Augustus John was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, 4th January 1878, the son of a Welsh solicitor; his mother Augusta Smith, although from a family of plumbers, had an artistic temperament, which clearly influenced Augustus and his older sister (also an artist) Gwen (1876-1939). At seventeen years of age Augustus attended the Tenby School of Art, he then went on to study at the Slade in London, along with his sister.
Studying under the infamous Henry Tonks, FRCS (1862-1937), John soon became the star pupil of drawing. His “Moses and the Brazen Serpent” won the Slade prize in 1898 and it wasn’t long before he was regarded as the finest draughtsman of his generation, even before he had graduated.
In 1900, John travelled to Paris, the Netherlands, Belgium and Provence; he was so taken by the beauty of Martigues that he bought a home there. John had obviously been influenced by the most recent artistic developments that were taking place throughout much of Europe. His work became more typical to that of the Post-Impressionists and he developed a skill for capturing a sense of character, intimacy and feeling in his portraits, landscapes and still lifes.
John was also famed for his many depictions of the Romani (‘gypsy’) people. He travelled around the United Kingdom and Europe with them. John became a self-styled ‘gypsy’, wearing their clothes and adopting their Bohemian ideals. This made for quite a startling spectacle and was to be later mimicked by many an aspiring artist. After his marriage, John and his family, including his wife Ida, mistress Dorothy Dorelia McNeill, and John's children, even travelled the land in a caravan.
During World War I John worked as a war artist alongside the Canadian forces, during which time he completed a great many portraits of infantrymen, such as “Canadian Soldier” 1918 (Tate Gallery), but his best known work from this period is undoubtedly “Fraternity” 1918.
By the 1920’s John was considered Britain’s greatest portraitist who’s sitters included George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, and Matthew Smith to name a few. He also continued to paint landscapes and still lifes to great acclaim.
John became a Royal Academician in 1928 and was given the Order of Merit in 1942. In later life, he completed two autobiographical works, “Chiaroscuro” (1952) and “Finishing Touches” (published posthumously in 1964).
His works can be found in museums in: Aberdeen, Marischal Museum; London, Courtauld Institute of Art, National Portrait Gallery and Royal Academy of Arts Collection; Machynlleth, The Tabernacle, Museum of Modern Art; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum; California, The Huntington Library; Minnesota, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; New York, Brooklyn Museum; Ohio, Canton Museum of Art; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada and Australia, Gallery of New South Wales.