AUGUSTUS JOHN, O.M., R.A. | Dorelia
- Augustus John
- charcoal on paper
Augustus John is at his best with a pencil or stick of charcoal and never better still than when drawing those women who formed his close circle and who were his constant inspiration: his sister Gwen (who John himself said, with no little dignity, would outshine him eventually); Ida, his wife; his regular sitters such as Alick Schepeler or Edith Lees and, above all others, Dorothy McNeill - known to us simply as Dorelia.
John first met Dorothy in the winter of 1902-3. As David Fraser Jenkins writes, ‘It is not clear which attachment came first, but [Dorothy]…remembered noticing Augustus at the private view of an exhibition, and desiring him, as if it was her destiny.’ (David Fraser Jenkins and Chris Stephens (eds), Gwen John and Augustus John, Tate Publishing, London, 2004, p.17). This stunning drawing, with Dorothy now firmly transformed into ‘Dorelia’, was made around 1904, the year that his John moved his muse into his household, forming a very modern ménage a trois with his Ida. John pours all of his desire and obsession for Dorelia into this drawing, using deliberately broad and expressive strokes of charcoal to capture the strength of his feeling. There are at least seven other known versions of this drawing, of which two are in museum collections (at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford) and as Rebecca John notes in Themes and Variations: The Drawings of Augustus John 1901-1931 (Lund Humphries, London, 1996, p.36), ‘the flickering lines around the figure [that] animate the whole series…are indicative of the speed at which the drawings were made’.
If Dorelia seems here unbelievably modern, to a viewer looking at her over a hundred years later, then this seems all to do with the modernity of Augustus’s feeling: this was a passion unbound from late Victorian mores or the stiffness of British society. John had always fancied himself as a bohemian ‘outsider’ (and with Ida and Dorelia, he would flirt with what at the time was called a ‘gypsy’ lifestyle, living deep in the countryside in a wooden caravan). And because he felt things outside the norms expected for a man of his time and class, so Augustus draws Dorelia with a candour, an unselfconsciousness that makes her look as if she has just stepped out of a 1960s photograph by David Bailey, or as an ingénue from a film by Jean-Luc Godard. This sense of uncomplicated modernity is enhanced by the way Dorelia is dressed: her wide-brimmed hat and loose smock-shirt, falling off her shoulders, are defiantly male clothing, worn with an ease that it would take the sexual revolution of the 1960s to make seem natural.
John’s portraits of his muse are often so different that they almost appear to be of completely different women, so intently does he try to pin-point the exact emotional impact she had upon him, from moment to moment, through subtle distortions of her features. Yet he always returns to the same points – her large, wide eyes; the pout weighted on the bottom lip; her soft chin and the vertiginous sweep of her hair (albeit here almost tamed by the hat) – that make these images ineffably ‘Dorelia’.