to consist of a wooden panel primed with some transparent material. It is known that Augustus John used wooden panels quite extensively between 1909 and 1911, particularly when travelling in Wales, France and England. As Easton and Holroyd point out, John favoured panels '. . . either sized or . . . lightly glass¬-papered and oiled, of a type John carried with him in a slotted box on his travels. The artist drew on the wood in pencil. . .'
The Carrick Hill panel seems to embody the elements described above and for this reason could perhaps be dated about 1910.
Now to the place. From 1910 and for eighteen years, the Johns rented a house called Villa St Anne at Martigues, a French fishing village in Provence. During their intermittent occupation there, a digue (dike or embankment) of 'rough unhewn blocks of stone' was constructed along the shore of the Ẻtang de Berre, a series of lagoons forming an inland sea adjacent to the Villa St Anne. In the painting under discussion the rocks are not a random accumulation of boulders or conglomerate. Rather, they have clearly been placed according to some predetermined plan-small stones in the foreground, large angular ones behind the figures-highly suggestive of a dike or an embankment.
The stretch of water behind the embankment once elicited the comment from a traveller in the Ẻtang de Berre area that she was '. . . simply speechless with astonishment at the curious light blue of one Ẻtang we passed'. In the painting the sea is a pale shade of blue with greeny-blue little wavelets and could also be called a 'curious light blue'. Augustus John at one time described the 'far-off' cliffs of the Ẻtang de Berre as amethyst-coloured, an unusual colour indeed for a precipice. But a close inspection of the Carrick Hill picture will reveal a similar hue in the distant green-topped bluff or escarpment.
Could this work have been painted at Martigues? Certainly John and his second wife Dorelia, with some of their children, as well as Dorelia's best friend Helen Maitland, lived at Martigues for some nine months in 1910; and the artistic products of that period-about fifty panels and canvases-were exhibited at the Chenil Gallery in November of that year. Most of these paintings were freely handled, uncomplicated works and since Two Figures on a Shore approximates the style it was probably one of the fifty.
If these speculations are acceptable so far, there remains one troublesome aspect to be determined-the identity of the two women.
It is tempting to argue that the figure on the viewer's left is Dorelia wearing the leghorn hat given to her in 1909 by Lady Otto line Morrell as a peace offering, since there are in existence several paintings of Dorelia wearing such a hat. In addition, the hair-style of this figure-'a long plait' over one shoulder-is one that she often wore even in her eighties. Moreover, a family friend on a visit in 1963 commented that Dorelia was wearing 'white stockings and no shoes'. In the painting there are certain correspondences with the above remarks; even the short skirt is not out of character because Dorelia was wearing short skirts as early as about 1905, long before they were fashionable. If Dorelia is indeed the person depicted here, who then is her companion? Is it her friend Helen Maitland?
However, on the basis of hair-style and clothing, these identifications could also be argued the other way round. This is because in several other paintings Dorelia is shown with short hair and a fringe, similar to the right-hand figure in the Carrick Hill work. Furthermore, the clothes worn by this woman, a long white dress with a draped buff-coloured shawl-cum-cloak, have a kind of 'International Dorelia' style about them.
Dorelia was not at all subject to the vagaries of fashion. She had her own style, which often incorporated a semi-attached panel thrown over one shoulder or around the body in one way or another. Is this Dorelia? If so, is the other woman Helen Maitland who lived with the family at Villa St Anne until early summer, 1910?
The viewer is invited to make his or her own decision but before doing so, a word of warning seems appropriate. In the many published reproductions of Dorelia, she is depicted variously with long hair, short hair, with or without a fringe, with long skirts, short ones as well as with and without any hat. In view of this, and with regard to the fact that Augustus John, like his sister Gwen, frequently omitted to date his works, the decision is not an easy one.
Of all the things Augustus John is renowned for, including the riveting details of his private life, he is without peer when it comes to the quality of his draughtsmanship. Carrick Hill is most fortunate in possessing three splendid examples of his drawings: Portrait of a Girl, 1910, The Lovers, undated, and Pyramus Asleep, c 1906.
Portrait of a Girl is typical of John's early drawing work and although the sitter for this study has yet to be identified, her mood is perfectly obvious-sulky. The lips pout, the nose¬broad for the length of face, the tip perilously close to the top lip-has one slightly distended and curled nostril, while the eyes under the angular brows refuse to meet those of the viewer. The artist has long been regarded as the leading portraitist of his time, his particular talent being described as 'intense observation' as here. Yet this assessment of John's proficiency should perhaps be modified to some extent when considering portraits of Dorelia, for he tended to idealise this already beautiful woman.
Augustus John knew and spoke well of the art of Jean François Millet and might have been more influenced by it than is generally recognized. John's The Lovers shares with Millet's The Lovers, c 1850, not only a title but also a counterpart in subject matter. Is this purely coincidental or did John know about Millet's drawing? Interesting too, in this context, is the fact that Auguste Rodin, who probably never saw Millet's The Lovers, produced a sculpted, but infinitely more chaste version of the theme in The Kiss, 1886.
While Millet was quite well known for his somewhat erotic nudes, John on the other hand was not. However, he did produce numerous nude drawings of his daughters Poppet and Vivien, properly incognito, which, for the most part, were speedily dispatched to places as far away as Australia and Japan.
This strongly erotic drawing, The Lovers, thought to be relatively uncommon in Augustus John's output was likely to have been done in response to a request or as a joke, for it is inscribed 'John to Barney'. The Barney was probably Barney Heron an Irish writer and friend of the poet philosopher Francis Macnamara whose children Nicolette, John, Brigit and Caitlin (the future wife of the poet Dylan Thomas) spent an entire summer in the John household in 1917.Of the three Carrick Hill drawings the most appealing is without doubt Pyramus Asleep inscribed 'to my friend Bernard [Shaw?]'. The portrait was referred to in the journal Connoisseur in December 1941, as '. . . all but literally breathing' and in the same journal of October 1970 as 'The most lovable of all the sons'.
Pyramus, Augustus John's son by Dorelia, was born on Dartmoor in a caravan. Sadly, Pyramus, of whom several other portraits exist, did not live beyond his childhood, dying of meningitis at the age of six in 1912. His brief life, however, was a free and much travelled one, reflecting, in a sense, his mode of entry into the world. The accommodation of the picturesque cottage-style caravan in which Pyramus was born, was later boosted by John's acquisition of a cart, a second decorated van, six horses and a home-made tent.
On one occasion this entourage of nine members including a groom, set off joyously for the north of England, with John on his charger 'tittupping' in the lead. The exhilaration, however, was short-lived. The horses were slow, the groom lazy, the weather foul; but worst of all, the retinue, deprived of its leader who pleaded a sudden engagement, was left to its own devices and forced to find its own uncertain way home.
Most other subsequent family expeditions, in England as well as abroad, were undertaken in a slightly more orthodox, if less romantic manner, since they were then subsidised by the artist's American patron, John Quinn.
Augustus John's interest in caravans and his empathy with the gypsies went back to his childhood days. Then, his fascination with their activities was spiced by the possibility that they might somehow spirit him away. (It seems worth noting that as early as 1530 it was a criminal offence to be a gypsy and as late as 1850 it was a hanging offence to associate with one.) As an adult John's affinity with the gypsy way of life was neither fleeting nor superficial though it must be said he was quite enchanted that some people, because of his looks, not to mention his earrings or his clothes of unconventional design, mistook him for a member of the gypsy race. And this, despite his shoes being always of the best hand-made variety.
It was when John was appointed art instructor at the affiliated art school of Liverpool University that his curiosity concerning the origins, history and development of the gypsies, took on a more serious aspect. The university librarian was John Sampson, a scholarly man fluent in several Romany dialects as well as erudite in the fields of 'Sanskrit, phonetics and philology'.
Sampson coached John in the English and Welsh Romany dialects and introduced him to certain bands of gypsies with whom the artist immediately felt a strong rapport. In time, John's contribution to gypsy lore took the form of transcribing the vocabularies used by the Russian coppersmiths and other gypsies, together with a record of many of their songs and melodies.
Alas, however, from time to time the artist's attempts to contact particular gypsies caused him to fall foul of the local constabulary. One such occasion occurred when travelling alone in Wales with little money and no prospect of lodgings for the night. He failed to convince a suspicious policeman of his innocent intent and was advised to seek a night's shelter at the Marquis of Anglesey's seat. (The reader is reminded that the historic interior of Carrick Hill was constructed from certain parts of the Marquis of Anglesey's other seat Beaudesert.) John's appearance was probably against him again, for the quick thinking butler declared that he 'hadn't a single spare bed to dispose of-people were even sleeping on the billiard tables!'
Thus, rather than savouring a night of anticipated, if unaccustomed, luxury under the roof of the Marquis, he was constrained to cast himself under a convenient hedge to shiver away the remaining hours of darkness. But, being refused a bed was perhaps the least of many setbacks that Augustus John was to encounter.
A Canadian Soldier (1918), owes its existence to a skirmish John had with an Irish fence while attempting to leap over it with his usual reckless abandon. The knee injury he sustained subsequently led to the artist's rejection as unfit for British Army service. However, another possibility later presented itself for, with support from the newspaper magnate, Lord Beaverbrook, the artist was eventually commissioned artist-major by Canadian War Records. In this role John undertook to chronicle the activities of the Canadian Army in a vast canvas some thirty feet long. Sadly, after forty years and the exchange of increasingly harrowing correspondence between John and the ever expectant Lord Beaverbrook, the canvas remained, as it still does, at the cartoon stage.
Some less ambititious products of the artist's army service includeded a number of smaller drawings and paintings of which A Canadian Soldier is one example. The painting, like the cartoon, remains unfinished. It is hard to resist drawing a parallel in reverse with Leonardo da Vinci who often lost interest in a painting when he had solved all its problems. John seemed to lose interest when he could not.
Of the few paintings to emerge from the artist's brief sojourn in France, one is a work entitled Fraternity (1918), which Holroyd claims '. . . justifies the time he spent in France'. It portrays a trio of soldiers enjoying a quick smoke during a quiet moment, an event that was not particularly remarkable in itself. Regretfully, however, the painting can be seen as a reflection of the desperate measures to which John was reduced, having realised he was totally miscast in the role of war artist. In Fraternity the three soldiers were taken directly from a popular postcard of the day made from the Daily Mail's official published war pictures.
The sight of Major John in uniform apparently aroused scathing comment from his many friends in the Cafe Royal-remarks ranging from 'decidedly colonial' to 'altogether deplorable'. But jest, or even envy, must have been the spur here because John in fact could not have cut a better figure. Even in mufti, the artist-an extremely handsome bearded man-closely resembled some 'Macedonian king' according to Lady Otto line Morrell.
As a consequence, Augustus John did enjoy one aspect of the war. He and King George V possessed the only beards in the British Army and the artist took great delight in acknowledging, with well considered dignity, the respect paid to him (or his beard) when other ranks detected his 'royal' approach.
But, in quite another circumstance Augustus John was really regarded as a king-'king of the Cafe Royal', a popular meeting place of artists and writers. The Cafe Royal to which Charles Conder had introduced him was originally one of the earliest cafe-restaurants of Victorian London. 'Here, as on the Continent, writing materials were supplied as readily as a cup of coffee, and without charge'. And its much trumpeted French cuisine constituted a major attraction, particularly for that stratum of London society led by the Prince of Wales. While young bloods and others of socially ambitious persuasion patronised the salon prive upstairs, artists and other 'eccentrics' favoured the Domino Room where the triumphant click-clack of animated players vied with the equally impassioned exchange of views among the artists.
Writers of the calibre of Graham Greene and Osbert Sitwell were among the many devotees from the literary world, but the Cafe was more of a magnet for the artistic coterie which included occasional visitors from across the Channel such as Rodin and Toulouse-Lautrec. Young impecunious artists like Epstein and Gaudier- Brzeska also frequented the marble tables, for the Cafe functioned as a kind of art club where useful people-critics, patrons and dealers-were also to be encountered.
John was often to be observed in the Cafe Royal in company with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, completely at home in the setting of somewhat overblown red plush seating, gold¬-tasselled curtains and lavishly gilded mirrors.
From his earliest painting days, portraiture was Augustus John's major area of endeavour. Portraits of flowers, however, did not enter his oeuvre till the mid-1920s and then only at the instigation of his wife Dorelia. Easton and Holroyd's theory for this new direction was that flowers were easier for her to cope with than models. But it must also be noted that Dorelia was a constant and enthusiastic gardener, well able to supply John with a succession of as many varieties of flowers and plants as he wished, from the common chrysanthemum to more exotic flowers such as peonies, begonias and magnolias.
In the Carrick Hill painting Begonias, a terra-cotta pot in a blue saucer sits on a book which in turn rests on some striped fabric. The flowers illustrated were likely to have come from Dorelia's glasshouse.
On a visit to Carrick Hill, one art historian said of this painting that the striped fabric suggested to him an exotic Arabian tent, the Casbah perhaps. What a wonderful notion! But tents in Augustus John's life were, in fact, hardly exotic since they were thrown up in the gypsy manner with hazel rods and, in John's case, blankets. A more prosaic view of the painting's striped material is that it forms the covering of a Victorian or Edwardian chaise¬longue or day-bed and was used perhaps for its decorative value, the blue colour being nicely distributed around the painting. But the book is a different matter altogether. It cries out to b read symbolically because it is, without doubt, a copy of the Yellow Book, a journal created by Aubrey Beardsley and Henry Harland.
Aubrey Beardsley was the illustrator of, amongst other things, Oscar Wilde's Salome, and his friend Henry Harland was an avant-garde writer from America. The journal they produced took the form of a quarterly, dedicated to those artists and writers for the most part not accepted by more conventional journals. Wilde and Harland were to be art editor and literary editor respectively.
The first issue in April 1894, created a sensation among public and press alike-the literary and artistic public highly delighted, the more traditional press highly indignant. Artists of the standing of Charles Conder, Lord Leighton and Walter Sickert were contributors, as were writers like Henry James and Max Beerbohm.
Publication of the quarterly continued according to plan, much to the gratification of its editors, until the sudden decline of the fifth volume on 5 April 1895. It should be noted that this date coincided with Oscar Wilde's arrest while reading a French novel covered with yellow paper. The chance connection was irresistible to the local press and the consequent newspaper headline read 'Arrest of Oscar Wilde, Yellow Book under his arm'. This heralded not only the demise of Wilde as a writer but also threatened the very existence of the Yellow Book.
Beardsley was removed from his post and the journal survived for only nine more issues. Another magazine called Savoy took over where the Yellow Book so ignominiously left off. Interestingly, the first issue of Savoy came out in January 1896 with no less a person than Aubrey Beardsley as its art editor. The Yellow Book, at least during Beardsley's editorship was seen as '. . . the quintessential expression of the fin de siecle spirit. . .'
It was apparently a spirit of which Augustus John approved. Thus it is likely that in creating Begonias, he was tacitly signalling his appreciation of the publication and underlining its worth by associating it with a rare tropical plant, something exotic, something special.
It seems that the Haywards had a fondness for things in pairs or otherwise related. For instance, in the Carrick Hill collection William Dobell's Boy on the Beach depicts a figure on the sand with knees bent, and Ivor Hele's Girl on the Beach has an almost identical composition. It could be thought then that Two Figures on a Shore was purchased because of its relationship with Alfred Munnings's Autumn, Cornwall which also shows two women sitting on rocks. Using the same analogy Begonias makes a pair with Gwen John's Soeur Marie Celine, each depicting a book as an element of its composition.
A Canadian Soldier, however, does not fit into this category. Nostalgia was possibly the reason for its purchase since Sir Edward served in the army, holding the rank of lieutentant-¬colonel in the Australian forces during World War II.
The three remaining works at Carrick Hill, the drawings, were likely to have been acquired on emotional grounds-The Lovers for voyeuristic devilment, Pyramus Asleep for its sheer charm and Portrait of a Girl because of its disgruntled air. And is there not something fortuitous in the fact that this last drawing has recently (1989) acquired a partner in Nora Heysen's Self Portrait?